(Jul 23, 2007)


Radical environmentalist movement declines


By William McCall
From AP


EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - More than a decade after they began setting fires across the West, remnants of the radical Earth Liberation Front stood before a federal judge, one by one, to hear her decide: Had they committed acts of domestic terrorism?

First, Stanislas Meyerhoff.

Quiet, shy, his hair turning gray at 30, the slightly built Meyerhoff was dwarfed by the angular expanse of the courtroom.

''I was ignorant of history and economy and acted from a faulty and narrow vision as an ordinary bigot,'' Meyerhoff said, in May.

''A million times over I apologize ... to all of you hardworking business owners, employees, researchers, firemen, investigators, attorneys and all citizens whose property was destroyed, whose holidays were ruined, whose welfare was thwarted, and whose sleep was troubled.''

And so a violent chapter in the environmental movement ended - with a whimper. Once feared by some and admired by others for their willingness to use any means necessary, these militants are in decline.

''Radical environmentalism failed,'' said James Johnston of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. ''Whether radical environmentalists admit it or not, they failed.''

Although crimes by environmental and animal-rights militants still occur, they have been sporadic. And although authorities cannot declare victory over radical militants, the movement has been significantly weakened.

Johnston and other activists, community members, investigators and experts agreed that environmental protest by arson had pretty much run its course long before ''Operation Backfire,'' a joint task force of federal and state agencies, began making arrests in 2005.

They say the environmental movement remains strong - building on the work of grass roots activists, or supporting mainstream advocates such as former Vice President Al Gore, or going deeper underground to avoid the fate of the 10 activists brought to justice in Eugene.

''The environmental problems on the planet aren't getting any better, they're getting worse,'' said Jim Flynn, former editor of the Earth First! Journal and a veteran of protests in Eugene. ''People will do what it takes to either try and stop environmental degradation, or draw attention to it.''

But by 2001, the movement was already over for most of the ELF cell known as ''The Family.''

Bound by youth, idealism and frustration over the ineffectiveness of more traditional environmental protest methods, they had turned to secret meetings, codes and stealth attacks on private and public property, setting fires in the dead of night to draw attention to their cause.

Among other targets, they ignited logging trucks, a slaughterhouse, SUVs at a car dealership, ranger stations and a government lab, causing $40 million in damage from 1996 to 2001.

The largest chunk of that damage was done in October 1998 to a ski resort in Vail, Colo., by William Rodgers, the man at the heart of the cell.

Short, red-haired and intense, Rodgers ran down a mountainside from bucket to hidden bucket of diesel and gasoline, setting them aflame while a young woman he had recruited, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, waited for him in the truck they had used to transport the fuel.

Rodgers is dead now, committing suicide in an Arizona jail cell just before Christmas in 2005. He had been working at a book store he co-founded when an informant in Eugene set off a series of arrests.

During the heyday of ''The Family,'' Rodgers was an influential and charismatic leader.

''He was a zealot in the classic sense of the word,'' Johnston said.

For some, it went beyond charisma. He had what was called a ''Svengali-like hold'' on Gerlach, who was a 16-year-old high school student in Eugene when she first met Rodgers at an Earth First! camp in Idaho. She developed a crush on the 28-year-old man who had adopted the nickname ''Avalon,'' after the mythical island where King Arthur went after his death.

Gerlach immersed herself in Rodgers' writings about sabotage and incendiary devices, progressed to participation in planning and strategy for ''The Family,'' then moved to roles in arson that ''ran the gamut and included research, reconnaissance, lookout, device-assembler, driver and communique writer'' - all according to court documents filed by federal prosecutors, the source of much of what is known about the ELF cell.

When the group broke up in 2001, Gerlach became romantically involved with another co-defendant, Darren Thurston, who helped her support herself by selling marijuana and ecstasy until her arrest in December 2005.

By the time Gerlach was sentenced this May, her tone was contrite and repentant. Like many of her co-defendants, she claimed she had changed her ways.

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