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The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground

Rolling Stone's 2006 feature on what the government calls the 'the number-one domestic terrorism threat'

June 21, 2011 3:45 PM ET
 The remains of a new home construction site that was set on fire presumably by members of the Earth Liberation Front in San Diego, California.
The remains of a new home construction site that was set on fire presumably by members of the Earth Liberation Front in San Diego, California.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty images

It was a moonless night on the mountain at Vail, and in his black clothes Bill Rodgers imagined he was nearly invisible. Five feet six and barely 120 pounds, Rodgers was darting in and out of buildings at the Colorado ski resort, 11,000 feet up. He crept into the back bowl's ski-lift shacks, then made his way across the slopes to a massive shelter for skiers and a snack bar piled high with bulging trash bags. Everywhere he went, Rodgers set a crude timing device. Each timer was connected to a small filament attached to a matchbook. The flame from the matches would ignite a road flare or a gas-soaked sponge, which in turn would set off a five-gallon plastic bucket filled with a mix of diesel and gas — a concoction Rodgers liked to call "vegan jello." When the timers went off, the entire mountain would go up in smoke.

At thirty-three, Rodgers was the oldest member of the Earth Liberation Front at Vail on that October night in 1998. With his red hair, pale complexion and delicate features, he looked more like a computer nerd than a revolutionary intent on hastening the collapse of the "ecocidal empire," as he and his fellow members of the ELF like to call America. Few knew his real name — he went by Avalon, which came from The Mists of Avalon, a novel about matriarchal pagans fighting the oppressive forces of phallocentric Christianity. Avalon was hoping the name would help him connect with the soft and feminine side of his personality, at least enough to get him a girlfriend; he was the only one in his ELF cell who couldn't get a date. Known as "the Family," the cell was a loose and shifting group of twenty or so activists, all living in the Pacific Northwest and most in their early twenties: a diverse collection of hippie true believers, bearded ascetics, self-styled anarchists and one self-confessed criminal — Jacob Ferguson, a poor kid with a badass attitude and tattoos creeping across his sinewy chest, punctuated by an ominous pentagram on his skull to mark himself as the beast, a cast-out, a nonmember of polite society. To the middle-class brothers like Avalon who were posing as outlaws, he seemed like a blue-collar hero. To some revolutionary sisters, Ferguson, handsome and tall, was the trophy fuck.

This story appears in the August 10, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now in the digital archive.

But tonight was Avalon's mission, his master stroke in the war to protect all that was powerless in the world. And there was no more appropriate symbol of power than the biggest building at Vail that he rigged with a timer: the Two Elk Lodge, a 33,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar restaurant for the Kahlua-and-cream-sipping rich, built from old-growth fir logs, its walls decorated with a million dollars' worth of buffalo robes and elk-horn racks, snatched from their rightful American-Indian owners. Over the objections of local environmentalists, Vail was about to add almost 1,000 acres of new skiing terrain and twelve miles of roads in the last known habitat of the mountain lynx, a reclusive animal that hadn't been sighted in the Rockies for twenty years. Avalon was going to save the lynx, if it still existed, by making a statement that no one could ignore.

Shortly after 3 A.M., as a few snowflakes fell, Avalon and the three or four other members of his cell who were on the mountain watched as hundreds of gallons of vegan jello burst into flames. It was beautiful: The blaze spread across a mile and a half, lighting up the night sky and creating so much smoke that the first person to see it said it looked like a volcano had erupted. The mountain was on fire.

The vail fire was the most destructive act known to be committed by environmental activists in U.S. history, leaving the Two Elk Lodge and seven other buildings in cinders and causing at least $12 million in damages. From 1996 to 2001, Avalon's cell is accused of setting at least fifteen arsons across the West in the name of the ELF and the Animal Liberation Front. The "elves," as they call themselves, decimated meatpacking plants, forest ranger stations, animal research facilities, university bioengineering labs, three logging company headquarters and two wild-horse corrals — anything they could think of to defend the natural environment. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee estimates that the ELF and ALF have caused a total of $110 million in property damage in the United States. Of this sum, the Family is responsible for $45 million.

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It's long been assumed that those who counted themselves members of the ELF — less a group than an ideology, with no central office or leader, and its only mission the destruction of property with no harm to human life — were angry suburban boys in their late teens or early twenties who worked in small cells, performing one or two misdeeds and then disbanding. In fact, nearly every member of the Family was an adult committed to environmental activism, whether traveling below the radar, like Avalon, or as "top-landers," like Jonathan Paul, a longtime anti-whaling advocate and the brother of a Baywatch star, who famously posed as a fur farmer in the early Nineties to secretly videotape mink-ranching techniques. (Paul, accused in only one of the Family's arsons, has asserted his innocence.)

"Most of these people had two lives," says Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First! and the Ruckus Society, two of the country's leading environmental and civil-disobedience groups. "In their day lives, they were important activists. In their night lives, they were secret. I'm surprised at what I didn't know. I never knew I was hanging out with members of the ELF."

Although the elves always focused on destroying property and avoiding the loss of human life, the Bush administration now treats the ELF as the homegrown equivalent of Al Qaeda. Last year, FBI deputy assistant director John Lewis called the group — along with the ALF and an aggressive animal-liberation outfit called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty — the nation's "number-one domestic terrorism threat." In the past three years, the administration has doubled the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, multi-agency units that add state and local police and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to each FBI field office, and many seem intent on busting arsonists like Avalon rather than catching killers like Osama bin Laden. In 2003, when activists including CalTech graduate students fire-bombed several SUV dealerships in Los Angeles, FBI director Robert Mueller responded by assigning the entire terrorism task force in L.A. to the case and personally briefed President Bush about it. In a post-9/11 world where every FBI agent wants to catch a terrorist, an "eco-terrorist" is better than nothing.

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"Nabbing a bank robber or a big con guy is seen as so old-timey and passé by the top brass at the Justice Department," says Mark Reichel, a criminal-defense attorney who has defended several "eco-terrorists." "If you can bust an ELFer or an ALFer, you're big time — you move ahead in the organization."

In January, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held a press conference to announce the success of Operation Backfire, a federal bust that resulted in the indictment of eleven members of the Family. It is the single biggest roundup of environmental activists in U.S. history. It is also part of a larger federal crackdown that radical environmentalists call a "green scare." In the past year alone, the government has indicted longtime animal-liberation hero Rodney Coronado for making a speech in San Diego in which he answered an audience question about how to set a jug of gasoline on fire; convicted six members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty for posting the home addresses of executives of an animal-testing company on the group's Web site; and arrested three young activists in California who had purchased ingredients at Kmart to make a plastic explosive — not realizing that their pal "Anna," a twenty-year-old anti-war protester with pink hair, long legs and an overtly stated hankering to blow shit up — was an FBI plant paid $75,000 for her troubles. One of the guys, with whom Anna sometimes shared a bed, now faces seventeen years behind bars.

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Branding activists as terrorists not only makes for good headlines, it also results in longer prison sentences. In 2001, forest advocate Jeffrey "Free" Luers, perhaps today's most passionately embraced eco-martyr, was sentenced to nearly twenty-three years for setting fire to three Chevy SUVs. The Family faces far more prison time. Under a 2003 order by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, any arson set with a timer must be prosecuted under a post-Oklahoma City statute that defense lawyers call "the hammer." Under standard arson charges, the maximum sentence is five years for each building or car that is set ablaze. Under the hammer, the mandatory sentence for a single act of arson is a minimum of thirty years in prison. For two, the minimum is life — with no possibility of parole. The government wants to sentence some members of the Family to life plus 1,015 years.

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