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Film on Earth Liberation Front up for Oscar, raises specter of UW arson and WTO

The Associated Press
Thomas M. Hinckley, right, and an unidentified person at left, survey fire damage at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, in this May 23, 2001 file photo.

A documentary on a cell of the radical environmental group that claimed responsibility for the arson that destroyed a University of Washington research facility in 2001 has been nominated for an Oscar.

The documentary’s exploration of the ideology and tactics involved in radical environmental actions and the law enforcement agencies determined to make arrests raises again the intense passions and dramatic consequences surrounding the arson at UW.

The documentary, “If A Tree Falls,” focuses on the years during which the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front were blamed for arsons and acts of sabotage across the West, including the fire at the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture.

According to the FBI: "The UW fire bombing was part of a string of 17 arsons across the west by the radical groups the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The arson spree caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. In all, 15 people have been convicted of crimes related to a string of fires across the western United States investigated under “Operation Backfire.” All those connected with the UW arson have been ordered to share in restitution to the University of Washington and the State of Washington totaling $6,092,649."

The documentary

The film aired on PBS in September and focuses on Daniel McGowan – a Brooklyn-born member of an Earth Liberation Front cell based in Eugene. McGowan is serving a prison sentence related to two Oregon fire-bombings in 2001. The arsons were meant to protest logging.

"The spine of the movie is the verite story from the time that our main character is arrested and charged with eco-terrorism until the time he ultimately went to prison a year later," said the film’s director, Marshall Curry.

Curry's film includes interviews with law enforcement, the timber industry, and environmentalists, in a debate over whether ELF's actions constitute terrorism or not. "If A Tree Falls" is one of five best documentary feature nominees.

'Battle in Seattle'

Several of the key figures in the film said they participated in and connected with each other during the most destructive protests around the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Members of the ELF and future members of the organization took to the streets here and destroyed property in the city.

"I met these people in Seattle and was introduced to kind of a larger group of individuals," McGowen said in the movie. "Here we are in our black clothes, you know downtown Seattle was full of corporations that are wrecking destruction and devastation on the planet and people are like, "Okay, let's do it.' "

That was the first time a lot of the people met who ended up being involved in the ELF arsons and McGowen said he moved to Eugene, Ore., to stay in touch with some of the people he met in Seattle.

Last conviction for UW fire

While not the focus of the film, the events of it occur during an extensive man hunt for the suspects in the UW fire, the final conviction for which occurred in December.

McGowen said in the film that the destruction of the UW center and of the Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Ore., caused many members in the group to doubt their tactics.

"Finding out what happened at the University of Washington, the massive destruction to a library, not just the professor's office that was involved in this sort of research, but the Center for Urban Horteculture ... I was like this is too much, too fast, too big, what am I doing?" McGowan said in the movie.

According to the Olympian, Justin Solondz, a former student at The Evergreen State College, pleaded guilty to arson and conspiracy charges for helping to burn down the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001.

He faces a seven-year prison term as part of a deal with prosecutors when he is sentenced March 16.

Prosecutors say Solondz built the firebombs that started the blaze in 2001 in Seattle. Solondz was arrested in Chicago last summer following his expulsion from China, where he had been serving a prison sentence on drug charges.

Claiming responsibility

In 2001, The Seattle Times reported that the group said the fire was set simultaneously with another fire at the Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Ore., and that the two fires did a combined total of $3 million in damages.

"This marks the first time in North American history that the ELF has targeted two separate locations in differing states at the same time," the group said in a statement faxed to news organizations.

The ELF said the UW fire specifically was intended to destroy the office of Toby Bradshaw.

"Bradshaw ... continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems," the ELF said. "As long as universities continue to pursue this reckless 'science,' they run the risk of suffering severe losses. Our message remains clear, we are determined to stop genetic engineering."

The radical environmentalists were wrong about the research being conducted at the UW center.

And, the groups action in Seattle led to dozens of stories over the years and great deal of handwringing over environmental defense tactics, such as this long evaluation of such tactics and consequences on a site claiming to be the official site for ELF.

New York Times wrote of the movie:

“At its core, the film explores the roots of one environmentalist’s law-breaking passion, and of the strictness of the federal antiterrorism laws that grew out of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and then the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is brutally neutral, despite providing an intimate, over-the-shoulder view of the main admitted arsonist, the mild-mannered Daniel McGowan, as he pursues his argument against a long prison term.”

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at OPB. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.