Ecoterrorism damaging environmental causes

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune:

The Fox, a schoolteacher who took the name of the river valley he wanted to save, got his start in Chicago's far western suburbs in 1969. He plugged sewer outlets of factories that fouled the water, crawled up belching smokestacks to cap their fumes, and once dumped a small coffin of dead fish and slime onto the white carpet of U.S. Steel's executive offices. His specialty: squirting skunk scent into buildings owned by polluters.

To some environmental activists across the United States, The Fox was the first ecoterrorist - or rather, the first ecosaboteur. In furtive conversations with reporters, the affable, ordinary-looking provocateur took pride in the clever tactics that made him something of an environmental Robin Hood: He was feared by the bad and loved, or at least cheered on, by the good. His goal was to embarrass and befuddle polluters, not destroy them. To his delight, he's never been caught, or even identified.

Now, though, a form of protest that is more dangerous and less imaginative claims to speak for the environmental movement. The Earth Liberation Front, best known for causing $12 million in fire damage at a Vail, Colo., mountaintop ski resort in 1998, has ratcheted up its major acts of vandalism in recent weeks. Unfortunately, ELF's spate of ecoterrorism could backfire against the cause it pretends to advance.

ELF, thought to be a network of underground groups across the United States, claims credit for 25 acts of destruction in the last three years. Since late December, ELF has said its members damaged three houses under construction on Long Island in a protest of suburban sprawl; spray-painted on one house was a warning: "If you build it, we will burn it." Days later, ELF - which may be an offshoot of EarthFirst!, a radical group that thrived in the 1980s set fire to an Oregon lumber company that it labeled "a typical earth raper."

Though the thoroughly modern ELF does have a spokesman - he says he's not a member, but merely receives their communiques - it may have no actual leaders. That anarchistic structure made the network hard for authorities to infiltrate. So ELF rages on, with an agenda that stretches from opposing global capitalism to promoting animal rights.

But the group's main target appears to be the spread of new construction into pristine natural areas. That's not an unworthy goal, but ecoterrorists like those at ELF are running a serious risk at a sensitive time.

It's not clear whether George W. Bush appreciates how important environmental issues are to millions of Americans who voted for him. The notion of protecting air, water, forests and open spaces, even at the expense of business interests, has plenty of bipartisan support.

But environmentalists can't afford to lose any momentum if they're to make that case convincingly in Washington. The last thing they need is for millions of Americans to equate life-threatening vandalism with genuine efforts to sway the administration toward pro-environment positions.

The real victims of ELF's ecoterrorism are environmentalists. This isn't the first time they've had to live down senseless antics. "Spiking," the practice of driving railroad spikes into trees about to be harvested for lumber, was another fiasco. In the '80s, spiking became common in the Pacific Northwest. But its perpetrators lost credibility as the public realized that when a chain saw digs into a spike, it's a blue-collar logger - and not his company's CEO - who gets injured.

In his own heyday, not everyone saw The Fox as an innocent mischief-maker. But he had panache, restraint and a touch of humor - three attributes that can endear the public to almost any cause. Still, a notion that subtle is probably beyond the grasp of ELF, which has threatened to further escalate its actions this year.

It's probably just a matter of time until the members of ELF have the privilege of meeting lots of FBI agents. Until then, it's up to the rest of us to make sure that a small nest of zealots doesn't succeed in hijacking a cause that millions of Americans hold dear.

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