A new law significantly strengthening the punishment for convicted eco-terrorists took effect in Pennsylvania on June 13. The law received overwhelming, bipartisan support in the Pennsylvania legislature, passing the House by a vote of 168-16 and the Senate by a vote of 38-10. Governor Ed Rendell (D) on April 17 signed the bill into law.
“Destroying property, intimidating Pennsylvania residents, or illegally confiscating animals as a way of political protest will not be tolerated in Pennsylvania,” said Rendell in an April 14 news release. “This state is putting measures in to protect all of our citizens, as well as our natural resources. HB 213 adds an additional safeguard so that we can ensure that our homes and our lands aren’t mistreated or vandalized by senseless acts.”
The new law increases penalties for arson, criminal mischief, vandalism, crop destruction, burglary, criminal trespass, and theft intended to intimidate people who participate in lawful activities regarding animals, plants, or natural resources.
Under the new law, an act of eco-terrorism that previously had been considered a summary offense, carrying a maximum jail sentence of 90 days and a $300 fine, will now be considered a third-degree misdemeanor, carrying a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Similarly, an act of eco-terrorism that previously had been considered a third-degree felony, punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $20,000 fine, will now be punishable by a maximum sentence of 40 years and a $100,000 fine.
“The primary motive of these animal rights terrorists is to intimidate law-abiding citizens and businesses throughout the nation,” said Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research. “This is a growing problem with serious implications. Intimidation and other unlawful activities are driving brilliant minds away from necessary biomedical research.”
“The need came from seeing, not only in Pennsylvania but all across the country, what environmental extremists are capable of doing,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Robert Godshall (R-Montgomery), told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an April 18 story.
As an example of eco-terrorist activity in Pennsylvania, Godshall noted a 2002 attack in which members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) burned down an environmental research facility in the Allegheny National Forest. Also, Godshall noted eco-terrorists in 2005 destroyed an exotic tree farm in Bucks County where scientists were conducting monkey research.
Intimidation, Not Speech
Jeff Schmidt, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the new law.
“Law-abiding people who are trying to draw attention to an environmental harm might be worried that they might step over the wrong line and just decide it’s not worth it to protest,” Schmidt told the Post-Gazette.
“Those who oppose animal research certainly have the right to use the political process to express their views,” Rendell countered in a letter to Pennsylvania House members, according to the Post-Gazette. “But if they intentionally destroy property as part of their protest they should be charged accordingly for any property crimes they have committed. These persons should receive additional punishment because their conduct is intended to intimidate and stop lawful activities.”
Increasing Pressure from Feds
Pennsylvania’s new law mirrors an increase in pressure on eco-terrorists by the federal government.
On May 11, the federal government indicted four persons for a May 2001 attack on a botanical research center at the University of Washington. A fire set at the facility caused $7 million in damage to university property and set back research on environmental adaptation of trees.
On May 18, the federal government indicted four persons for burning down a ski lodge in Vail, Colorado in 1998. The blaze caused $12 million in damage.
Congress is currently considering amendments to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act that would close loopholes in the anti-terrorism law and stiffen penalties for convicted terrorists.
“While state-specific action is very helpful, federal action is also necessary,” noted Trull. “With the advent of the Internet it has become relatively easy to plan, orchestrate, and carry out terrorist crimes over state lines.
“Attacks in one state are often planned and orchestrated in another state, which makes it difficult for state and local authorities to have all the resources and tools they need to fight those who orchestrate terrorism from out of state,” Trull explained. “These people are very clever, and they often orchestrate attacks from out of state on purpose. Their Web sites often give advice on how to take advantage of seams between state laws.”
Applause from Media
Newspapers in areas hit by eco-terrorists applauded the stepped-up pressure.
“Attempts to soft-pedal the sabotage as somehow less ugly and threatening because it is aimed at property, not people, [are] insulting,” explained the Seattle Times in a May 23 house editorial. “All of the fiery menace and destruction is focused directly at people who construct, sell or study things and ideas that offend and incense a radical minority.
“The accusations against the shadowy Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front are not the property crimes of insurance fraud or stupid vandalism,” the Times added. “All of the attacks were intended to frighten, intimidate and discourage.”
West Virginia’s Wheeling News-Register agreed in a May 27 house editorial: “Eco-terrorists often claim that they are not out to harm human beings, only to safeguard the environment. But their tactics often place others in great danger and involve massive losses of property.”
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.