Land Lovers

Radical environmentalists get together for a day of warnings and celebrations

Ever dreamed of desecrating a Hummer? Or wished you could paralyze the bulldozers leveling a patch of desert?

Such thoughts are as indigenous to Southern Arizona as cactus wrens and saguaros: Novelist Edward Abbey wrote the eco-sabotage bible, The Money Wrench Gang (1975), while living at Aravaipa Canyon and spent his last years in Tucson. The magazine of the radical environmental movement, Earth First! Journal, is published here.

All the more reason to keep those ideas to yourself: The federal government has been using surveillance and informers to crack down on what it has identified as the country's No. 1 domestic threat: environmental sabotage, which it calls eco-terrorism.

"We're very concerned that people know what's going on," says local Earth First! activist Jeff Davis, who's helped organize Resist the Green Scare, a day of workshops, films, storytelling and music this Saturday at the Historic Y. The event is one of many being held around the country this month to raise awareness about the government's actions.

"Our friends throughout the country are being rounded up and hit with excessive charges and sentences, and the media are just accepting the FBI's buzzwords--labeling environmental activists as terrorists to scare the public, and even referring to them as 'The Family,' like they're the Manson gang. Friends are being pulled in and questioned. It can happen here and we want people to know their rights," Davis says.

In December 2005 and January 2006, the FBI indicted 11 environmental and animal-rights activists allegedly associated with the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front--underground groups with no official membership--in a sweep through four Western states called Operation Backfire. Charges include arson, conspiracy, use of destructive devices and destruction of an energy facility, and relate to a number of different acts of sabotage, including a 1998 arson at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. A 12th accused co-conspirator committed suicide while in custody in Flagstaff; several others have turned state's evidence, according to a bulletin issued by the Earth Liberation Prisoners Support Network. Six more related arrests have followed.

The government throwing the book at environmental saboteurs is nothing new. Jeff Luers, a forest defense activist who set three SUVs on fire in Eugene, Ore., in 2000, was originally arrested on one count of criminal mischief. He was eventually convicted on 11 felony counts and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison without possibility of parole. No one was injured in the fires. (A workshop on Luers' case is on Saturday's program.)

Rod Coronado, a Tucsonan of Pascua Yaqui descent who's identified on Wikipedia as "a prominent American eco-anarchist," is awaiting sentencing here after being convicted on federal charges of interfering with a mountain lion hunt in Sabino Canyon in 2004. (He sprung a lion trap. No one was injured.) The state of Arizona recently brought charges against him for the same action. And he was arrested and charged in February with a rare felony, "distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction," for describing, in San Diego in 2003, how he set fire to a Michigan State University animal research facility in 1992. (He served four years for that arson.) Coronado, who has often discussed his actions against the background of Yaqui tradition and history, has been advised not to talk about the charges against him.

Both ELF and ALF condemn acts that harm living things, and according to their online materials, no action undertaken by anyone associated with either group has injured or killed an animal or human being. Their exclusive focus is sabotage of property that causes harm to the environment or animals: The most commonly cited estimated value of property destroyed under their aegis is $100 million.

"Obviously, people don't claim to be members," Davis says. "If you see a group at a demonstration with an ELF sign, they're FBI for sure."

Peg Millett, a former Arizonan who'll be appearing at Resist the Green Scare, will speak to the FBI's long history of surveillance of the radical environmental movement. In the late '80s, Millett helped sabotage a ski lift on sacred land in Northern Arizona, and took part in an abortive Earth First! plot to take down power lines to a Central Arizona Project pumping station in 1989. As it turned out, that particular action was instigated and led by an FBI infiltrator.

"They got out there in the desert in the middle of the night and were immediately surrounded by something like 70 agents with guns," Davis says. Millett got away but turned herself in the next day. She spent three years in prison.

"She's just a wonderful, funny talker. We hope lots of people will turn out to hear her tale.

"Peg's also a singer-songwriter with a beautiful voice," Davis says. "She has this song about the infiltrator called 'He Looked a Lot Like Jesus.' It's hilarious."