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06.26.11

Eco-Terrorism Documentary Incites Debate

"If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," the new documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry, examines the organization named the top “domestic terror” threat by the FBI for their environmentally motivated series of arsons. Marlow Stern speaks with Curry and ex-ELF members about their “eco-terrorism” group.

Violent tornadoes. Debilitating droughts. Mass flooding. In a scenario that’s begun to eerily resemble the opening salvo of the sci-fi disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, even the foremost detractors of global climate change seem to be second-guessing themselves.

Back in 1995, environmental concerns were viewed through a narrower prism. The salvage logging rider signed by then President Bill Clinton granted timber companies unfettered access to national forests that had been protected under environmental laws. One of the loggers’ first targets was 14-acres of trees in the Warner Creek area of the Willamette National Forest in Eugene, Oregon. To protest, an eco-radical group called Earth First! blockaded the logging road leading to the timber site, digging 15-by-10 foot trenches in the road to thwart the bulldozers, and eventually erected a fort made of leftover logs at the entryway.

For 343 days, the activists held off the loggers via nonviolent protest, but the blockade ultimately fell, with Forest Service law enforcement officers arresting seven of the protesters. One of those men was Jake Ferguson—a drugged-out ex-criminal with natty dreadlocks and a pentagram tattooed on his forehead. Frustrated by the aftermath of the Warner Creek standoff, he reached the conclusion that civil disobedience could only get you so far. Ferguson and a few other Warner Creek activists soon radicalized, and formed the cornerstone of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, is the latest documentary from filmmaker Marshall Curry, who received an Oscar nomination for his 2005 documentary Street Fight, chronicling Cory Booker’s 2002 unsuccessful mayoral campaign in Newark, New Jersey. It chronicles the rise and fall of a decentralized network of covert cells known collectively as the ELF, who used “economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment,” and features interviews with former ELF members, their arson victims, lawmakers, policemen involved in the cases, and archival footage of several ELF attacks. In 2005, the FBI called ELF America’s greatest domestic terrorist threat, responsible for over 1,200 acts of crime and nearly $100 million in property damage.

“The story just dropped in my lap,” recalled Curry in an interview with The Daily Beast. “My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and said four federal agents came into her work and arrested this guy, Daniel McGowan, who worked for her.” Authorities said McGowan, a soft-spoken Queens native with a doughy, cherubic visage, was a ranking member of the ELF, responsible for several arsons. “He was the opposite of what I think of when I think of a domestic terrorist,” said Curry. “And I’m always interested when reality cuts against stereotype.”

McGowan, the son of a retired NYPD officer, joined the ELF after he became disillusioned with his job at the shady crisis PR firm Burson-Marsteller, and upon viewing shocking video footage of a 1997 tree sit-in in downtown Eugene, where riot police violently pepper-sprayed the tree dwellers in the face, before cutting their pants, and applying pepper spray to their groin areas.

Around that time, Leslie James Pickering was sent an announcement from ELF taking credit for the sabotage. The ELF had gained some notoriety at that point after claiming responsibility for an October 1996 arson at the U.S. Forest Service Oakridge Ranger Station—masterminded by Ferguson—with damages totaling $5.3 million. Pickering, along with his partner Craig Rosebraugh, fashioned the announcement into press release and sent it out to various news outlets. “We kept getting more and more communiqués and the damage kept getting worse and worse, granting the Earth Liberation Front more and more attention,” Pickering told The Daily Beast.

The whole nation took notice of ELF in 1998, when, protesting the expansion of a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, which would potentially destroy the state’s lynx habitat, the group burned down seven resort structures, resulting in $24.5 million worth of damage. “It was the biggest act of sabotage that had happened in U.S. history,” said Pickering. “It went from local television who were contacting us to Rolling Stone magazine and 60 Minutes.” To deal with all the press attention, Pickering, along with Rosebraugh, established the Earth Liberation Front Press Office in 1999, with Pickering serving as a figurehead of sorts for this leaderless movement.

“[ELF] thought that the public would rally behind [the Vail fire], but the opposite happened, and people rallied behind the arson victims,” said Curry. “Every interview becomes about arson rather than what the ski resort is doing.” The biggest acts of self-sabotage came in May 2001, when the ELF targeted both the office of Toby Bradshaw at the University of Washington and Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Oregon, both of which were believed to be engaging in the genetic engineering of poplar trees. The fire at the University of Washington raged out of control, burning several buildings—none of which were involved in any type of genetic research—and causing $7 million in damage. And the Jefferson Poplar Farms fire, allegedly conducted by McGowan and his cohorts, was also based on the incorrect belief that the company was engaging in genetic farming.

At this point, ELF actions died down, and Pickering—along with McGowan, and several others—moved on to greener pastures. Then came 2004’s Operation Backfire—the Bush administration’s post-9/11 crackdown targeting “eco-terrorists.” With the help of Ferguson, who Federal agents flipped to their side and he agreed to wear a wire, the FBI and ATF indicted 13 former ELF members on a total of 65 charges ranging from arson to use of destructive devices. McGowan and his co-conspirators were branded “terrorists,” even though the ELF attacks were meant to cause economic damage, and no humans were harmed by ELF actions. “There are people who would say ELF are terrorists, and people who shoot abortion doctors are not, and there are people who would say just the opposite,” said Curry. “The word ‘terrorism’ has been stretched too far, but that said, talking to the arson victims, they thought their house might get burned down in the middle of the night. There is a definition of terrorism that can include things like that.”

Since McGowan refused to give information on his fellow ELF members, he received the harshest sentence—seven years at a Communications Management Unit facility in Marion, Illinois. Dubbed “Guantanamo North,” CMU facilities are secretive prisons often housing terrorists that severely restricts any and all contact with the outside world. He’s since been moved to a CMU facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, and is due for release within the next few years. And today, aside from the occasional act of petty vandalism credited to the ELF, the movement has all but dissipated.

“It’s unfortunate that it didn’t build a revolutionary movement in this country,” said Pickering. “It seemed like it was very close at one point, but now that repression has set in so heavy, we think signing petitions and giving tax-deductible donations are all that we can do. But movements rise up really strong, get beat back, and then rise back up again. On the horizon is a stronger, smarter movement that will learn lessons from the mistakes that were made in the past.”