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From the Philadelphia Inquirer -

Eco-radicals escalate threat of violent acts
A group has taken responsibility for a fire that gutted a Pa. Forest Service lab. Forest management is an issue.
By Tom Avril
Inquirer Staff Writer

IRVINE, Pa. - For the employees at the U.S. Forest Service lab here, the scariest moment might not have been when their building went up in flames before dawn.

That occurred a few weeks later, when a radical environmental group took credit for the fire with an anonymous "communique" posted on the Internet.

"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," said the statement, from a group called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

Some experts on extremist groups say those words, posted in September, signal a new, more violent approach by "ecoterrorists."

More commonly known for burning down vacant ski lodges and suburban McMansions and "spiking" trees to prevent logging, some of the activists now seem to be saying they'll hurt people as well.

"I think it is indisputable that many eco-radicals in this country have taken a turn towards violence," said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly journal about extremist groups published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It's the type of activity that draws attention in a country already in a state of heightened alert. In February, a top FBI official told a congressional subcommittee that the Earth Liberation Front and a related group, the Animal Liberation Front, were the nation's most active domestic terrorist groups, though not the most dangerous ones.

Together, the two groups have claimed responsibility for more than 600 arsons and other crimes since 1996, causing more than $43 million in damage, said James F. Jarboe, chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism section.

Neither group has injured anyone. And on its Web site, the Earth Liberation Front vigorously rejects the term ecoterrorism and says its rules prevent the harming of human life. If anyone were to be hurt, the action would, by definition, not be sanctioned by ELF, the group says.

Either way, employees at the Forest Service lab here in northwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest have been jittery lately.

They have moved their work to an undisclosed location nearby while the old lab, which suffered $700,000 in damage to the roof and the interior, is rebuilt and new security measures are developed.

Susan Stout, the lab's head of research, still has trouble talking about the Aug. 11 fire.

Stout was called at 4:50 a.m. by the lab's security service and immediately drove with her husband to the building where she had worked for 21 years.

The fire was orange against the black sky as firefighters rushed to bring the blaze under control.

"I don't have words to describe the sense of terrible loss," Stout said. "No one should ever have to experience watching a place that's that important to them burn down."

If the group's communique is to be believed, it may happen again. In the statement, the activists vowed to burn the building again if it is rebuilt.

The fire is the latest in a string of Earth Liberation Front incidents dating to the mid-1990s.

All have been carried out anonymously, and, according to the group's materials, independently of each other. It's a pattern of activism known as "leaderless resistance" and is said to draw inspiration from The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's 1975 novel about "environmental warriors."

Based on the group's initials, its members sometimes refer to themselves as "elves." There is no formal membership; anyone who sets a fire or commits some other crime within the group's guidelines can claim to be a member.

The group's Web site includes tips on how to set fires with electric timers, and how to respond when federal agents come knocking.

Perhaps ELF's most notorious act came in 1998, with the burning of several buildings and chairlifts at the Vail, Colo., ski resort.

Other attacks have been directed at the trappings of suburban sprawl: cement trucks, houses in new subdivisions, and sport-utility vehicles.

To some, the most recent target, a Forest Service lab, may seem misguided. After all, the researchers study environmental issues such as how trees grow and the ability of forests to store "greenhouse" gases.

But environmental groups have plenty of gripes about the agency, contending that its chief goal is to grow trees so loggers can cut them down.

They criticize the agency for using herbicides and other techniques to promote growth of the commercially desirable black cherry tree, instead of restoring the forest to its naturally diverse state, with large numbers of American beech and striped maple.

The Allegheny Defense Project, an area environmental group, has sued the agency to restrict logging in the forest. But Jim Kleissler, the group's Forest Watch director, said it does not support the arson.

"We've condemned it," Kleissler said. "We're opposed to the destruction of public property, whether it's done through arson or clear-cutting."

Whether she is attacked with lawsuits or fire, researcher Stout contends such criticism is off-target.

Black cherry would be taking over much of the forest anyway, she said, because the state's out-of-control deer population tends to feed on other species but leaves black cherry alone. She also questioned the wisdom of encouraging the growth of beech trees, as they are vulnerable to disease.

The key, she said, is to manage the forest "sustainably," and the agency is charged with doing so for a variety of constituents, including hikers, hunters, wildlife and loggers.

In their communique, the arsonists didn't see things that way:

"These agencies continue to ignore and mislead the public, at the bidding of their corporate masters, leaving us with no alternative to underground direct action... . If they persist in their crimes against life, they will be met with maximum retaliation."

Undeterred, within a day of the fire, some of Stout's team of six scientists were out in the field again.

Not that it made her feel any safer.

"We are having to learn, and our families are having to learn, to deal with the fact that somebody has chosen to identify us as targets for personal violence," she said. "We have had to think differently about how we conduct our lives."