Group with no members torched Vail |

Group with no members torched Vail

Nicole Frey
Published: Special to the Daily/Peter Fredin

VAIL- When three buildings and four chairlifts on Vail Mountain went up in flames in October, 1998, the Earth Liberation Front, an underground environmental movement, proudly took credit for the arson. Crime solved? Hardly. If people are pointing the finger at the Earth Liberation Front, also known as ELF, they may as well blame ghosts for the fires. The Earth Liberation Front claims to be an underground movement with no leadership, membership or spokespeople. According to the front’s Web site,, anyone who commits an act of ecoterrorism or sabotage in the name of the environment is welcome to do it under the front’s name “driven by their personal conscience” Signing up or paying dues isn’t necessary to be a part of ELF. Just set Two Elk on fire, call yourself an “elf” and you’re part of the elite, invisible group. Opponents of Category III, now called Blue Sky Basin, used the Earth Liberation Front Web site to say the arson had been committed “on behalf of the lynx,” a cat species depleted in Colorado that some believed could thrive behind Vail Mountain.Last month, Chelsea D. Gerlach of Portland Ore. and William C. Rodgers of Prescott, Ariz. were named as suspects in the fire. Rodgers committed suicide in his jail cell Dec. 22, and Gerlach is being held on other charges although she hasn’t been charged with the Vail fires. Empty threats?In addition to taking credit for the arson, the Earth Liberation Front went as far as to issue a few threats to Vail Resorts and the general public. “This action is just a warning,” the front said in an e-mail to KCFR-FM Colorado Public Radio in Denver just after the arson. “We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas.”The group then urged skiers to choose other ski destinations for their own safety.

Despite the threats, Blue Sky was built, adding 645 acres of ski terrain and making Vail Mountain the biggest single ski mountain in North America, said Vail Mountain spokeswoman Jen Brown. And the Earth Liberation Front has yet to rear its head in protest again. While the ashes of Two Elk smoldered, other environmentalists and the public criticized ELF saying it would only prompt Vail Resorts to cut down more trees – trees ELF were presumed to be trying to save – to build another lodge. Indeed, today, Two Elk stands bigger than before.But the front may have accomplished its goal partially, because according to, an online encyclopedia, the Earth Liberation Front “elfs” – ELF members – aim primarily to hit the pocketbook, and to destroy property while they’re at it. With more than $12 million in damages to Vail Mountain, no one is saying the destruction came cheap. The FBI’s James Jarboe, domestic terrorism section chief, said the Earth Liberation Front, in connection with the Animal Liberation Front, has committed more than 600 crimes in the country since 1996 with a price tag of more than $43 million dollars as of 2002. Vandals or terrorists?Both ELF and the Animal Liberation Front, known as ALF, have been labeled as “special interest” terrorist groups by the FBI. Even though neither group has ever harmed people, the FBI labels anyone using fear or intimidation to influence others as terrorists.

“In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate acts of terrorism from acts of vandalism, especially as the level of activity undertaken by animal rights and environmental extremists has grown in intensity and scope,” said a 1999 FBI report on terrorism called “Terrorism in the United States.”The report blamed ELF or ALF, for six of the 10 acts of terrorism in 1999. And although people have never been hurt in their missions, ALF, which is dedicated to saving animals from exploit and use, has killed animals in it’s attempt to save them. “They’re labeled as terrorists if they attempt to influence political events through acts of violence, and (ELF) is attempting to influence their agenda with the destruction of the earth’s environment,” said Lance Clem, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Safety. “Torching the property was considered a violent act. The key is that people feel threatened, and terrorists can pursue that in a lot of ways that don’t involve killing people.”While the public deems groups like ELF and ALF extremist or radical, Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, said it is those who use animals and destroy habitat who are the terrorists. “We look at ‘radical’ as those who take part in the destruction of the earth, killing nine billion animals a year to enjoy the taste of their flesh,” said Vlasak, who speaks for ALF but is not a member of the group. “What’s more radical – someone who tortures animals or those who want to relieve that? It’s much more radical that someone can clear cut public forests which belong to the people of the United States.”Arson the best motivator? Although Vlasak declined to speak on behalf of ELF, he acknowledged it and ALF are ideologically connected in trying to hurt their enemies financially. And hitting Vail Resort’s wallet was a worthy cause in his eyes. “A single action isn’t going to make a lasting change,” Vlasak said. “But if every time Vail rebuilt it, they burnt it down, it would work. A sustained campaign would make a difference. That they rebuilt (Two Elk) is not a reason for not doing something.”

The front’s origins are debated, but the movement may have been started by members of Earth First! – a radical environmental movement – who thought Earth First! had become too mainstream. Another theory holds ELF was founded by members of the Environmental Life Force, also known as the original ELF, who split after Life Force condemned violent tactics. “Terrorist actions were clearly counter-productive to the environmental movement,” said the founder of Life Force, whose name wasn’t given, in a 2001 interview with the Environmental News Service. “I can certainly empathize with their frustration and their desire to defend the environment. But their means and methods will lead nowhere. Maybe prison,” said the founder of Life Force. Whether Gerlach and others accused of ecosabotage claim affiliation with the Earth Liberation Front or head to jail remains to be seen as law enforcement and the courts continue to work to prosecute ecosabotage cases. However, ELF’s means and methods have the government worried that “special interest” terrorism from leaderless groups will ring in a new wave of violence.”It is clear that terrorism will continue to plague societies into the 21st century,” the FBI said. Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or Vail, Colorado

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