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Backstory: Eco-vigilantes: All in 'The Family?'

The indictment of 11 people for 'eco-terrorism' opens a window on environmental extremism.

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Many of those charged appear to have led unremarkable lives in recent years. Suzanne Savoie works in a home for the developmentally disabled here in Ashland, Ore. Jonathon Paul, who lives with his wife in the mountains nearby, trains people who fight wildfires. Kevin Tubbs has been an assistant manager at a department store. Chelsea Gerlach is a disc jockey in Portland whose father works in the timber industry.

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Yet modest, unassuming lives may have masked ideals and activism that went beyond the mainstream. Thirteen years ago, Mr. Paul spent six months in jail for refusing to testify about convicted ALF arsonist Rod Coronado. Mr. Tubbs once worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). As a sophomore at South Eugene High School, Ms. Gerlach wrote in the school yearbook: "Our generation was born to save the Earth - if we wait until we're out of school it might be too late."

Among activists, the recent arrests have brought a sense of fear and loathing - fear that there may be more to come from the police agencies that seem to have cracked the super-secrecy of ALF and ELF, and loathing for the informants who apparently enabled the breakthrough.

Activists writing online blogs have issued veiled threats against two "snitches," one of whom has been charged in the destruction of an electrical transmission tower in 1999. The sister of one of the informants, describing herself as "brokenhearted," speculated that law-enforcement officers may have provided drugs to her heroin-addicted brother.

"Just assume every conversation you have is bugged, assume everyone is an informer if you must, and don't talk about ANYTHING to ANYONE," another person wrote on an Internet site.

That warning seems to be well-founded. Evidence supporting the indictments reportedly includes 35 compact discs of recorded conversations and 40,000 pages of transcripts, police reports, and photos. Earlier this month, three more people were arrested for conspiring to destroy a US Forest Service genetics institute near Placerville, Calif.

In his affidavit to US Magistrate Gregory Hollows, FBI Special Agent Nasson Walker revealed that the investigation involved "a confidential source who is deeply embedded with the subjects' cell." The paid informant secretly recorded conversations, sent text messages from her cell phone about ELF activities, and occasionally had clandestine meetings with FBI agents.

The recent arrests mark a breakthrough for the FBI in its fight against what it calls "ecoterrorism." But the story is far from over. Some 1,200 such incidents have been recorded in recent years from Oregon to New York. ALF/ELF and their defenders point out that no fatalities have resulted. But property damage has totaled more than $200 million.

Both sides in the struggle understand its seriousness. "Persons who conduct this type of activity are going to spend a long time in jail and they should understand that, regardless of the motive," FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

Mr. Tubbs, now awaiting trial, no doubt has that possibility on his mind. Supporters have set up a "book wish list" for Tubbs. Among the volumes he'd like to read: "Prison Etiquette: The Convict's Compendium of Useful Information."