May 4, 2004 -- -- The firebombing of houses being built north of Seattle might signal the start of a long, hot summer of eco-terror, but one former activist — who used the ELF acronym decades before the Earth Liberation Front — says he wishes the new generation would learn the lesson that he learned.
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local authorities are investigating fires that destroyed two nearly constructed homes in Snohomish, Wash., and incendiary devices and threatening notes found at two other housing developments near Clearview and Monroe.
No one has claimed responsibility for the firebombing, which did an estimated $1 million worth of damage, or the notes and devices found at the other sites, but investigators say they suspect radical environmentalists like the Earth Liberation Front.
The ELF press office said in an e-mail to media that the actions were most likely carried out by individual members, but the group was not claiming responsibility.
Builder Bill Cadiz, who found the gasoline bombs and threatening notes at the development near Monroe, told ABCNEWS affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle that investigators asked him not to describe how the firebombs were assembled, but said they were very complicated, unlike anything he had ever seen before.
It appeared that the devices used to burn the homes in Snohomish were assembled on the scene, sources told KOMO, and one builder said an investigator told him the fuses were long enough so that "whoever did it would have time to sit down and have a beer before leaving."
Law enforcement officials have said they expect no letup in the activity of the ELF and other groups they call eco-terrorists, despite several recent arrests and convictions, including the capture of FBI most-wanted list fugitive Tre Arrow, who was nabbed last month when he allegedly tried to shoplift a pair of bolt cutters in Victoria, British Columbia.
Among the suspects arrested was a Southern California college student accused of igniting blazes that destroyed dozens of SUVs at several Los Angeles auto dealerships and at private homes.
To one man who was active as a proto-eco-terrorist in California in the 1970s, when he formed a group he called the Earth Life Force, such arrests are a case in point for why the current crop of radical environmentalists is missing the mark.
"What does burning houses or labs have to do with the environmental movement to begin with?" he asked. "Anything that has to do with violent behavior doesn't make sense to me because it's counterproductive. I certainly accomplished a lot more doing good for the environment within the system than I did with violent behavior."
The former activist, who asked that he be identified only as Old ELF, created the Environmental Life Force in the 1970s to fight the use of environmentally harmful pesticides. He was arrested in 1977 and convicted of federal charges of attempted destruction by means of an explosive, for placing a firebomb under a crop duster.
He served 90 days of a five-year sentence before he was released when authorities decided he didn't belong in prison for such a long term, he said.
"I was very lucky," he said. "That's not going to happen anymore."
That's because of the change in attitude toward "direct action," as radical environmentalists refer to their activities, which the FBI calls eco-terrorism.
Old ELF said the devices he used were never meant to explode, but were just an attempt to scare people and to bring attention to the need to rethink the use of pesticides. He said he had grown frustrated by the lack of change more than a decade after Rachel Carson had exposed the dangers of pesticides with her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.
Similar motivation drives the current generation of radical activists, who say less destructive forms of activism and civil disobedience have failed to effect significant change regarding the environment.
Rod Coronado — an animal rights activist who first became known for his anti-whaling actions in the 1980s and served four years in prison for setting a fire that severely damaged Michigan State University's mink research facilities in 1992 — says, the tactics of groups like ELF and the Animal Liberation Front have two goals — drawing attention to environmental issues and making it too costly for companies and individuals to harm the environment.
"I think the people who engage in property destruction on behalf of environmental causes do so to inflict economic damages," he said. "When it comes to burning down houses, that has helped to draw attention to the issue of urban sprawl. We could hold all the news conferences we want, but it won't get the coverage that something like the fires in San Diego gets."
He was referring to a fire at a San Diego apartment complex construction site last summer that did an estimated $50 million in damage.
Actions like that may grab headlines, but they are not likely to expand the support for environmental causes, and they don't do anything to offer viable alternatives to environmentally harmful practices, Old ELF said.
"It's an embarrassment and it's totally counterproductive. Who in this day and age is going to support any kind of violent behavior?" he said. "There are people who are willing to trash the earth for profit, but the only way to combat that is through legal means, through showing people how to do things cheaper.
"You need to get busy in the colleges doing the research, the science, that's the better way," he said. "Not blowing up research laboratories. That's crazy."