Powerful opponents of eco-terrorism are mounting the nation's most formidable campaign against the homegrown sabotage. But the crime wave they hope to quell -- a 2½-year escalation of arsons and property destruction -- subsided last summer, perhaps due to law enforcement crackdowns.
A congressional subcommittee held a hearing on eco-terrorism last month in which lawmakers, keyed up about terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks, likened America's green underground to al-Qaeda. An FBI official testified that the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front had become the nation's most active and destructive domestic terrorist groups.
Industry representatives, meanwhile, have challenged the tax-exempt status of at least one well-heeled group that gives financial succor to suspected eco-terrorists.
Eco-terrorism escalated across the nation in the late 1990s. Underground saboteurs, claiming to act on behalf of the natural world, repeatedly struck such enterprises as logging, skiing, genetic research, home building and auto sales. They are suspected in 69 major attacks since January 1999, including 14 in the Pacific Northwest, The Oregonian found in an ongoing analysis of the crimes.
But serious cases of eco-terrorism took a precipitous plunge after July 16, when the Earth Liberation Front set fire to an oil company building in suburban Detroit. Since then, eco-terrorists have been tied to just six major crimes, compared to 21 during the same period last year. The last major act of eco-terrorism in the United States occurred more than two months ago, when the Earth Liberation Front set fire to a genetic research center under construction at the University of Minnesota, causing $630,000 damage.
Eco-terrorists have operated in the United States for at least 22 years. But their crimes took center stage in 1998, when the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for an arson at the Vail, Colo., ski resort. The fire, which caused $12 million damage, remains the costliest act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history. The front is suspected of seven arsons in Oregon.
No one, except perhaps the eco-terrorists, knows why the attacks have slowed since summer. But federal authorities and industry leaders familiar with the phenomenon attribute the decline to key arrests, prosecutions and ongoing investigations. The FBI has made no secret that it hopes to infiltrate eco- terrorist cells.
"I think there's been a deterrent effect by increased law enforcement efforts across the board," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer in Portland, one of a growing number of law enforcement officials nationwide now investigating eco-terrorism. "There doesn't seem to be anyplace in the country where they can effectively hide anymore."
Federal agents, frustrated for years by the elusive saboteurs, found reason for optimism in 2001.
Early last year, federal authorities in New York charged four young men with setting fire to luxury homes under construction on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front to protest development.
Then in June, a judge in Eugene sentenced Jeff Luers to nearly 23 years in prison for setting fire to three pickups and attempting to ignite a gasoline tanker in mid-2000. The sentence was the harshest ever given to an eco-terrorist in the United States. Luers said he targeted the pickups because they emit too much air pollution.
Last month, a federal judge in Phoenix sentenced Mark Sands to 18 years in prison for torching seven luxury homes under construction. Sands wanted to halt development near protected desert.
David Barbarash, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, has monitored the decline in sabotage from his office in Courtenay, British Columbia, and doesn't quite know what to make of it. Barbarash said he would not be surprised to learn that some of the saboteurs were focusing on other issues, perhaps resistance to the United States' war on terrorism.
At the same time, he ridiculed the U.S. government's public campaign against eco-terrorism.
"What they're clearly doing is using September 11 as a political football," he said. "A lot of what is being pushed . . . has been on their table for a long time; it's not new. It's all coming out now with such ferocity because of this focus on rounding up terrorists."
On Feb. 12, lawmakers and industry leaders decried eco-terrorists in ways typically reserved for such groups as al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Terrorism is terrorism, they testified before a House resources subcommittee on forests and forest health. Some drew no distinction between the extremists behind the Sept. 11 attacks that killed thousands and the homegrown saboteurs who have burned down and occasionally bombed buildings -- almost always vacant at the time -- without killing anyone.
"They hate American freedoms, including the freedom to choose . . . and freedom to prosper," U.S. Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, told his colleagues. "They will commit arson, vandalism and set bombs to express their hatred for our freedoms."
James F. Jarboe, who was then domestic terrorism chief for the FBI's counterterrorism division, told the panel that the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front had become the nation's most destructive domestic extremist groups. Jarboe credited the groups with more than 600 criminal acts, causing $43 million damage, since 1996. The great majority of those incidents, however, were small-time theft, property destruction and graffiti incidents.
The star attraction of the congressional hearing was Craig Rosebraugh, a Portland man who is a former spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front. For four years, Rosebraugh had received what he called anonymous claims of responsibility for eco-terrorist crimes and passed them to news media with laudatory remarks. But he had few words for the congressional subcommittee, which subpoenaed him to answer questions about the Earth Liberation Front.
Rosebraugh invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 54 times during the hearing. He issued an 11-page statement that chided the U.S. government for its own "terrorist history" against Native Americans and, most recently, what he called innocents in Afghanistan.
Rep. George R. Nethercutt Jr., R-Wash., encouraged colleagues to treat the Earth Liberation Front as it treats al-Qaida, by improving intelligence, freeing the hands of law enforcement, isolating terrorists from allies and cutting off their funding.
"Financing and harboring terrorists," he said, "is no different from directly committing the acts. These dangerous and misguided zealots must be left without aid or comfort."
Toward that end, groups representing ranching and restaurant interests recently attacked the tax-exempt status of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an influential animal-rights group based in Norfolk, Va. They had long fought against PETA's ad campaigns aimed at getting people to stop using animals for food, clothing and scientific study.
On March 4, Ron Arnold, executive vice president of Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, filed a formal complaint against PETA with the Internal Revenue Service. Arnold, whose organization is based in Bellevue, Wash., complained that public records show PETA donated $1,500 to the Earth Liberation Front press office two years ago. PETA also had given thousands to the legal teams of two men later convicted of Animal Liberation Front crimes in Oregon.
PETA paid the legal fees of Roger Troen of Portland, who in 1986 helped steal lab animals from the University of Oregon, and Rod Coronado, who in 1991 launched a multistate arson campaign against the fur industry. The group also paid Rosebraugh's legal fees during a federal grand jury inquiry in Portland. The panel questioned Rosebraugh about eco-terrorist crimes but did not indict him.
Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's president, has long acknowledged that her group gives money to the legal funds of people suspected of eco-terrorism. But she told The Oregonian last week that PETA has never knowingly funded or encouraged their crimes and limits its own pursuits to misdemeanors.
"We do civil disobedience," she said. "We will throw a tofu pie at somebody once in a while."
PETA's general counsel, Jeff Kerr, has accused industry groups of using the Sept. 11 tragedy to renew a smear campaign against social action groups that creatively exercise free speech.
Arnold's complaint accuses PETA of flagrantly violating its nonprofit tax exemption by encouraging arson and other crimes, publicizing the exploits of eco-terrorists and dispatching undercover investigators to steal papers from medical labs.
"We honestly hope the IRS will finally take these things seriously," he said.