'Eco-terrorists' up the stakes to drive home their message

Chicago Tribune/October 3, 2003
By Michael Martinez

Moab, Utah -- No canyon insurmountable, no trail unnavigable, John North's Hummer conquers all - a 3-ton king of the road or, if you disapprove, the most shameless leviathan of all SUVs.

Hummers, such as North's snow-white pride and joy, are now popular targets for an underground movement of "eco-terrorists," who lay ruin to construction sites, meat processing plants, genetic food labs and sport-utility vehicles.

North, 54, owner of a West Coast restaurant chain, argues that his 12-miles-to-the-gallon ride doesn't deserve the kind of clandestine attack that destroyed or damaged 40 Hummers, costing more than $50,000 each, at a dealership in West Covina, Calif., in August.

"I think terrorism is terrorism," North said during a 10-hour Hummer caravan late last month across the treacherous Poison Spider Mesa high above the Colorado River in southeastern Utah. "It's like saying, `I don't like what you're doing, so let's go burn your offices down.'"

Claiming responsibility for many of these attacks is the Earth Liberation Front, which federal officials often list as the nation's most dangerous domestic terrorist organization - using violence to draw attention to its anti-growth message.

Lawmakers have compared the organization's loose, secret membership to al-Qaida. But the group emphasizes - and authorities concede - that no one has been killed or injured in the attacks.

The eco-terrorists view their campaign as a "monkey-wrench" thrown into the machinery of modern consumerism and pollution. Their ecologically motivated sabotage - or "ecotage," as they call it - has occurred in all parts of the country but especially in the West, where the fiercest battles over development are being fought.

In 1998, ELF claimed responsibility for torching a ski resort in Vail, Colo. In the past several years, it has targeted genetically engineered food with arson attacks against agriculture research facilities at Michigan State University, the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota.

In the past year, assaults against SUVs have stepped up, with vandalism in Richmond, Va.; Erie, Pa.; Santa Fe, N.M., and Houston. Last March, two nearly completed homes in Ann Arbor, Mich., were torched by ELF.

The group says its attacks have caused more than $100 million in damage - about half of that in August when a San Diego apartment complex under construction was set afire. Government officials said that $50 million arson signaled how the group has become more ambitious in recent months.

And ELF isn't alone.

Last month, members of another eco-terrorist group, the Animal Liberation Front, released 10,000 minks from their pens at a fur farm in Sultan, Wash. Many of the freed animals were killed by dogs, died in the heat or were run over by cars.

ALF has also been linked to fires at meat and egg processing plants in California.

The FBI estimates that ELF and ALF are responsible for more than 600 criminal acts since 1996.

Such militants are now singling out the Hummer, the civilian version of the military Humvee.

Once a curio and now among the most conspicuous symbols of American consumption, the vehicle has been targeted because it represents "the worst of American excess and the wastefulness of SUV culture - getting 12 miles to the gallon and basically designed as an urban tank," the ELF press office said in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions.

In the California attack last month, 20 H2 Hummers were destroyed and another 20 were damaged at a cost of $2.5 million. Vandals scribbled "ELF" and "I (heart) pollution" on the vehicles. A security camera captured pictures of two suspects.

Earlier this month, an FBI task force investigating the arson apprehended a 25-year-old peace activist who lives in a solar-paneled cooperative that grows organic food. He was later released.

On its Web site - the sole means by which anonymous ELF members make public announcements - the group said the FBI "seriously blundered" in the case because the suspect was helping a friend move on the night of the arson.

Authorities say the eco-terrorist groups lack any clear hierarchical structure, which has frustrated more than 26 FBI field offices investigating them. The FBI says arrests have been made in less than 10 percent of ELF's acts of sabotage.

To North, the saboteurs are misguided.

"They say, (I'm a) polluter, gas guzzler," he said. "Well, take a 454 Suburban and put a boat behind it - they're not getting more than 6 miles to the gallon. Look at motor homes - they get, what, 4 miles to the gallon.

"Here's my average economy," North said, pushing a button on his steering wheel to call up digital information on his dashboard, "12.1 miles."

The ELF Web site says that an individual or group can form a cell that doesn't communicate with any others. The group started in Brighton, England, in 1992 with members from another group, Earth First, which modeled itself after the Animal Liberation Front.

The extremists conduct surveillance of potential targets and employ incendiary devices with crude timers. The addition of a political message regarding their actions against property or people constitutes eco-terrorism, according to the FBI.

"We're not going to rank terrorist activity by what's worst," said Laura Bosley, a spokeswoman at the FBI's field office in Los Angeles. "They are acting on their ideology, and they actually believe this may bring about change.

"That's fine if they like to do it in a legal fashion. But when they cross the line in doing illegal activity, they are considered a terrorist group," she added.

An ELF representative disagreed.

"The ELF has absolutely no desire to harm any human or animal life - nor does it have a desire to `terrorize' the general public," an e-mail response said.

Referring to recent fires and other "dramatic and high-profile action," the writer said, "There is no question that actions against urban sprawl and SUVs in recent months have raised the level of discussion across America about issues that organizations like the Sierra Club have been trying to get people to talk about for years."

Bruce Hamilton, national conservation director of the Sierra Club, said that violence by what he called "a very small fringe element of anarchists" is turning public opinion against the environmental movement.

"It's not something we secretly applaud," Hamilton said. "I presume they are frustrated. & When you take this kind of unilateral, anti-social, violent action, it only sets us backward."

Congress is considering legislation to make eco-terrorism a federal offense by creating a special category for the arson and vandalism committed in the name of saving the environment. During a congressional subcommittee hearing last year, lawmakers compared these criminals to al-Qaida, whose members committed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's just a matter of time before a life is taken," said Blair Jones, press secretary for Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), who headed the subcommittee. "On their Web site at one time, they had an arsonist's handbook to teach people how to set fires and timing devices to torch them. This is serious damage."

But ELF members take "rigorous care" to ensure no one is injured, the group said.

"Since 1997, not one person or animal has been injured or killed by an ELF action. This is not an accident, it is not a fluke," the representative said. "The police forces of urban centers across America have killed a hell of a lot more innocent people/bystanders than the ELF ever could."

Back at the Utah caravan, John North drove his Hummer at preposterous angles straight down and up a V-shape gulch that off-road roughnecks call The Launching Pad.

Roaring down canyon trails whimsically named Hell's Revenge or the Golden Spike, members of his Hummer Club - which includes a retired lieutenant colonel, a real estate broker, an executive chef, a muffler shop owner, doctors and lawyers - contended that the eco-terrorists' torching of the Hummers generated more pollution than the vehicle would on the highway.

Fewer than 10 percent of all Hummer owners regularly drive off-road, club leaders said. During the Utah outing, owners compared the prowess of the H1 Hummer, designed like the original low-slung Humvee, with the new H2 Hummer, designed like a traditional SUV and costing half of the H1's $100,000 price.

When back in their home communities, the Hummer owners said their vehicles frequently draw amazed stares and sometimes criticism.

Marc Balocco, 50, of Flagstaff, Ariz., who was rambling over red stone terrain with his 140-pound St. Bernard pup named Humvee enjoying every bounce in the back seat, said someone once asked him whether he felt stupid driving "that big piece of junk."

"I said, `Why are you talking to me like that? You're the one driving a piece of junk - you got a Nissan pickup.' And I got American, and he's driving a Japanese car and criticizing me," Balocco recalled.

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