Terrorists are on the loose in America—enviroterrorists. In early August 2003, radical environmentalists apparently burned down an apartment complex under construction in San Diego. Ecoterrorists next attacked four SUV dealerships in West Covina, a Los Angeles suburb.
These crimes were likely perpetrated by the so-called Environmental Liberation Front (ELF), which has long boasted of committing arson and bombings. In 2002, ELF issued “an open call for direct action.” It also took responsibility for torching a Forest Service lab in Pennsylvania. The SUV vandals painted “ELF” on a number of vehicles. In mid-September 2003, federal agents arrested a 25-year-old member of a co-op supposedly dedicated to peace and environmentalism for perpetrating the SUV incident.
The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is similar. The two groups are blamed for causing $45 million in damage in a campaign involving at least 600 arsons and other incidents going back to 1996. ALF’s spokesman explains: “It’s a war. A long, hard, bloody, war.”
And it’s a war about which most Americans are unaware.
Ecoterrorism started to receive attention in the early 1970’s when “the Fox,” a lone environmental activist, engaged in a sustained campaign of ecosabotage against several Chicago-area firms. Groups called the Bolt Weevils in Minnesota and Eco-raiders in Arizona carried out similar attacks.
The group Environmental Action published a self-help guide, Ecotage!, in 1972. A few years later, Edward Abbey romanticized ecoterrorism in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. As Abbey explained, “If opposition is not enough, we must resist. And if resistance is not enough, then subvert.”
Nevertheless, there was no formal structure for ecoteurs until 1981, when Dave Foreman, a former lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, founded Earth First! a group that claimed credit for some relatively innocuous (if not quite kosher) activities, such as disrupting industry press conferences. Anything serious was blamed on individuals.
Foreman, later convicted for conspiring to sabotage an electrical power pylon in Arizona, argued that monkeywrenching “is morally required” as “self-defense on the part of the Earth.” He admitted that Earth First! was formed “to inspire others to carry out activities straight from the pages of The Monkey Wrench Gang” and later coauthored Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.
Examples of ecotage became common. Ecoteurs spiked trees with metal spikes, as well as ceramic ones to avoid detection. Loggers in California and Oregon were injured while cutting down trees. After a worker was seriously injured when a hidden spike shattered a saw blade in a lumber mill, Foreman responded: “the old-growth forest in North Idaho is a hell of a lot more important than Joe Six-pack.”
Spikes were placed on trails in National Forests to puncture tires; wire was strung to disrupt races. Ecoteurs destroyed an electrical substation in Canada; vandalized a ski lift in Arizona; wrecked a utility bridge in Montana; cut power lines in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah; and damaged construction equipment at various sites. Ranches were another target.
Over a decade, such activities represent less than a reign of terror, though some extreme environmentalists seemed ready to inaugurate one. The publication Earth First! once ran an anonymous letter that declared:
The only way to stop all the destruction of our home is to decrease the birth rate or increase the death rate of people. . . . It does no good to kill a few selected folks. That is a retail operation. What we need is a wholesale operation. . . . The simple expedient: biological warfare!
If Osama bin Laden had only used environmental rhetoric, maybe he would be celebrated rather than execrated in America today.
Luckily, Earth First! never initiated biological war and ultimately folded. But ELF and ALF have moved to the fore.
Both organizations began in Britain. Since 1996, they, together with their decentralized affiliates, are thought to account for some 600 incidents, including an arson attack on a veterinary diagnostic lab, animal theft, wrecking a government predator-control project, firebombing meat-industry and circus vehicles, and destroying an animal-research facility.
The events of September 11, 2001, did not deter them from their terrorist campaign. After that attack, the groups claimed responsibility for firebombing a primate-research center, burning down a federal corral for wild horses, disrupting an Iowa mink farm, spiking trees, and firebombing a McDonald’s. In February 2002, two ALF activists were arrested while planning to destroy dairy trucks. The organizations’ websites offer advice on committing arson.
These terrorist activities probably pose a more serious threat than did the ecotage practiced by Earth First!’s acolytes. ALF and ELF act in urban areas as well as wilderness lands. Arson has become their tool of choice, one that is likely eventually to kill people as well as destroy property.
Mainstream environmental groups have done little to discourage ecoteurs. When questioned about Earth First!’s activities two decades ago, Sierra Club executive director Michael McCloskey opined:
We no more have an obligation to run around denouncing extremists using the environmental movement than Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to go around spending most of their time condemning the views of left or right-wing extremists.
However, even extreme liberals and conservatives typically do not advocate violent tactics that destroy, maim, and possibly kill.
David Brower, another onetime Sierra Club executive director and later chairman of Friends of the Earth, gave office space to Earth First!, explaining: “I think the environmental movement has room for lots of different views broadcasting on many channels. I’m certainly not going to be against civil disobedience.”
In fact, he added, “Earth First! makes Friends of the Earth look reasonable. What we need now is an outfit to make Earth First! look reasonable.” ALF and ELF do that.
The vegan campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Bruce Friedrich, told a Virginia animal-rights convention: “It would be a great thing if, you know, all of these fast-food outlets and these slaughterhouses and these laboratories and these banks that fund them exploded tomorrow.” He added: “I think it’s perfectly appropriate for people to take bricks and toss them through the windows.”
In fact, Friedrich’s enthusiasm for violence seems unbounded. At the Animal Rights 2001 conference, he opined: “If we really believe that animals have the same right to be free from pain and suffering at our hands, then, of course we’re going to be blowing things up and smashing windows.”
Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom points to financial ties between PETA and ALF/ELF. The former made a direct contribution to ELF in 2000 and has underwritten the activities of ALF/ELF activists since 1995, including the defense of Rodney Coronado, who was convicted of arson in 1992.
Existing law covers traditional crimes but has done little to hinder the organizations fomenting and organizing these activities. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works with state legislators, observes that,
by making no legal distinction between the common thug who vandalizes a public park and an organized ecoterrorist, the state is left void of investigatory and adjudicatory tools, as well as minimal sentencing for crimes. This, in sum, allows for a significant circular turnover rate, where criminals return to their organizations to commit further crimes in other locations or jurisdictions.
ALEC has proposed the model Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act (AETA) and Environmental Corrupt Organizations-Preventative Legislation and Neutralization Act (ECO-PLAN). Both are tailored to confront ecoterrorism and, unlike the old RICO legislation or recent USA PATRIOT Acts—which have posed potent threats to civil liberties—are not designed for broader use against ever-more-expansive targets.
In general, AETA would prohibit acts of or support for environmental terrorism, set penalties for violators, and allow victims to sue for treble damages. ECO-PLAN would target organizations that promote ecoterrorism and allow forfeiture of property used in such offenses.
The United States and other industrialized states demonstrate that a higher standard of living makes it easier to protect the environment; in fact, economic growth and technological progress can be great friends of the environment. Nevertheless, some trade-off between ecological and economic values is inevitable. And, in a democratic society, such disagreements are fought with words, not guns.
An extremist few have decided to use violence to get their way. Terrorism by them is no more justified than terrorism by Al Qaeda. Government at both the state and national levels must respond no less resolutely to protect American lives and property.