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A Fire Burning

In 2001, the FBI named Earth Liberation Front (ELF) the leading threat of domestic terrorism. ELF has been categorized as eco-terrorists, striking fear in the mass population in order to spread their environmental ideologies. In Steve Vanderheiden’s article “Eco-terrorism or Justified Resistance?” published in Politics and Society Journal , explores the definition of terrorism, and if ELF’s mission of eco-tage or economic sabotage, the destruction of private property without any harm to human life, should truly be on the top of the Most Wanted List. 

The flame struggled for strength in her shaking hand. The stench of gasoline fueled her mission. As she tossed the lighter, the surrounding crowd bellowed “WE ARE THE ELVES!” The lighter was a symbolic gesture while the others lit their torches. The wooden exterior nourished the flame and created a dancing display in the night’s blackness. She felt a calmness as she stood in front of the hearth. She imagined figures skiing down the licks of fire and a powerful lynx roaring up from the flames to reclaim its rightful territory. She sat down that night at a computer, fortified with passion after watching seven buildings at the Vail ski resort burn.

Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas.

She signed “Earth Liberation Front” and without even skimming over the email, she clicked send.

***

The Earth Liberation Front was created in 1992 by a cluster of Earth First! separatists who believed the original group became too mainstream. In 1998, when the group claimed responsibility for $12 million dollars in damage at a ski resort that was torched, their infamy soured. Additional acts against urban sprawl, air pollution, animal testing, genetic engineering and public land logging totaled to $100 million in damages. They were regarded as heroes by some and insane eco-warriors to others.

The FBI slapped the label “eco-terrorists” on the Earth Liberation Front in 2001 and declared the extreme environmentalists the leading threat to domestic security. ELF rejected the title and instead created their own term of “eco-tage” which is the economic sabotage inflicted on private property or inanimate objects in order to remove any motivation to gain profit from harming the Earth. Steve Vanderheiden explores the intricacies and distinction between civil disobedience and terrorism as it pertains to ELF in his essay “Eco-terrorism or Justified Resistance?”.

The primary question that Vanderheiden addresses in the debate is the differentiation between fear for human life and fear for property. The destruction of private property on a small scale is considered vandalism  in comparison to the higher crime of murder. The Earth Liberation Front claimed that they never caused any injuries or deaths in their mission to promote a more sustainable Earth. They took responsibility for  torched Hummers inscribed with “I LOVE POLLUTION” as well as the vandalism of a plethora of buildings, but believed human life and the Earth’s life is precious and should not be harmed.

A secondary question is when unlawful acts are justified by civil disobedience. Environmental policy has never been considered America’s top priority. ELF was a group fed up with the glacial (maybe not a valid adjective anymore due to the rapid melting) pace of policy makers. They lobbied for environmental change in the government and protested peacefully. Shouting on the tops of their lungs with no one listening. They believed bold actions were the last resort in their fight to help the planet. The eco-seurs engage in dangerous displays in order to grab attention from the media. Media coverage can draw attention from moderate environmentalists to certain concerns that are highlighted by ELF’s actions. Additionally, public opinion shifts towards agreement with the moderate environmentalists who seem more reasonable in comparison to the radicals.

Not all media attention is good, however. There was a controversy about tree spiking, which is the insertion of metal of ceramic stakes into trees that break saws so the trees can not be turned to timber. The ceramic spikes are undetectable by metal detectors and therefore have caused injuries to multiple loggers when the rapidly moving chain breaks and whips backwards. ELF did not claim responsibility for the injuries and their leader Judi Bari completely denounced the practice. Another high power individual of ELF, John Foreman, urged the eco-warriors to insert the spikes higher so that only industrial saw mills (which have protective shields), not small scale chainsaw mills, would be affected.

The injuries caused by the spiked trees brought negative media attention to ELF and similar organizations. There is a possibility that their extremist actions work against them by alienating possible environmental allies. Even if ELF did not plant the specific spikes that caused harm, they were using the same tactics and the main difference between the trees is luck.

Although some regarded ELF as a powerful unit of vigilantes that empowered the environmental movement, the anonymity of the members created an un-relatable void from the general public. Civil Rights activists in the 50s took personal stands in the daylight and were willing to serve jail time for their actions. ELF works primarily at night and the organization claims responsibility instead of individuals.

Is the organization a flame of resistance or a torch of destruction?

***

It is important to acknowledge the negative impacts of the Earth Liberation Front’s actions. The militia tactics against private organizations often alienate potential environmental allies. ELF created a representation of environmentalists that was not identifiable with the general public. Their intentions to impact private industry’s economic viability are often cast upon insurance companies instead of the businesses. Therefore, it does no impact economic motivations in the exploitation of the environment. Also, as seen in the example of spiked trees, although ELF’s mission is not intended to harm any people, while engaging in dangerous activities it is impossible to ensure the safety of everyone.

However, the Earth Liberation Front should not be dismissed as crazy environmental extremists. The group was a model of civil disobedience with a few quirks. Members of ELF involved in the torching of the Vail ski lodge, including Briana Waters, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, William Cottrell, Darren Todd Thurston, and Ian Jacob Wallace cooperated with the police after being arrested by revealing all members of the organization in 2006. Since then, ELF has dissolved. Their website will close by July, 2017 but for now it reads:

“Although there has never been an injury or death stemming from an ELF action, it can happen regardless how carefully things are planned in advance.  A critical evaluation of past ELF actions exposes the obvious: arson is a dangerous and unpredictable strategy that can get out of control very easily.  Even if the attack does not injure or kill an innocent person, there are no winners.  Torching sport utility vehicles, ski resorts, research labs and McMansions, releases huge amounts of toxic gasses into the atmosphere – creating far more greenhouse gasses than if they were left alone.  The end result: everything is rebuilt, replaced or repaired.  This DOUBLES the burden on the environment and taxpayers!  An exercise in futility and self-defeat.”

They have admitted their wrongs. Maybe one day they will rise from the ashes of the torched ski resort. But for now, it is up to the public to decide how they are remembered: as terrorists or heroes?

Julia Bridgforth