THE RECENT ARRESTS of four Whatcom County residents in an alleged conspiracy to make pipe bombs may be unusual, but anti-government sentiment in the county is not. Rural residents are becoming increasingly alienated by what they see as over-regulation by government. Lifestyle differences, along with taxes and land-use issues, are fueling the conflicts.
BELLINGHAM - In the back yard of his big turn-of-the-century Victorian home overlooking Bellingham Bay, former Mayor Tim Douglas is about to head off to the waterfront to hear an environmental singer and songwriter.
"He's really funny," says Douglas, a tall, tanned man dressed in white pants and a pastel shirt and tie. For example, he says, there's the one "about cows with guns."
His wife, Joanne, gives him a look: Guns - or pipe bombs, for that matter - are not so funny these days, particularly in Whatcom County.
On July 27, authorities arrested four militia members from Bellingham and Deming, Whatcom County, along with four people from the Seattle area, accusing them of conspiring to make pipe bombs. The eight defendants will appear in federal court in Seattle tomorrow for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to hold them for trial.
Authorities say the eight taught each other how to make pipe bombs to prepare for confrontation with the U.S. government or the United Nations.
And while nobody here thinks the woods and farms outside of Bellingham are chock-full of men and women with pipe bombs, everybody knows that Whatcom County harbors plenty of folks who have grown militant about their distaste for the way government has been doing things.
Over the past couple of years, several groups of rural residents angered by taxes and land-use planning have declared their intention to secede from the county and create their own county.
Last year, a planned eviction of a tax-protesting veterinarian spurred a mobilization of 40 or so militia members, forcing the sheriff to back down temporarily.
More recently, the Bellingham mayor's decision to provide space at City Hall for a traveling photography exhibit featuring gay and lesbian people in regular jobs caused an uproar among citizens, talk-radio listeners and the City Council.
Over the past decade, voters have propelled property-rights advocates onto the County Council and into the Legislature. They include state Sen. Ann Anderson, R-Acme, supported by timber and developer interests, and state Rep. Gene Goldsmith, R-Ferndale, whose more-conservative-than-thou tactics have offended even fellow Republicans.
It's not just land use and taxes, but lifestyle that spurs feelings of alienation for rural residents in this county of about 150,000.
It's the enthusiastic environmentalism in Bellingham, spurred in part by Western Washington University's Huxley College of Environmental Studies. It's the organic carrots sold at the Community Co-op and the tie-dyed T-shirts at the Mad Hatter Clothing store. It's Western's Fairhaven College classes such as "Dreams, Imagination and Creativity" and "Awareness of the Body." And most of all, it's liberals' insistence that government should be the protector of the rolling green hills and watersheds.
All of this is foreign territory to many Whatcom County dwellers, who say that city folks just don't understand where rural landowners are coming from.
Take Jack Holtzheimer, 74, who lives about 30 minutes from town on a green patch of land cleared from stands of Douglas fir, near land homesteaded by his grandfather. He thinks seceding from the county is the last, best hope for rural people like himself.
His beef with government started over a land-use issue. He wanted to subdivide to give some of his land to his son; the county saw it differently, downzoning his property without notice, he says.
He's made a lot of tough choices to keep this land in his family, sawing the timbers himself in 1979 to build the house where he and his wife live, caring for his 97-year-old mother.
"People in the incorporated city, they have no conception of how the rural property owner feels about his property," he says. "Liberals! They don't give a damn about nobody but themselves!"
The county has long been more conservative than the city, where Western Washington students make up almost a fifth of the population. In Lynden, just minutes past Bellingham's outer limits, it's illegal to drink and dance in the same place.
"We have had a long tradition of religious conservatism in the Lynden area, and in the county generally," says Eugene Hogan, a professor of political science at WWU and a 27-year resident of the area.
And that intensified after the Vancouver Expo in 1986 opened the world's eyes to the lush green spaces and the friendly but sophisticated town of Bellingham, nestled between the urban hardness of Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle. Growth hit Whatcom County hard, spurring regulations - and, with them, conflicts.
The state's Growth Management Act, which sought to put limits on development in rural areas, clicked up the burner to "boil." Land-use issues got tangled up with anti-government feelings.
Citizens for Environmental Justice and the Coalition for Land Use Education (CLUE) hosted speakers talking about the "New World Order" and passing out literature from the Militia of Montana. Militia information ran in CLUE's newsletter.
CLUE founder Skip Richards, 48, a WWU graduate, became a born-again property-rights advocate in the early '90s after a tangled and bitter confrontation over a Bellingham apartment project in which he had invested. The environmental movement has been taken over by people with a "Marxist view," he says, when the best way to protect forests and streams is to empower private-property owners.
Now running as a Republican in the 40th District for the state Senate seat held by Harriet Spanel, D-Bellingham, Richards says opening the door to militia members didn't mean CLUE endorsed militia philosophy.
"I was just playing interest-group politics. It was quid pro quo: I'll give you a voice if you'll support what we're doing," says Richards.
Through the efforts of Richards and other property-rights activists, including some who now hold public office, the county is now out of compliance with the Growth Management Act.
Those politicians have given a measure of "aid and comfort to those who would violate the law in order to pursue their agenda," argues Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson. "I don't think a good message is sent when those in authority thumb their noses at state law and say we're not going to do it. That's not leadership, that's pandering."
Feelings run high in Whatcom County, where there still is something to lose. From the Bellis Fair mall, you can see the top of Mount Baker, a glowing white reminder of the wilderness just minutes from the urban center. (It was only a few years ago that a moose wandered into the mall, joining the droves of Canadians who shop there.)
Inside the city, 2,100 acres have been set aside as parks by a green-loving government and philanthropists with spare cash. Whatcom Park, just a mile or so from the center of town, offers a cool view of mossy, slippery-rock waterfalls in a setting that seems to have been transported from some magical planet.
And there have been jobs. Some of them don't pay so well, but there are no hard-core slum areas in Bellingham, despite a population of about 60,000.
The county has long been economically diverse: Intellectual types who work for Western Washington University - the city and county's largest employer - rub elbows with berry farmers at the seed stores, and aluminum-plant and oil-refinery workers pass by fishermen heading off to Alaska. Workers at the Georgia Pacific pulp-and-paper mill shop with coffeehouse employees from the trendy Fairhaven section of town.
More recently, the area has become more ethnically diverse, as well. There were always migrant workers in the berry fields and Lummi and Nooksack Indians on the nearby reservations, but now, higher numbers of Hispanic, Pacific Island, and African-American folks are calling the area home.
Diversity, along with growth, spurred tensions.
The burning of a 10-foot cross at a migrant camp two years ago frightened the local Hispanic community, says Becky Diaz, president of the Whatcom Hispanic Organization. Later, some shots were fired toward the same camp. "This was not normal," says Diaz. "This was not a regular occurrence in our peaceful community."
Last year, skinheads attacked two minority students from WWU; two men with California roots were convicted of malicious harassment and assault.
"One-in-four militia sympathizers is also a white supremacist," says Vernon Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Western Washington and co-chairman of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force.
"I'm a black man," he adds. "Any time they start burning crosses, black folks have got to be concerned."
Many people here resist the idea that there is something happening in Whatcom County or in Bellingham that's not also true elsewhere.
"Are we more polarized here?" asks Douglas, the former mayor. "Yes. Are they more polarized in Seattle? Yes. There's hate and talk radio going, people's anxieties are up. It means there are people who are afraid, the stockpiling, the preparing for the inevitable battle. They don't like anyone telling them what to do with their life."
But training to make and create bombs or to convert weapons to automatic weapons steps over the line, says Whatcom County Sheriff Dale Brandland.
Unrest may roil in the county, but over the past two decades, Bellingham hasn't changed that much, says Mayor Asmundson. "People are very environmentally conscious, very quality-of-life oriented, very concerned with equal opportunity, fairness and viewing government as a partner, a tool for achieving our shared goals," Asmundson says. "Planning and zoning are very important to the people of Bellingham. They believe protections are critical for keeping Bellingham the kind of place we want to grow old in, to raise children in."
Despite recent events, Asmundson is sanguine. Our system of government, set up long ago, will help to get people in his community through this difficult time, he says.
He sees an irony in the extremism. "Many of the people from the property-rights side are so afraid our freedoms are being lost because of one conspiracy or another - but the very actions they're taking based on this fear become the real threat to our freedoms and our way of life."