If a Tree Falls

PBS Premiere: Sept. 13, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in environmental issues, in part simply because of growing awareness, and in part because of the establishment in the 1970s of Earth Day, which united various environmentally related issues under one larger umbrella.

As environmental awareness increased, new environmental groups formed all over the United States and in Europe.

Before too long, members of the movement became frustrated with the failures of traditional protest and legislative action and turned to more radical methods to have their voices heard. Earth First! (the exclamation point is part of the group's proper name) grew out of the desire on the part of many individuals to take environmental action into their own hands. These people saw other environmental groups' tactics as not effective or radical enough. Earth First! relied on sabotage and property damage (sometimes called "ecotage") and participated in acts ranging from monkey-wrenching logging equipment to defacing billboards and tree-spiking, an act that involves driving metal spikes into the trunks of trees designated for removal. By the 1990s, the group was under increasing pressure from the FBI, and state and federal laws had been passed in an effort to stop the acts. Around this time the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) began surfacing in the United Kingdom and Jake Ferguson and friends committed the first ELF arsons in the United States at two Oregon ranger stations.

ELF is more of a grassroots movement or philosophy than a centralized group, and its origins are not easily traced. Like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the ELF employs a "leaderless resistance" structure. Designed to reduce risk of infiltration by law enforcement, leaderless resistance eschews centralized authority and chain of command. The ELF has found that "this cell structure has been extremely effective in ensuring the continuation of the organization with minimal arrests."

In an effort to reduce a sense of hierarchy, cells are linked only by shared ideology. The only way to "join" a group with a leaderless resistance structure is to form a cell and, in the case of the ALF and the ELF, launch a direct action against a corporation or organization that acts in a way that is in conflict with the group's core values. The American branch of the ELF was itself formed in this way, when a group committed arson against a U.S. Forest Service truck in Oregon's Willamette National Forest in 1996. Once a cell's action has been completed, the cell may dissolve completely.

While many ELF supporters consider such actions to be in the revolutionary tradition of the Boston Tea Party (symbolic property destruction designed to draw public attention to important issues), they also recognize the danger and unanticipated consequences of arson. As a member of the ELF, Daniel McGowan took part in two multimillion dollar fires in Oregon -- one against Superior Lumber, a timber company engaged in old-growth logging, and the other aimed at the Jefferson Poplar tree farm, which he believed (incorrectly) was involved in genetic engineering projects. After that second fire, McGowan began to question the use of arson as a tactic.

Other notable actions mentioned in If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front include arsons targeting the Oakridge Ranger Station, the Cavel West plant, a Bureau of Land Management office, a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colorado, a biology lab at the University of Minnesota, the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington and the Joe Romania truck center.

Photo caption: Protestors rally against the Cavel West Plant
Credit: Photo still from If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

» Best, Steven and Anthony J. Nocella II. Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.
» Earth Liberation Front Website
» Leader, Stefan H., and Peter Probst. "The Earth Liberation Front and Environmental Terrorism." Terrorism and Political Violence 15 no. 4 (Winter 2003).
» Lloyd, Jeremy. "Redneck for Wilderness: Earth First! Cofounder Dave Foreman on Being a True Conservative." The Sun, December 2005.
» Parson, S. M. "Eco-Anarchism Rising: The Earth Liberation Front and the Formation of Revolutionary Ecology." Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Western Political Science Association, Las Vegas, Nevada, March 8, 2007.
» Schiffman, Howard S., ed. Green Issues and Debates: An A-to-Z Guide. London: Sage, 2011.