The alarms sounded at 3:15 on a Monday morning in May. And as the dawn broke, clusters of students and professors stood about the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture watching years of work reduced to ashes. A firebombing had destroyed 100 cuttings of a plant called showy stickweed - a quarter of the earth's known population of that endangered flora. Also lost: research on wetland restoration and water conservation.
The perpetrators of this $5 million arson? The green guerrillas of the Earth Liberation Front, whose stealthy operation spectacularly misfired. The firebombing targeted the ground-floor office of Toby Bradshaw, a researcher on the genetics of poplar trees. Bradshaw, an ELF communique charged, "continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is [sic] certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems." Bradshaw says he does no genetic engineering, only traditional plant hybridization. "These ELFers are botanically challenged," he says.
Not to mention committed, having carried out a campaign of vandalism against targets that include logging companies, Forest Service stations, highways, suburban sprawl, a Nike outlet and even gas-guzzling SUVs. Ecowarriors' "direct actions" have escalated from pouring sand in bulldozer gas tanks to pouring gas on structures and lighting it. ELF boasts of causing $40 million in damages in a dozen states, including the 1998 Vail, Colo., fire that destroyed a mountaintop development. ELF's website offers an arson manual with "how-tos about devices, fuel requirements, timers, security and more." Despite such boldness, authorities have been stymied by the saboteurs, who operate with little structure or centralization. Craig Rosebraugh, the 29-year-old former vegan baker who is the movement's spokesman (but not a member, he says), scoffs at the label "ecoterrorists," noting that no one has ever been hurt in any ELF attack. He does acknowledge the "regrettable loss" of the showy stickweeds but doesn't apologize for the Vail fire, designed to protect the habitat of the endangered lynx. Vail Resorts rebuilt an even bigger complex, but Rosebraugh claims, "Vail's insurance rates went up, and the international publicity was priceless."
Well, maybe not without a price. Last month the FBI raided Rosebraugh's Portland, Ore., home and office for the second time, carting off computers and videotapes. He has been subpoenaed seven times by grand juries. Law-enforcement task forces are stepping up their investigations, creating a common database to correlate evidence in scores of incidents. "Are we going to put them out of business?" asks Charles Mandigo, the FBI special agent in charge in Seattle. "No. But we are looking at the overall pattern of criminal activity. I believe we'll see quite a few successes."