July 1, 2001

S.U.V.'s, Golf, Even Peas Join Eco-Vandals' Hit List


The Associated Press

Federal investigators examining damaged trucks at Ray A. Schoppert Logging Inc., in Eagle Creek, Ore. Three trucks were set on fire on June 1 near the site of a disputed timber sale in a national forest.

Join a Discussion on The Environment

Join a Discussion on Genetically Engineered Food

EATTLE, June 30 — The fire at Joe Romania Chevrolet in Eugene, Ore., started just before 2:45 one morning in the spring. Nearly 30 Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes were destroyed in the blaze, the second time in nine months that vehicles in the dealership's sport-utility lot had been set afire.

The fire at Ray A. Schoppert Logging Inc., in Eagle Creek, Ore., also occurred between 2 and 3 a.m. This one, on June 1, near the site of a disputed timber sale in a federal forest, burned three logging trucks.

Sometime in the night of June 10, someone broke into a research farm owned by Seminis Inc., near Twin Falls, Idaho, and ripped out hundreds of genetically altered pea plants.

These incidents share more than the fact that none has resulted in an arrest. All three appear to be part of what federal authorities describe as a growing pattern of eco-sabotage, or vandalism, that its anonymous perpetrators claim to have carried out in defense of the environment.

Many of these attacks, which the authorities say are especially prevalent here in the Pacific Northwest, are relatively small-scale and fail to attract much attention. Many go unreported, for the companies involved are often reluctant to generate publicity that might make them a target all over again.

But even if less noticed than major acts of eco-sabotage like the recent fire at a University of Washington genetics research laboratory, the vandalism has quietly reshaped life for many small businesses, forcing a need for safety measures that would have once been unthinkable.

"We've had to beef up security so it looks like a prison around our greenhouses," said Crystal Fricker, president of Pure-Seed Testing Company in Canby, Ore., which grows all kinds of grass seed. The company installed a chain-link fence with razor wire, motion sensors and an alarm system after vandals broke into greenhouses on its 110-acre property last June.

The intruders destroyed several research projects, stomped on the grass, spray-painted slogans like "Nature bites back" and left behind golf balls marked with the letter A, the international anarchists' symbol. Pure-Seed was apparently singled out because of its experiments with a genetically modified form of grass that could be used for putting greens on golf courses.

A few days after the incident, an e- mail message from a sender identifying itself as the Anarchist Golfing Association claimed responsibility for the vandalism, which caused roughly $500,000 in damage.

"Grass, like industrial culture, is invasive and permeates every aspect of our lives," the message said. "While the golf trade journals claim that `golf courses provide suitable habitat for wildlife,' we see them as a destroyer of all things wild."

In a sign of the growing fears, even companies that say they do no genetic-engineering research whatsoever are taking precautions.

At its plant in Tangent, Ore., Barenbrug U.S.A., a company that sells alfalfa and other turf and forage grasses, took down all signs that had the word "research" in them, even though the company conducts only traditional cross-breeding.

"It kind of bothers you when you feel you've got to keep out of the public eye," said Bob Richardson, supply manager at Barenbrug and president of the Oregon Seed Trade Association, an industry group.

"But there are people out there who don't understand what's going on here," Mr. Richardson said. "They think we're working on some alfalfa plant that's going to expand and explode and eat downtown Tangent."

The attacks are causing consternation not only for businesses, university researchers and law enforcement authorities but also for mainstream environmental groups, who fear that the vandalism is undermining legitimate grievances.

"I loathe S.U.V.'s; I have deep concerns about genetic engineering," said Chip Giller, editor of www.gristmagazine.com, the online journal of the Earth Day Network, based in Seattle. "I understand the anger."

"But these attacks aren't constructive," Mr. Giller said. "They're not winning any converts to the cause. They're not environmentalism. They're vandalism."

State and federal authorities say that in addition to the recent fires at the University of Washington and on an Oregon poplar farm, they are investigating at least a dozen other incidents of suspected eco-sabotage in the Northwest in recent months.

Many of the acts are thought to be tied in some fashion to the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized network of protesters.

After the fire at the car dealership in Eugene, Craig Rosebraugh, who calls himself a spokesman for the North American Earth Liberation Front press office, said he had received an "anonymous communiqué" from someone who claimed responsibility for the fire.

"Gas-guzzling S.U.V.'s are at the forefront of this vile, imperialistic culture's caravan towards self-destruction," said the statement, which Mr. Rosebraugh said had been delivered to him electronically. "We can no longer allow the rich to parade around in their armored existence, leaving a wasteland behind in their tire tracks."

Steve Romania, the owner of the dealership in Eugene named for his father, Joe, said he was bewildered both by the two attacks on his business and the steps he has had to take as a result.

"I've put up a fence around the lot and had to hire extra security," Mr. Romania said. "This is a car dealership. We're not General Motors. We're just a small, family-owned business that's been in this location for 40 years. I still can't understand why we're a target."

While small-business owners are ratcheting up security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is not only offering tips on deterring potential vandalism but is doing so to an ever- growing pool of companies.

"It used to be just mink farmers and logging companies, but now the target industries are expanding," explained Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in Portland. "Now it's tree farms, research facilities, housing developments, anything to do with animals."