SAN FRANCISCO -- After years of ignoring people caught damaging the environment in Northern California, federal prosecutors are cracking down on salmon snatchers, illegal trail cutters, oil dumpers and other polluters.
The U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco has gone from being the worst in the country for prosecuting environmental crimes to one of the best at a time when the Justice Department is pursuing more pollution prosecutions than ever.
"There were some people who assumed that paying fines was part of the cost of doing business," said Mike Gonzales, special agent in charge of the National Marine Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement in Long Beach. "But those same people don't want to go to jail."
The office has steadily increased its environmental criminal caseload in recent years, from filing six cases in 1998 to more than 36 last year, according to the records obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
That's a major increase from 1986 through 1997, when only four cases were filed in a region renowned for its gorgeous environment -- ancient redwood trees, glacier-carved lakes, fern-lined trails, granite mountains and rugged, sweeping coastline.
Those resources coexist with major logging, fishing, recreational and shipping industries.
Seeing 'strong commitment'
Nationally, federal prosecutions of environmental crimes increased threefold from 1998 through 2001, from around 300 a year to more than 900 cases last year.
"We're starting to see a strong commitment across the country to vigorously enforce environmental laws," said David Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section.
The change, which began in the late 1990s, came in large part from environmental leaders and lawmakers increasing pressure on the Clinton administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some critics say prosecutors are being overzealous to make their specialized units -- like Uhlmann's 32 environmental attorneys -- look good.
"If you are an ambitious prosecutor and you are put in charge of the environmental crimes division, you are not going to advance if those numbers decline," said Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice.