ELF `eco-terrorists' target those they see as Earth's foes

Damage done by group put at nearly $37 million

January 28, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOUNT SINAI, N.Y. --- The three demi-mansions, scorched but still standing, loom above the snowy grounds of a former Long Island farm - the objects of a late December arson strike by the Earth Liberation Front.

"If you build it we will burn it" and "Burn the Rich," warned spray-painted signs on a fourth luxury house.

A loose collection of environmentalists and animal rights supporters, the ELF is setting fires and committing other acts of "economic sabotage" against developers, mink farmers, bioengineering companies and animal-research labs around the country - anyone the group considers foes of the Earth and the wild.

More than 30 hits from the Pacific Northwest to southern Indiana to suburban New York are claimed by the ELF over the past four years, with damage estimates ranging up to $37 million. The Long Island attack did $80,000 worth of interior damage that was quickly fixed.

Those who carried it out are "the last of the left-wing terrorists," says Gary Perlstein, professor at Portland State University in Oregon and author of the book "Perspectives on Terrorism." He likens members of the group to "modern druids" for their worship of the wilderness.

"The environment has become their religion," he says. "This is the left-wing equivalent of the Christian identity religion."

Members of the ELF - a militant spinoff of the early 1990s environmental group Earth First! - take offense at the term "eco-terrorism," says group spokesman Craig Rosebraugh, a vegan baker in Portland, Ore., who says he is not a member of the ELF - and doesn't even know its members' identities - but operates its press office and passes on its communications to the news media. In its press releases and on its Web site, the ELF emphasizes that it is careful to burn only empty buildings and has never hurt a person or animal.

"The group feels it's necessary to inflict economic damage on economic entities profiting on the destruction of the environment," Rosebraugh said. "People are tired of seeing the last natural and wild places of this country destroyed purely for the sake of human greed and profit. At the same time, people have also witnessed the lack of success of a popular environmental movement going on for 20 to 30 years in this country, and believe it's time to take it further to save the qualities of this planet necessary to sustain life."

Operating in small isolated subgroups, or "cells," ELF members have repeatedly escaped detection by avoiding traditional means of communication and leaving no traces.

Last week, after years of fruitless pursuit, authorities may have gotten a break; federal agents raided the homes of two teen-agers they think were among the people responsible for the fires in Mount Sinai and other recent strikes on Long Island. No charges have been filed.

In Bloomington, Ind., however, a 26-year-old man believed to be affiliated with the ELF was charged with a felony for allegedly driving 10-inch spikes into trees this past June in an area of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest that was due to be logged.

The ELF, believed to be dominated by bright, educated activists in their 20s and 30s who are savvy to the ways of law enforcement, has invited comparisons to the underground antiwar group of the 1960s and early 1970s known as the Weathermen, who scholars say were unsuccessful terrorists - because they accomplished little - but excellent fugitives.

Like the Weathermen, the ELF has been difficult for authorities to infiltrate because activists operate outside the criminal subculture, instead holding regular jobs and blending into society, Perlstein said.

Essential to their success has been the use of pagers, cell phones and the Internet, said Dave Szady, special agent in charge of the FBI in Portland. The ELF's Web site functions as a how-to guide on building incendiary devices, offering such choices for "igniters" as potassium chlorate and sugar, flake aluminum-sulfur, home-made black powder, match heads, and home-made napalm.

Environmental sabotage - sometimes called "monkey- wrenching" - is not a new phenomenon, but dates back more than a quarter of a century. Its philosophical father is the late novelist Edward Abbey, whose 1975 novel, "The Monkeywrench Gang," involved a plot to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.

Since 1996, the ELF estimates that it has caused $37 million in damage through more than 30 strikes. An analysis by the Portland Oregonian newspaper calculates about $19.2 million for the 22 most serious acts of destruction.

In October 1998, the ELF took credit for what is still the country's most costly act of eco-terrorism: a series of fires at a Vail ski resort that caused $12 million in damage to protest the resort's expansion into a lynx habitat.

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