New face of environmentalism


Sabotage: Earth Liberation Front brings sophisticated terrorist tactics to the environmental movement.

May 25, 2000|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORTLAND, Ore. - Boise Cascade Corp.'s regional headquarters burned to the ground the night before Christmas. When the smoke cleared, the only thing left was a communiquM-i from the "elves" of the Earth Liberation Front explaining that it had "left coal in Boise Cascade's stocking."

"Boise Cascade has been very naughty after ravaging the forests of the Pacific Northwest ... [and] now looks toward the virgin forests of Chile," the message said. "Let this be a lesson to all greedy multinational corporations who don't respect ecosystems. The elves are watching."

Actually, the elves were just catching their breath.

A week later, they torched Michigan State University's agricultural research department, destroying years of work on genetically engineered crops. Then they burned down a house in a new Indiana housing tract that was said to threaten a local water supply.

More recently, the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalism at the University of Minnesota, where 800 genetically engineered oat plants were overturned. Then it sabotaged construction vehicles - "large yellow machines of death," in ELF parlance - and sifted salt into piles of dry cement destined for a highway project in Minneapolis.

The saboteurs left no fingerprints, no identifiable tire tracks, no shoe prints likely to match anyone's feet. The gasoline mixture they use cannot be identified. Pipe-bomb components have been traced to the stores where they were purchased, but no one can remember who bought them. The group's only public presence is a tall, stone-faced vegetarian baker in Portland. Craig Rosebraugh, 27, says he has no idea who the terrorists are. And if he did, "I'd sit in jail ... before I told."

This is the new face of radical environmentalism, which has moved beyond the simple monkey-wrenching and tree-spiking techniques of the timber wars of the 1990s. By adopting tactics from the Animal Liberation Front, known for its clandestine releases of research animals and fur-farm minks, the ELF's intent is to inflict as much financial harm as possible on corporations whose interests it believes are at odds with the environment.

In that it has been very successful.

"They pick times and places where no one expects them to be," says David Tubbs, the FBI's former counterterrorism chief. "They're able to go in and accomplish what they want to accomplish. They leave very little behind except chaos."

A blaze set in October 1998 at a Vail, Colo., ski resort scheduled to expand into prime lynx habitat caused $12 million in damage. The price tag for the fire at Boise Cascade was estimated at $1 million.

Sabotage "is designed to effect change where it counts in our capitalistic society, in the wallet," the group said in a recent communique.

To many mainstream environmental activists, the front has become a growing annoyance - or worse. "I think the Earth Liberation Front's a bunch of nitwits myself, if they're not actually working for industry," says Dave Foreman, the co-founder of Earth First and author of the 1993 book "Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkey-wrenching."

Foreman has given up radical activism to become head of a mainstream group dedicated to wilderness expansion.

The attack in Vail had the effect of ending community opposition to the expansion, and Vail Resorts Inc. proceeded with leveling trees three days afterward. A restaurant destroyed in the blaze was rebuilt 5,000 square feet larger - with graceful old raw timber trucked in from Montana. The mainstream environmental group that had planned a peaceful blockade to halt the bulldozers instead had to cancel its protest, and several leaders were hauled in front of a grand jury.

"The upshot was, it did not affect our operations at all," says Paul Witt, a spokesman for Vail Resorts Inc. "It unified the community to say that we can solve our own problems. We don't need these outside people coming in and destroying our livelihoods and our back yards in order to make a point."

Rosebraugh insists that he has no way of knowing who is sending him the communiquM-is. But he has been happy to publicize them because he agrees with them.

"I want people to understand these are not random acts of lawlessness, but actions that have a definite purpose, and that is the end of abuses and exploitations," he says. "People are tired of spending an incredible amount of time and energy to try and have campaigns legally that basically get nowhere at all. Individuals in the ELF want to see results. They want to pick up where the law is leaving off."

In February, federal agents raided the home Rosebraugh shares with three roommates, as well as his former offices at the downtown Liberation Collective - a mix of social-justice groups dedicated to peace, feminism, animal rights and the environment.

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