Firebrands of 'ecoterrorism' set sights on urban sprawl

Burning of San Diego mega-condos demonstrates radical environmentalists' tactical shift to housing, commercial sites.

Environmental activism's darker side is turning from wild nature to the urban jungle. Among its targets: posh housing developments, car dealerships hawking sport utility vehicles, and military-recruiting stations.

The latest attack came last weekend when a large condominium project under construction in an upscale San Diego neighborhood burned to the ground. A banner stretched across the charred site read: "If you build it - we will burn it. The E.L.F.s are mad." In e-mails to regional newspapers, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for the conflagration that also damaged nearby homes. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).]

Property damage in the name of environmental protection dates back to the "monkey wrenching" advocated by groups like Earth First. But trashing logging trucks and driving spikes into old-growth trees pales in comparison to recent events - arson and vandalism of luxury homes, and violent assaults on the symbols of urban sprawl. SUVs have been vandalized or firebombed in Santa Cruz, Calif., Eugene, Ore., and Erie, Pa. At the US Navy recruiting headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., cars were spray painted with antiwar messages and a truck was set on fire. The FBI now considers such attacks - dubbed "ecoterrorism" - to be America's most serious form of domestic terror.

Still, it's not clear why activists targeted the San Diego apartments. Despite the size of the complex - at 1,500 units, it's one of southern California's largest apartment-construction projects - the La Jolla Crossroads was hardly controversial, raising nary an eyebrow when plans came before city officials a few years back.

"It wasn't a big item on our radar," says Richard Miller, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. The condos did take up open space and will of course contribute to urban growth and traffic, Mr. Miller says. But on the other hand, the project met environmentalists' goals, providing housing for hundreds of people in a fairly small space and setting aside apartments for poor and middle-income residents.

Until the San Diego fire, the largest such attack was the 1998 burning of a new ski resort in Vail, Colo., which critics had said would eliminate a vast habitat for the threatened Canada lynx.

The fundamental factor behind the ELF - apparently the main motivator of such attacks - is that "the profit motive caused and reinforced by the capitalist society is destroying all life on this planet," according to the ELF website. "The only way, at this point in time, to stop that continued destruction of life is to ... take the profit motive out of killing."

ELF "guidelines" include taking "all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human." But they also include a call to "inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment."

'We will no longer hesitate'

An ELF "communiqué" taking responsibility for last September's firebombing of a US Forest Service research station in Pennsylvania declared: "While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice, and provide the needed protection for our planet that decades of legal battles, pleading, protest, and economic sabotage have failed ... to achieve."

The group's website includes a 37-page how-to manual titled "Setting Fires With Electrical Timers."

The ELF is an ideological cousin to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a group that began in England about 12 years ago as a more radical alternative to Earth First. The ELF claimed its first "action" in the United States in 1997 - releasing wild horses and torching a US Bureau of Land Management corral near Burns, Ore.

Since then, it's claimed credit for what it says are hundreds of attacks and some $50 million in damages. The FBI does not dispute those figures.

An elusive crowd, a shifting definition

Few arrests or prosecutions have followed from the violent actions of environmentalists or animal-rights advocates - and, indeed, most such crimes remain unsolved. One "ecoterrorist" on the FBI's "wanted" list is Michael James Scarpitti, accused of torching concrete mixing trucks and Oregon logging equipment.

The ELF has no central location, leadership, or hierarchy. It's organized into autonomous cells that work independently and anonymously. Its "communiqués" and website are managed by supporters without clear links to ELF crimes.

While mainstream environmentalists generally reject ELF tactics, some activists object to the portrayal of the group's assaults on property as "terrorism": So far, at least, the vandalism, even the violence, has not caused any death or major injury.

But the federal government defines "terrorism" as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives" - a definition that would appear to match the aims and activities of the ELF.

Frustrated by the growing number of attacks and lack of prosecutions, lawmakers in several states are cracking down. A bill recently passed by the Oregon senate adds "ecosabotage" to the list of crimes that could be prosecuted under state racketeering laws, allowing triple damages. The bill would lift the two-year statute of limitations, giving prosecutors five years to pursue such crimes. Ecoterrorism bills have also been proposed in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Missouri.

Randy Dotinga in San Diego contributed to this report.

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