Eco-arson sets off sparks in desert

Phoenix luxury homes are among US construction sites targeted by eco- terrorists.

Smoldering ruins are all that remain of a luxury home near a Phoenix nature preserve. Two hawks soar overhead, as clean-up crews sift through the charred rubble.

So far, nine homes under construction here have been torched by an arsonist. In one incident last April, a sign scrawled across the remains of one read: "If you build it again, we will burn it again."

The cactus desert of Arizona is the latest scene of an eco-arson spree that has swept from Vail, Colo., to Long Island, N.Y., as at least one group of environmentalists trades in its picket signs for fire bombs. Convinced that nature cannot defend itself from ever-encroaching civilization, these extremists have taken up arms against sprawl.

Such acts "are certainly an escalation," says Peter Goudinoff, a University of Arizona professor who studies American political movements. "It demonstrates a complete lack of trust in the nonviolent process."

While there has long been a radical wing of the environmental movement that has been willing to destroy property - from hurling paint on fur coats to spiking trees in the Northwest - these arson attacks have taken extremism to another level. And it is appalling both property owners and mainstream environmentalists.

"We unequivocally reject, abhor, and condemn these acts of violence," says Alan Metrick, communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They draw attention away from the real concerns of a great majority of Americans."

Some environmentalists are concerned the movement itself will be tainted by the extremists. "To me, these actions are more about arson than about the bigger environmental picture," says Sandy Bahr, legislative liaison for Arizona's Sierra Club chapter. "They make it more of a challenge for us because, unfortunately, we all get lumped together in the eyes of the public."

From 1980 to 1999, at least 100 major acts of environmental arson and sabotage - totaling $42.8 million in damage - were committed in Western states, according to a study by the Oregonian newspaper.

Perhaps the largest of these was the 1998 arson attack on a ski resort in Vail, Colo., which caused $12 million in damage. There, terrorists said they were protesting a planned expansion that would threaten the lynx.

In December, the ecoterrorism moved east. Luxury homes being constructed on one of the last peach farms on Long Island went up in flames, torched to protest the suburban sprawl with which the island is synonymous.

A shadowy group called the Earth Liberation Front has admitted setting the Vail and Long Island fires. "The ELF is focused upon simply exposing issues to the public, and causing economic damage to corporations and entities that profit from destruction of the natural environment," says Lesliejames Pickering, an ELF spokesman in Portland, Ore. "And they want to send a message to these corporations that as long as they continue, there are going to be people in the ELF and other groups taking actions to stop them."

It's still unclear whether the Phoenix arsonist is acting alone. But notes left behind at several of the nine local blazes since 1998 - with property damage nearing $5 million - suggest the attacks are protesting rampant growth into the fragile desert.

The overall effect of these attacks in halting sprawl seems negligible, to say the least. There have been no reports of cancelled strip malls, for example. Luxury homes continue to push further into the desert, and the Vail expansion went ahead as planned.

Professor Goudinoff says this is in keeping with past violent movements in the United States.

"If you look at the history of the labor movement, violence really hasn't helped them historically. With the anti-abortion movement, clinic bombings and things like that haven't helped them.

"Violence demonstrates a commitment," he says, "and shows how seriously you take this stuff. But ... in America, it doesn't resonate, because we have such a nonviolent tradition."

More effective has been the groups' ability to elude capture. Investigators in Phoenix say they have no suspects, and nationally, no known member of the ELF has been prosecuted.

The FBI is pursuing the eco-saboteurs under federal domestic terrorism statutes, and has combined efforts with state and local police agencies. "If it were just one house or two houses that were burned, I don't know that it would call for a joint terrorism task force," says Ed Hall, a spokesman for the FBI's Phoenix Division. "But ... when you've got about $5 million in property damage, it certainly warrants our interest."

The extreme environmentalism recalls investigations of "monkey-wrenching," the sabotage of construction sites popularized by the late writer Edward Abbey in his 1975 novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang." The story follows the exploits of eco-saboteurs as they rampage across the Southwest.

Abbey's fictional techniques were adopted by Earth First!, a radical environmental group founded in 1980. Earth First! was seriously weakened in the late 1980s, when an FBI probe led to the arrest of several members plotting to sabotage power lines at a nuclear reactor near Phoenix. The group now says it eschews such acts of violence.

Today, former Earth First! activist Nancy Zierenberg falls short of condoning the actions of ELF and other groups. "But I also see all the destructive stuff happening to the environment," she says. "In a lot of cases, these are people who have tried to work within the system, to fix something that they really feel is wrong, and have been thwarted by the system. It's an act of desperation and incredible frustration."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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