Hunting Tre Arrow: The Flight of America's Most Wanted Eco-Terrorist

Page 5 of 5

Part VII: Out There

If Tre Arrow has, as the Government suspects, joined this revolutionary force, his former associates at the Cascadia Forest Alliance will find themselves in the painfully awkward position of simultaneously applauding and deploring the young man who became their poster boy. What his fellow forest activists actually knew about the Schoppert fire, they weren't willing to discuss; each of the Cascadians called before the federal grand jury that returned the indictment against Tre refused to answer questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment, as has been the group's policy for several years. And when Tre was identified as a suspect in the Pennsylvania laboratory fire, his friends in Portland stopped talking about him to anyone in the media.

Then, on October 18th, the criminal charges against Tre doubled when he and Jacob Sherman were indicted on four counts involving the April 15th, 2001, firebombing of three cement trucks at Portland's Ross Island Sand & Gravel. Unlike the later Schoppert arson attack, a claim of responsibility for this firebombing was made – in a communiqué issued by the Earth Liberation Front through its press office in Portland; it accused the sand-and-gravel company of "stealing soil" and "mishandling toxic wastes" at its location on the Willamette River. Federal agents said that the indictment had been based in part on similarities between the incendiary devices used in both the Schoppert and Ross Island firebombings.

When U.S. Attorney Mike Mosman decried ELF for "seeking to influence public policy through violence," activists retorted that ELF is not violent and that "economic sabotage" would be a fairer description of the group's activities than the government imposed term eco-terrorism.

ELF and its allies have made the avoidance of injury to others a primary tenet of their actions, and no one has been killed or injured as a result of an ELF action, despite the fact that the U.S. government describes eco-terrorism as America's "most dangerous domestic threat." Still, almost every activist over the age of thirty recognizes the dangers of direct action. "'Armed struggle' will achieve nothing but disaster," says Rodney Coronado, the Yacqui Indian who became a mythical figure within the underground environmental movement in the late 1980s.

Coronado played a part in sinking two whaling ships in Iceland and disrupting fox hunts in England. After leading a series of arson attacks on animal-research laboratories, Coronado was sought by the FBI beginning in 1990 and was able to elude authorities for three years. As a result, few people on the planet are in a better position to understand Tre Arrow's present circumstances. "My experiences on the run put me through a real spiritual transformation," says Coronado. "It's a harsh existence. You have to keep moving and keep your head down. You feel alone even when you have company." In the next breath, he adds that he isn't sure whether he would urge Tre to turn himself in. "On the one hand, he's at risk," Coronado says. "On the other hand, this may all be part of preparing him for something greater."

The feds brought Coronado to ground in 1994 and sent him away for three years. When he got out of prison in 1997, he emerged as a spokesman for those who believe their largely political movement should transform itself into something like an anti-materialist eco-religion that will be in place when global warming and the depletion of resources finally bring the chickens home to roost. "We have to proceed with caution," he says. "The problem is, we have a whole generation of activists maturing without any hope that working through the system will produce results. I meet all these eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds who are totally disenchanted with the American way of life and immediately jump into direct action. I tell them, when you talk about an 'armed revolutionary force,' you start attracting people who are comfortable with force and violence. You lose the moral high ground – at least some of it."

Coronado has followed the Tre Arrow story closely and has been disturbed most by media reports saying that Tre faces a sentence of up to eighty years in prison. During his own first year on the run, Coronado says, news articles that repeatedly mentioned a maximum sentence of fifty or sixty years became "the main incentive I had for hiding out. I actually was carrying a gun, because I believed there was no way I was going to prison for that long without a fight. If I'd known I would face only four or five years in prison, I might have come in and answered the charges. I hope Tre has people around him who are helping him maintain perspective. He's not really facing eighty years."

Tre may be facing more than four or five, however. The entire environmental movement was shaken last year when a twenty-two-year-old activist named Jeff Luers – better known as "Free" to the Cascadia Forest Alliance members who recruited him for their Warner Creek campaign – was sentenced to almost twenty-three years for setting fire to several pickup trucks at an auto dealership in Eugene. The judge who issued the sentence relied on the dubious argument that Luers had endangered the lives of the firefighters who extinguished the blaze, but to most of Free's fellow activists, it was a warning that in the age of the war on terrorism, they may face much more serious consequences than in the past.

Whether he accepts it or not, Tre Arrow has become a pivotal figure for an activist community that has largely agreed on goals but continues to debate methods. The argument is no longer just about crossing the line from civil disobedience into criminal mischief but about transforming a campaign of protest and sabotage into an armed rebellion. The communiqué issued by ELF after the August fire in Pennsylvania "is definitely upping the ante," Coronado Says. "The feds will probably be a lot tougher on anyone connected to that group from now on." At the same time, he says, "the new post-9/11 atmosphere is forcing us to recognize that we have become, in our enemies' eyes, the resistance movement that we've always spoken of being. It's definitely going to separate the wheat from the chaff. We'll lose some people, but those we keep will be the truly committed."

And Tre Arrow almost certainly will be their paragon, which is exactly what his family has feared all along. "From the very beginning, from back in the time of the ledge sit, Mike's mom and I worried that he would be turned into some kind of target for the government or some kind of martyr to the environmental movement," Jim Scarpitti says. "The government-target part has already happened. I just hope I get to talk to my son again before the martyr part does too."

This story is from the December 12, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.

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