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Fighting suburban sprawl with fire Add to ...

Somebody is burning down the suburbs of America.

In the dark of night, they have struck more than a dozen times this year, using crude firebombs to set ablaze the symbols of suburban success: the giant homes on the outskirts, the sport-utility vehicle dealerships, the national chain stores in shopping malls.

Spray-painted on the charred ruins, more often than not, is the trademark slogan of the new urban-sprawl terrorist: "U Build It, We Burn It."

The arson attacks have erupted across the United States. Tens of millions of dollars in damage has been inflicted, but without harming a single person, in Phoenix, Long Island, N.Y., and in suburban regions of Kentucky, Illinois, California and Oregon.

The source is no mystery. The next day, reporters usually receive a faxed press release from the Portland, Ore., press office of the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group formerly known for its battles with forestry companies in the U.S. northwest. The ELF's far-flung members, who call themselves "elves," have turned their attention to a cause more relevant and personal to mainstream Americans: urban sprawl.

"We can no longer allow the rich to parade around in their armoured existence, leaving a wasteland behind in their tire tracks," the ELF proclaimed three weeks ago, after a fire destroyed 36 SUVs at a Chevrolet dealership in Eugene, Ore. (It said the statement came in an anonymous communiqué and that ELF did not set the fire although it approved of the goal.) In Long Island and in Phoenix, the ELF and similar groups have claimed responsibility for the torching of dozens of half-built monster homes on the edge of wild land.

On April 4, milk jugs filled with gasoline were found on the roof of a Nike outlet at a shopping mall in suburban Albertville, Minn. The ELF press release cited last weekend's gathering of leaders of the Western Hemisphere in Quebec City: "This is also a call for direct action against globalization, in solidarity with all of the anti-FTAA actions scheduled in Canada." There were no indications, though, that ELF members were involved in the demonstrations at last weekend's summit in Quebec.

As a result of its new, urban direction, the ELF was recently declared a domestic terrorist organization by the U.S. Attorney-General. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has named it one of the most dangerous groups in the country.

The FBI and other federal agencies raided the ELF's Portland press office on April 5, seizing computers and files. More than 30 regional FBI offices are now involved in a national investigation of the ELF.

The elves are far from secretive. In a lengthy interview at a Portland bookstore, an ELF spokesman explained the foray into urban destruction, and the group's mission to force humankind back into touch with nature.

"The goal is to cause economic damage to those who profit from the destruction of the natural environment," said Leslie James Pickering, a calm, articulate 23-year-old who spends his days working at a vegan bakery and taking courses at a community college.

"Within the last year or so, the ELF has definitely broadened its views out from just the logging issues. The problems that are causing the environmental issues we're dealing with basically stem from the same misstructuring of our society that's causing the miserable lives that we live in the cities."

Federal prosecutors have launched a grand jury investigation into Mr. Pickering and one of his roommates, Craig Rosebraugh. Prosecutors have issued seven subpoenas for Mr. Rosebraugh and offered him immunity from prosecution if he agrees to testify against ELF members.

Mr. Pickering, a Buffalo native, lives in a rundown house in Portland's poor north end with three colleagues, all of whom act as spokespeople for the ELF.

Although they have written press releases claiming responsibility for dozens of destructive actions since 1997, they have avoided arrest through a novel strategy: They deny being members of the ELF, and say they have never met any members. They are simply people who support the group's cause and pass along its messages.

"The way the Earth Liberation Front is structured is that it's basically a philosophy and an ideology. Basically, if you agree with the philosophy and follow the guidelines, then you can essentially be your own cell of the ELF," Mr. Pickering said.

It is a group that seems to have no official leaders or members.

Mr. Pickering and his housemates run the group's Web site, which explains how to build firebombs. It is they who decide whether a "direct action" can be considered an ELF act. Their standard is that it must harm no "human or non-human animals," it must take aim at a product of mass society and must teach an ideological lesson.

In the view of FBI officials, this makes Mr. Pickering a leader - but they have found no evidence he has committed any crime. And so far, the elves have stymied the FBI.

"Are they organized in a fashion in which they are more difficult than some other organizations to investigate? Yes, definitely," said Phil Donegan, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Portland office. "They are organized into cells, which makes them more difficult to infiltrate."

A handful of arsonists have been arrested, mainly on Long Island, but Mr. Donegan said none has revealed names of other ELF members - possibly because they don't know any. The Long Island arsonists included minors and one 19-year-old who appeared to have been inspired by the group's Web site without having met any of its members.

Similarly, a rash of arson in housing developments on the outskirts of Phoenix this year was set by a local group calling itself the Coalition to Save the Preserves. Members borrowed the ELF's techniques and spray-painted slogans.

In an anonymous interview with a Phoenix weekly, the leader of that local group said he had never met the ELF, but considers its members "kindred spirits." (Mr. Pickering agreed with that assessment, and said the Phoenix arsons could be considered ELF actions.)

Federal investigators tried to subpoena those interview tapes, but a judge ruled against them last month. On Friday, Phoenix police arrested 49-year-old marketing consultant Mark Sands in connection with the arson.

If it's perplexing to police, the ELF is downright infuriating to most mainstream environmentalists and urban-sprawl opponents, who feel the eco-terrorists are tarnishing their reputations and reversing years of progress.

"They're not environmentalists. They are terrorists," said Richard Amper, director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which has succeeded in preserving more than 40,000 hectares of wild space on the island. "So there's no news that they're bringing to us. They're clearly not going to solve the problem of overdevelopment by burning down a few houses."

The ELF was formed in England in the early 1990s, when some members of the radical environmental group Earth First! became critical of colleagues' lack of appetite for destructive actions. It borrowed strategies, and some members, from the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal-rights group. Mr. Pickering says he is a former ALF member.

The North American branch of the ELF began operating in 1997 and became well known for such dangerous tactics as tree-spiking, in which metal spikes are put in trees to hamper logging efforts. Only during the past year has it shifted its focus away from forestry issues to more urban ecological causes.

If their methods are rejected by most ecologists, Mr. Pickering and his ELF colleagues are equally scornful of mainstream environmentalists - as they are of liberals, conservatives, socialists, Communists, capitalists, and any form of government. Simply put, ELF supporters believe humans made a fundamental mistake 10,000 years ago in switching from hunting and gathering to agricultural cultivation.

"As far as what the direct-action movement is looking for, it's even less government - maybe no government," Mr. Pickering said. "The whole anthropocentrism of our species is at the core of this problem - the whole concept of us thinking that we are something other than a part of nature.

"We learned to make tools and survive, and we did that for three million years, before we began down the agricultural path to where we are today. And I think that's where we made a major mistake."

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders


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