Torch Song

Activists ignite fiery protests.

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

A continent away, in the quiet Long Island community of Mount Sinai, a builder contemplates the fire-bombing of his construction site on former farmland.

And among majestic pines in Vail, Colo., citizens are still recovering from the 1998 arson of a large ski resort that caused $12 million in damage.

More than isolated incidents, these attacks--numbering nearly two-dozen since 1996--have a decidedly political point: according to those claiming responsibility, they're meant to highlight the environmental impact of urban sprawl. But to others, from homebuilders and FBI agents to mainstream ecology groups, such "eco-terrorist" actions simply result in pointless destruction.

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

A shadowy band called the Earth Liberation Front has admitted setting the Vail and Long Island fires. It's still unclear whether the Phoenix arsonist is acting alone. But notes left behind at nine local blazes since 1998--with property damage nearing $5 million--suggest the attacks are protesting rampant growth into the fragile desert.

The intense manhunt has even threatened press freedoms: In January, Phoenix New Times ran an interview with a guy claiming to be the arsonist. Later, Maricopa County prosecutors tried to strong-arm the paper into turning over the alleged perp's name. Luckily, Judge Frank Galati of the County Superior Court quickly upheld the time-honored tradition--in Arizona at least--of allowing reporters to keep confidential sources confidential. "This is not a close question," Galati said.

But that doesn't ease the concern of other environmentalists, who feel that the property attacks will prompt Mom and Pop America to paint all environmentalists as destructive firebrands.

"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."

Lesliejames Pickering, an ELF spokesman in Portland, Ore., begs to differ. And he says public opinion is irrelevant to the group's activities. "Their goals aren't oriented around gaining public support for what they do."

Instead, "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," Pickering says. "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 by whatever means necessary."

While the overall affect on sprawl seems negligible, such acts "are certainly an escalation," says Peter Goudinoff, a UA professor who studies American political movements. "It demonstrates a complete lack of trust in the non-violent process."

But Goudinoff says violent movements in the United States rarely advance any causes. "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 I think in America it doesn't resonate, because we have such a non-violent tradition."

Even among industries targeted by the ELF and other eco-sabotage factions, the impact is unclear. Jay Shackford, spokesman for the National Association of Home Builders, says he's reluctant to comment and give the groups more notoriety. He does say the NAH hasn't given much advice to its regional affiliates "because wherever this activity crops up, it's usually so limited. We feel it's mostly a matter for the FBI and local authorities."

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 it's obvious here that you've got a group of people professing the furtherance of social changes. And when you've got about $5 million in property damage, it certainly warrants our interest."

FBI concern with extreme environmentalism recalls investigations of "monkey-wrenching," the sabotage of construction sites and equipment 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 fictionalized techniques were later adopted by Earth First!, a radical environmental group founded in 1980. Earth First! was seriously weakened in the late '80s, when an FBI probe led to the arrest of several members plotting to sabotage power lines at a nuclear reactor near Phoenix.

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. "I think 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."

Current Earth First!ers echo her sentiments. But Christian Rosendahl, a group activist in Chandler, got a little more heat than he bargained for when he sent a letter to the The Arizona Republic praising the arsons. "It makes you wonder who the real criminals are: those who rape and exploit our earth and the working class or those willing to risk their lives and freedom to defend them," Rosendahl's letter said.

Not surprisingly, that brought the student a fistful of media attention, making him cagier than hell when contacted by the Weekly by phone. "We've had TV crews in our living room, and we've lost jobs over this," say Rosendahl's roommate, who asked not to be named. "We've had the FBI watching us, everything. We don't want to deal with media anymore."

Arguments could be heard in the background, before the connection was abruptly cut off.

Other Earth First! activists are more circumspect about activities so often traced back to the heyday of Abbey-enhanced monkey-wrenching. "It's our position to neither condemn nor condone direct action," says Meg "Turtle" Southern, co-editor of the Earth First! Journal, which will be re-headquartered in Tucson later this month. "But while we don't condone it, we sure understand the need behind it."