Eco-terrorism in the United States: Tainting the Name of Environmentalism

On July 21, 1997 in Redmond, Oregon, a massive fire broke out at the Cavel West slaughterhouse. That day, five individuals drilled holes in the walls of the slaughterhouse and filled them with flammable liquid, as well as planted other incendiary substances around the buildings. Cavel West was owned and funded by a Belgian company called Velda Group, which operated several meat processing plants throughout the United States and Canada. The internationally-owned plant slaughtered up to 500 horses each week and did very little to regulate the waste it produced. A terrible stench lingered in surrounding areas and blood and tissue contaminated the waterways, negatively affecting the surrounding communities in Redmond. Residents continually protested the facility’s poor waste management but were ignored—prompting a small group to commit arson and completely incinerate the plant.

The perpetrators in question were members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF), two environmental activism groups that are labeled as “eco-terrorists” by the United States government. These groups were created as a byproduct of the national environmental movement that gained momentum in the 1960s. Protests began with nonviolent tactics such as marches, speeches, and letter writing, but eventually people realized that they were too easily ignored by companies and government officials. Protestors started to take a more hands-on approach in the late 60s; they sat in trees to prevent them from being cut down, chained themselves to machinery to stop corporations from converting natural land into agriculture or grazing land, and took an array of other actions to physically prevent the destruction of nature. Despite their efforts, they remained unsuccessful, so a small subset of the protestors decided to affect change through extreme, violent tactics instead. 

The ELF and ALF had existed in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe since 1992, but only began taking extreme action in the United States in 1997. Members of the ELF and ALF typically take an approach of economic sabotage when planning their attacks. They target companies and individuals that exploit animals or the environment, along with entities that do business with those companies or individuals. The groups primarily seek to cause property damage through vandalism, arson, and bombings. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates that the ELF and ALF have carried out over 1,100 criminal acts in the United States and caused more than $110 million in damages. This method of economic sabotage is meant to force companies to change their policies, end agreements with other damaging companies, or shut down operations altogether. The fire that burned down the Cavel West meat packing plant and slaughterhouse in 1997 caused $1.4 million in damages and forced the facility to close down permanently, qualifying the incident as a successful example of economic sabotage. Additionally, the fire at the slaughterhouse brought international attention to the environmental issues caused by the meat packing industry at the time.

Another notable attack came in October of 1998. The radicals targeted a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, setting fire to the Two Elks restaurant and two ski lifts. The attack was provoked by the approval of a new expansion called Blue Sky Basin which posed threats to the Lynx population in the area. In order to complete the new expansion, Vail Resorts Inc. would have to clear over 500 acres of habitat, further endangering the threatened species. The arson was carried out by a group of about 20 radical activists from the Pacific Northwest and caused a total of about $12 million dollars in damages, some of which were irreparable. The ELF and ALF contacted the media shortly after the attack claiming responsibility for the fires and stating that “putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.” The incident gained a lot of national media coverage, but did not stop Vail Resorts Inc. from salvaging the damaged property. Since 1998, Vail Resorts Inc. has rebuilt their facilities and completed the Blue Sky Basin extension project, increasing the size of the ski resort to over 5000 acres. All but one of the perpetrators of the arson were apprehended and prosecuted for their involvement in the crime. The leader of this operation, William Rogers, committed suicide in prison after being arrested. 

Seeing the results of economic sabotage schemes such as the Cavel West and Vail Resorts Inc. fires begs the question of how effective the efforts of the ELF and ALF actually are. Members of the organizations are often jailed and labeled by the federal government as terrorists while the public eye views them as crazy and violent radicals. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” The ELF and ALF have not harmed or killed any citizens in their attacks, but have focused their attention on property destruction and economic damage to uphold their proclaimed value for life and the environment. However, their actions have mostly been both violent and criminal with the intentions of furthering their ideological goals of conservation of the environment, hence they still fall under the definition of domestic terrorists. The violent tactics and label of terrorism cloud the public’s view of the activists’ actions, discrediting the groups’ actions and role in environmental activism. Causing severe physical damage to companies’ assets undoubtedly gains more attention from officials than traditionally peaceful methods of activism, but is not well received by the media or even by other environmental activists. Additionally, isolated incidents like Cavel West and Vail cause short-term damage, but do not address the issue of profitability from environmental destruction. 

The Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts are no longer active in the United States, following a FBI-led criminal investigation in 2005-2006 called “Operation Backfire.” The operation led to the location and interrogation of several members of the groups, of which many chose to testify against their co-conspirators to avoid life sentences. The ELF most recently took responsibility for destroying broadcasting towers in Washington in 2009 while the ALF has been active as recently as 2015 in Oregon, where members of the group cut the locks off pens to release birds from a game-bird breeder. Both groups’ actions are heavily debated in the world of environmental advocacy about whether using violent and criminal tactics have caused more harm than good. The ELF and ALF remain at the top of the FBI’s list of domestic terrorism threats and have permanently tainted the image of environmentalism in the United States.


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