Film documents Earth Liberation Front fallout

Radical environmental activists responsible for two local firebombings as well as arsons across the Northwest express regret for their actions in a documentary film that's showing at the Ashland Independent Film Festival this weekend.

Several of the 13 key members of the Earth Liberation Front profiled in the film — some of whom are now in prison for the arsons — say they went too far with their eco-activism and didn't accomplish what they hoped.

"The situation with the environment — it's not getting better, it's getting worse," a former ELF leader, Daniel McGowan, says in the film, just before he's sentenced to seven years in prison for his involvement in the arsons.

"I'm not suggesting that the path of destruction or destroying everything is the right path, but I didn't know what to do. It's like when you're screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you."

"If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" describes the history of the ELF and tells the story of its downfall, without siding with either the radical environmentalists or investigators.

The documentary plays at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the Varsity Theatre. Director and screenwriter Marshall Curry will discuss the film and answer questions from audience members after both screenings.

Many ELF members profiled in the full-length film were responsible for the 1997 firebombing of the U.S. Forest Industries office in Medford and the 2001 burning of the Superior Lumber Co. mill in Glendale, Curry said.

"Everyone is different, but I think they all regret their involvement to some extent," he said. "The group that is the subject of the film, who were responsible for the first and largest ELF cell in the U.S., all disbanded and stopped doing arsons years before they were caught. So all of them had moved away from arson as a tactic."

In 2005, the FBI arrested several members of the ELF, including Daniel McGowan, whom the film profiles.

Greensprings resident Jonathan Paul was also arrested in the FBI's Operation Backfire investigation, although he is not featured in the film. Paul pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years, three months in federal prison in June 2007.

Curry knew little about the ELF when he began working on the film in 2005, he said.

"The story sort of dropped into my lap — my wife runs a domestic violence organization and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees — Daniel McGowan," said Curry, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

McGowan was charged with eco-terrorism and faced multiple life sentences in prison if convicted.

"We were shocked — no one had any idea he had been involved in the ELF, and he wasn't the kind of person who came to mind when I thought of a terrorist," Curry said. "So Sam Cullman (co-director and cinematographer) and I decided to figure out how this had happened — how this working-class kid from Rockaway Queens, the son of a N.Y. cop, and a business major in college, had ended up facing life in prison for terrorism."

The film explores the use of the word "terrorist" to describe McGowan and his fellow activists.

"There's a police captain in the film who worked to crack the ELF and he says, 'One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. If you disagree with their motives, they are a terrorist. If you agree with their motives, they are a hero,'" Curry said.

"If A Tree Falls" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the documentary editing award. The film will screen in theaters in Portland, Eugene and other cities in June.

Curry, who said he cares about the environment but doesn't consider himself an eco-activist, said the film carries multiple messages.

"I think in (McGowan's) story there is a cautionary tale for activists, challenging them to consider their actions and the ramifications of those actions — legally, ethically and in terms of effectiveness," Curry said. "I also think there's a cautionary tale for the rest of society about how we respond to activism. There are things that can be done which bring people into the democratic conversation, and there are things that radicalize people, such as meeting nonviolent protest with violence."

Meanwhile, ELF members are still operating, although on a smaller scale, Curry said.

"People still do ELF actions, though it is much less active than it was in the late '90s," he said. "There is not really any ELF organization — it's just anonymous individuals who do things, such as light fires or destroy bulldozers, in the name of the ELF."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or

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