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`Terrorist' Label Doesn't Fit Eco-Protesters, Some Say

Activists who are more mainstream bristle at the charges facing jailed sabotage suspects.

June 04, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Chelsea Dawn Gerlach is a "naturally peaceful person" who would "never, ever resort to violence," says her sister, Shasta Kearns Moore.

Gerlach, a onetime radio disc jockey, loves animals, dance and music, and has a particular passion for forests, say friends, who add that her connection to trees -- green, living, growing trees -- is almost mystical.

But federal authorities offer a strikingly different view of the 29-year-old Gerlach, who sits in jail here, denied bail, facing charges that could put her in prison for the rest of her life.

She is a terrorist, they say. And as U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales puts it: "We will not tolerate any group that terrorizes the American people, no matter its intentions or objectives."

Gerlach and more than a dozen others have been arrested in recent months in what federal law enforcement officials say is by far the biggest crackdown they have ever launched on radical environmental protesters.

The cases involve acts of sabotage such as the firebombing of a meat-processing plant, the torching of three dozen SUVs at a Chevy dealership and the destruction of an electric-transmission tower, all in Oregon; arson at a federal horse and burro stable in Susanville, Calif.; arson at a Vail, Colo., ski resort; and the torching of a horticultural research center at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Like Gerlach, many of those charged were in their early 20s at the time of the attacks. E-mails and other writings suggest they were swept up in a fervor of rage against modern sprawl, gas-guzzling vehicles, the killing of animals and even the genetic manipulation of plants.

Few in the mainstream environmental community offer any defense for the crimes themselves, but many take umbrage at the terrorism label used by federal officials. They say those who perpetrated the crimes appeared to take careful steps to make sure no one was killed or injured in the incidents.

"While I'm no fan of animal testing or environmental sprawl or what have you, that's no excuse for destroying property in the name of protecting the environment," said Chip Giller, president of Grist, a popular website for environmental news.

"On the other hand," Giller said, "categorizing these vandals as one of the country's most serious domestic terrorism threats -- that's ridiculous. It just gives these folks the attention they seek.... Why don't the feds do something more important, like take on climate change?"

Law enforcement officials say the acts of sabotage certainly meet the definition of terrorism and could easily have proved deadly: In any event, they note, federal sentencing laws clearly provide for terms of up to 30 years for people who use explosive devices in commission of a crime, even if no one is hurt.

And so far, many judges appear to agree with them.

"The risk of damage to the human beings that respond to a fire is significant and can't be ignored," Magistrate Thomas Coffin of the U.S. District Court in Eugene said in February by way of denying bail to Thomas Tubbs, 37, charged with torching three dozen sport utility vehicles at the Romania Truck Center in Eugene five years ago.

"Arson is an extremely violent activity," Coffin added. So Tubbs, like Gerlach, remains in jail.

Some supporters of the jailed protesters say the government crackdown is disproportionate to the crime.

"This is the government telling people you could go away forever if you think of this option," said John Zerzan, a self-styled "green anarchist" and lecturer in Eugene who has written several books about what he describes as rampant environmental destruction caused by globalization and capitalism.

"They are not going to win the war of ideas, and so they are going to use brute force and repression," Zerzan said.

Gerlach faces charges of arson and destruction of federal property.

She grew up in the tiny timber town of Sweet Home, about 100 miles southeast of Portland, and her father once worked as a logger. Friends say she was deeply influenced by the environmental writings of Edward Abbey, whose 1975 book "The Monkey Wrench Gang" was a fictionalized account of four eco-rebels who among other things, want to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.

Gerlach's family later moved to Eugene, a university town where passion for the environment is virtually a religion.

In her yearbook from South Eugene High School, she was photographed wearing a T-shirt with the word "Resist," and she wrote that she was "born to save the Earth."

Prosecutors say that at some point she became a vandal in a misguided attempt to further her cause, plotting firebombings and the electric-transmission tower attack.

Gerlach denied requests for a jail interview through public defender Craig Weinerman.

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