Chelsea Gerlach liked burning things in defense of Mother Nature. She was part of “The Family,” a cell of The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) responsible for 20 arsons in five states causing more than $40 million in damage.
The Family burned the Vail ski resort to the ground. According to wire reports of her sentencing hearing, Gerlach waited with the car while Bill Rodgers, The Family’s pyro guru, ignited the conflagration. From the nearest town they sent a communiqué declaring retaliation for Vail’s expansion into endangered lynx habitat.
"Putting profits before Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated," the communiqué stated. "This action is just a warning. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas."
That was 1998. Gerlach was 21. She started down this road at age 16 when her parents gave her The EarthFirst! Journal and a car to attend a logging protest in Idaho. At age 30, facing a terrorism enhancement that would lengthen her prison sentence, Gerlach disclaimed any intent to intimidate or threaten.
"I would like to first apologize to everyone who has been hurt by my actions,” she wrote in connection with her sentencing in May. “It was not my intention to hurt anyone or to invoke fear. I'm sorry my actions had that effect.”
Gerlach didn’t escape treatment as a terrorist. Even with credit for her cooperation, she received nearly a decade in prison, no hope of parole. Other Family members were also sentenced as terrorists. One young man received more than 14 years for a string of fires that escalated far beyond burning SUVs. In all, 10 Family members were sentenced to federal prison this spring.
Rodgers escaped prison by killing himself. He died with a plastic bag over his head. ELF’s prisoner support network continues to eulogize him as a gentle man who merely loved nature’s defenseless creatures.
But Rodgers may have feared exposure for child pornography more than life behind bars. In addition to bomb-making equipment, the FBI discovered digital images of prepubescent girls at his Prescott, Ariz., bookstore. Gerlach’s lawyer branded Rodgers a pedophile as he gave the judge a DVD demonstrating Rodgers’ abuse of his client.
Outside the courthouse, protesters objected to monkeywrenchers being considered terrorists. Destroying inanimate property to protect the Earth is never terrorism, they shouted. The Family’s lawyers contended that in more than 1,200 acts of arson by ELF and the Animal Liberation Front no human life has yet been lost. “If everyone is considered a terrorist,” one lawyer argued, “then no one is a terrorist.”
Let’s put it another way, one that doesn’t suffer from the same arrested adolescence behind those asinine acts of arson: If the Earth Liberation Front is not a group of terrorists, then no one is a terrorist.
Borrowing the reasoning of ELF sympathizers, racists who burn Black churches could escape full responsibility for their actions. After all, the racists burn only unoccupied buildings. And, golly gee, they never meant to scare anyone and are awfully sorry if someone took a church in flames the wrong way.
As for militant anti-abortionists, come on, a little firebomb here and there can’t be considered terrorism. Look at what they’re fighting against: the American holocaust, 1.3 million homicides each year! How can splashing gasoline against a doctor’s office or hurling a Molotov cocktail through an abortion clinic window be terrorism so long as no one gets hurt?
Environmental groups bristle when called upon to condemn ecoterrorism, including when Congress urged them to speak out during the peak of The Family’s crime wave. They argue that bringing up the “T” word could stifle legitimate activism and plays into the hysteria the Bush administration uses to frighten the country. They complain that the acts of a few misguided radicals are being used unfairly to attack them.
But environmental groups do display an excessive tolerance for ecoterrorism. Old monkeywrenchers receive celebrity status in exchange for serving up vicarious thrills. No enviro group seems to go very much out of its way to distance itself from ecoterrorism and those who practice it.
We can’t pick and choose our terrorists. Once uncorked, the violence genie never obeys original instructions. He understands that destroying property is meant to get at people, and inevitably grows impatient with the roundabout approach.
Dissatisfied with arson, The Family began discussing killing human beings toward the end of their run. Gerlach led authorities to weapons and ammunition they had cached in a California desert.
An Internet posting about the sentencing of The Family was entitled “Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front Will Never Die!” and signed “Death to the FBI.” Violence against human beings is increasing, including something ecoterrorists euphemistically call “home visits,” terrorizing targets where they live, even if children are present.
Ecoterrorists have employed several incendiary devices against living, breathing people. They’ve misfired, so far. But if The Family could figure out how to burn down the Vail ski resort on top of a Colorado mountain, somebody will eventually make one of those bombs work.