Five foot seven and solidly built, with shoulder
length salt-and-pepper hair, broad cheeks, and
wide (but not innocent) eyes, forty-nine-year old Sheila O’Donnell is not your typical private
investigator. She's non-violent, progressive, and lacks a law enforcement background, but this
granddaughter of Irish immigrants still has all the hallmarks of a good detective: tenacity,
toughness of character, and unflinching willingness to engage difficult problems head on. To
environmental activist under siege from Maine to south Texas, Sheila has become known as the
'Right now I'd say about half my cases are environmental,' she explains over cappuccino on a
warm spring day near her home in Mill Valley, California. 'I've got ten cases involving violent
attacks on environmentalists. I've talked to activist in twenty-five or thirty similar cases. I turned
copies of those cases over to the Center for Investigative Reporting [an award winning journalism
project based in San Francisco] and they've been able to develop another 120 examples and it's
continuing to expand. I'm sure the real numbers are well into hundreds - thousands if you count
vandalism, phone threats, and harassing letters. My worry is that there's really no place for
people to go when they get a threatening call in the middle of the night or find their dog
beheaded on their front steps. I mean they can call me but i'm only one person.'
On an 'Eye on America' news segment about the problem that aired March 3, 1993, CBS
correspondent Eric Hayes reported, 'Most of these [cases] are not high profile environmentalists;
they're not out sabotaging industry. They're more likely to work within the system to protect
environment. They're finding, though, that the system can't protect them.'
'Right now the FBI won't touch this,' says Linda Chase, a staff aide to Congressman George
Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who has looked into some of
the incidents. 'They think ecoterrorism, tree spiking, attacks on logging equipment, that sort of
thing, is a national problem, but reports of environmentalists being physically attacked they just
want to pass on to the local sheriff.
With neither the FBI nor local low enforcement agencies showing much interest, the investigative
effort has fallen to a small group of reporters and activists around the country along with private
detective Sheila O’Donnell.
The Green PI. sees a well thought strategy in
the anti-environmentals' constant promotion and
use of the term ecoterrorist. 'I see that calling an environmentalist a terrorist sets up a fear
dynamic. It makes the police and private security firms begin to worry,' she says. 'It sets the
stage for counter reaction and makes anti-environmental violence seem like an acceptable
The FBI defines terrorism as 'the unlawfull use of force or violence against persons or property to
intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance
of political or social objectives.' Ongoing attempts to silence environmentalists through
intimidation and violence would seem to fit this definition more readily than declining incidents
of sand-in-the-crankcase vandalism against logging and mining equipment. However, federal law
enforcement agencies continue to pursue 'ecoterrorists' and spin out low-grade intelligence date
on 'Earth First! spin-offs; while refusing to address more violent and potentially deadly attacks
against green activists.
Quotes taken from: David Helvarg, The War against the Greens, Sierra Club books, 1994
The War against the Greens devoted two whole chapters
to violence and harassment against
environmentalists; the book still remains the most detailed analysis of violence against US
greens. It is impossible to quantify the specific level of violence against environmental activists in
America, because violence is designed to silence. There will be hundreds of acts of intimidation
that will go unreported because they have succeeded their aim, simple intimidation to 'chill' the
What we can tell is that is coming from companies, workers, the Right, the Wise Use
movement, and increasingly the militia. The cross-over between these latter movements is
increasingly becoming stronger. Moreover the government are also implicated. 'I think the
interests that are threatened are corporate, and I see the federal government supporting those
interests,' says Sheila O’Donnell. 'Given what we know, I can't imagine that the federal
intelligence agencies are not involved at some level.'
What we also know is that it is mainly grassroots
activists, miles from the safety of big cities
who are suffering the most. The majority of these activists are women, who are involved in local
environmental problems. Activists who live in remote areas or in blighted neighbourhoods are also
singled out for attack. Furthermore, the support these 'frontline' activists are receiving from the
mainstream environmental movement has been verging on non-existent. 'I think we isolate people
when we don't speak out against violence and we make it safer to attack them', says Sheila
'I think denial plays a very big part of it. If an environmental organisation's office blew up in a city,
everyone would jump, I think it would be quite clear that there was a major problem. It's the
question that if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there, does it make a sound.'
This process of denial and the rural/urban split 'are very important in why it is not being solved,'
alleges Sheila O’Donnell. 'I certainly do not think it is a bad heart or lack of interest, because if
you ask any of the leadership of the major environmental organizations what they think about
this, they would be horrified, but because it does not immediately threaten their self-interest, so
to speak, they don't pay attention. Most of them would not be able to cite the kind of cases that
are going on, if asked.'
Quotes taken from: Andrew Rowell, Green
Backlash, Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement,
Both Sheila O’Donnell and Andy Rowell will be
speaking at the Counter strategies of
Corporations panel at the N5M.