Liberation through fire?

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

In the late '90s, a group of Oregon eco-activists wanted to make sure that if trees were being chopped down, the rest of the country would hear of the destruction.

The best way to do this, the group decided, was to create destruction of its own.

In 1997, the Earth Liberation Front torched the U.S. Forest Industries office in Medford.

The firebombing was among a string of arsons for which the radical environmental group claimed responsibility over the next few years.

The activists radicalized in 1996 after becoming discouraged with peaceful protesting. They thought no one was listening to their chants on the streets — but if they burned a building down, people would have to listen.

The arsons did catch people's attention, but not always in the way the ELF had hoped.

The activists were seen by many as crazies playing with fire or as destructive criminals. Their environmental message tended to get lost in the smoke and ruins.

And the arsons ultimately landed several ELF members in prison. In 2005, the FBI arrested more than a dozen members of the ELF.

Greensprings resident Jonathan Paul was arrested in the FBI's Operation Backfire investigation. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years, three months in federal prison in June 2007.

The history of the ELF movement and its downfall are portrayed in the documentary "If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," playing at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. The film screens at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the Varsity Theatre.

The film is fascinating because it offers a glimpse into the motivations of the activists and follows them as they see the effects of their actions.

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

I've always wondered whether violent destruction can lead to peace. I'm not sure "If A Tree Falls" answers that question, but it does explore the issue.

Just this morning, via a free iPhone app, I came across a quote from the Dalai Lama about violence that seems applicable:

"In some cases I understand certain violence's that take place out of desperation," he said. "However, basically it is wrong. Violence is almost like a strong pill. It may work in one way, but the side effects may be equally strong."

The activists featured in "If A Tree Falls" expressed regret for their radical actions, but not for their radical environmental views. Now, just as much as ever, they believe the environment needs saving. But they don't think burning down buildings is the way to bring about change.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

I believe it does, even if we're not listening and even if no one's burning buildings down to try to get us to listen. The reverberations from that toppled tree can affect life thousands of miles away.

The first step toward change is listening.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or For past columns see

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