They call themselves "elves," but their activities are more like those of the Unabomber than of Santa's little helpers. And if some lawmakers around the country have their way, these radical environmental outlaws will be treated like the Mafia - as racketeers.
Such calls for a crackdown are in response to the escalating political battle over nature - one in which the radical fringe of the environmental movement is eschewing mere civil disobedience (such as chaining themselves to logging equipment or, more recently, clogging the streets of Seattle during world-trade talks). Instead, it's resorting to arson and other attacks on property.
Moreover, the target list has expanded beyond businesses deemed to exploit animals and wilderness. Organizations involved in genetic engineering are also at risk of attack. Examples include a New Year's Eve fire at Michigan State University that caused $400,000 in damages to a genetic-research facility funded in part by Monsanto Co. A week earlier - on Christmas Day - an arson fire caused $1 million in damages to a Boise Cascade Corp. office in Monmouth, Ore.
Then, last week in British Columbia, a group calling itself the Ministry of Forest Defense destroyed 1,600 test trees at a provincial seed orchard. "We all share the responsibility of stopping the spread of genetically mutilated crops before they spread further into the wild environment," stated the group's communiqu.
A few days earlier, the underground Earth Liberation Front (ELF) - whose members call themselves "elves" - claimed credit for sabotaging construction equipment and materials being used to reroute a Minnesota state highway that "greatly threatens the last source of fresh water in the twin cities."
ELF took responsibility for the Michigan State fire, as well as a February attack on a genetic-engineering project at the University of Minnesota. There, group members pulled up 800 oat plants, glued building locks, and left their trademark "Free the Seed" graffiti.
A frequent target of such groups are mink ranches and companies that manufacture food for caged animals en route to becoming fashion statements. In federal court in Salt Lake City last week, two brothers were sentenced to five and six years in prison for a 1997 pipe bomb attack on the Fur Breeders Cooperative in Sandy, Utah.
ANIMAL-RIGHTS militancy spread to North America from England, where the Animal Liberation Front (now closely allied with ELF) disrupted fox hunts. Opposition to genetically modified foods - "Frankenfoods," critics dubbed them - is strongest in Europe as well. In America, many activists take their inspiration from author Edward Abbey, who coined the phrase "monkeywrenching" to describe such attacks.
Neither ALF nor ELF has a public leader, but each communicates through a spokesman who claims to obtain information via anonymous e-mails. ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh, who lives in Portland, Ore., recently had his computer and other items seized by the FBI. Mr. Rosebraugh also was called to testify before a grand jury, which he refused to do, citing his constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
"There is overwhelming evidence that we are in the midst of an international green and fuzzy crime wave," says Teresa Platt of Fur Commission USA, a trade organization that represents 600 mink- and fox-farming businesses in 31 states. "Domestic terrorism has victimized small family farms, food producers, research scientists, loggers, miners, and is now threatening the millions of Americans who recreate in the great outdoors."
"Government must ... investigate and prosecute animal-rights terrorists and ecoterrorists," Ms. Platt told a congressional panel investigating the recent escalation in environmental and animal-rights protests.
Officials acknowledge the recent increase in such attacks. FBI Director Louis Freeh told another congressional committee that "the most recognizable single-issue terrorists at the present time are those involved in the violent animal-rights, anti-abortion, and environmental-protection movements."
Finding and prosecuting the attackers is another matter, however.
Typically, they operate in small groups with names like the Strawberry Liberation Front and Seeds of Resistance, blending back into the alternative youth culture and an anarchist movement that eschews hierarchical organization. Ironically, this is similar to the way militant radicals operate at the other end of the political spectrum - the Timothy McVeighs of the militia movement.
ELF claims to operate "under a strict code of nonviolence as it pertains to harming human or animal life," while conducting "economic sabotage designed to effect change where it counts in our capitalistic society - in the wallet."
But other groups say they'll attack people as well as property. An organization calling itself the Justice Department has stated that "any fur farmers or animal abusers who use violence against activists will suffer full retribution."
"The ALF have a clear policy of adherence to nonviolence," this group warns. "We do not."
Last year, 80 medical researchers whose work involved rabbits and other laboratory animals received warning letters with razor blades in them. No one was injured, but the point was made.
Lawmakers in Oregon and Wisconsin have proposed legislation that would make such crimes punishable under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, a law now used to prosecute militant anti-abortion activists. This would provide much stiffer penalties. Legislators in other states and some members of Congress want to move in this direction as well.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society