Eco-Guerrillas Strike Against Frankentrees

Eco-Guerrillas Strike Against Frankentrees

May 23, 2001

New York Times
Foes of Genetic Engineering Are Suspects in Northwest Fires

Larry Davis for The New York Times

F.B.I. agents yesterday went through the charred remains of the University
of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. The authorities said there
were indications that the fire was set by radical environmentalists.

One fire gutted a research laboratory at the University of Washington
Center for Urban Horticulture here, while the other destroyed two
buildings and several vehicles at a poplar tree nursery in the northwestern
corner of Oregon. Both were reported shortly after 3 a.m. Monday.

Today, federal authorities were combing both sites for clues, acting
on what they described as strong indications that both fires had been
set by a loosely knit group of radical environmentalists adamantly opposed
to research on the genetic modification of trees.

At the Seattle site, some research was conducted into modification that,
as with altered foods, could potentially make trees more commerically
productive. Researchers, for example, are studying a gene that could alter
how often a tree grows branches. The more branches, the more wood that
could be turned into pulp for paper. The fewer branches, the fewer knots
on the trunk and the more valuable the wood.

Such genetic manipulation has raised concerns for some people for a variety
of reasons, including the possibility of harm to the environment. Others are
opposed on principle to what they see as unacceptable tampering with nature.

Managers of the 7,300-acre Oregon tree farm said they did not create or
grow genetically engineered trees there, but a company that once owned the
property was affiliated with a university-based group, the Poplar Molecular
Genetics Cooperative.

At the Oregon site, Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, the words "You
cannot control what is wild" and "ELF" were spray-painted on the sides of
one of the remaining buildings, an F.B.I. spokeswoman, Beth Anne Steele,
said today.

The initials stand for Earth Liberation Front, a movement that has claimed
responsibility for arson and vandalism against commercial properties in
recent years, including a ski resort in Colorado, a lumber yard in southern
Oregon, and housing sites on Long Island and elsewhere. Four teenagers
were charged in the Long Island arsons earlier this year.

F.B.I. officials said that the timing of the fires and other factors made
them almost certainly related.

A man who identified himself as a spokesman for the North American Earth
Liberation Front media office, in Portland, Ore., said in a phone interview
today that such acts were a justifiable response to the "genetic engineering
of our forests" that he said corporations were carrying out.

"These companies are rolling the dice with the biodiversity of the natural
environment," said the man, who gave his name as Leslie James Pickering.

He said members of the media office < including himself > "speak
ideologically" in support of acts like the fires, but were not directly
responsible for them.

Some professors at the horticulture center here in Seattle said they found a
particularly unfortunate irony in the damage. Much of the center's research
is geared toward protecting or restoring the environment, and the fire may
have killed a good portion of one rare species.

At the center, Dr. Sarah Reichard, a conservation biologist, studies showy
stickseed, a rare plant in the Cascade Mountains of Washington; only 300
individuals are left in the wild. Dr. Reichard said she feared that the fire
might have killed the 100 individuals of the species that had been painstakingly
raised in the laboratory after a year's work, using a technique known as tissue

"That's one quarter of the world's population," she said. "They clearly did
not do their homework."

At the center's laboratory, Prof. H. D. Bradshaw, a plant geneticist in
whose office the fire began, expressed bafflement as to why his place of
work was the focus of attacks, both now and in a separate incident in 1999.

At that time, a few days before the World Trade Organization protests here,
a group calling itself the Washington Tree Improvement Association hacked
down nearly 200 trees in a nearby nursery.

"I've personally never genetically engineered a tree," Dr. Bradshaw said
today as he gazed at the rubble of the site, which destroyed his office and
much of the laboratory.

Dr. Tom Hinckley, the center's director, said he lost more than 30 years of
research files, as well as slides that meticulously document the regrowth of
vegetation around Mount St. Helens in the years since it erupted in May

Dr. Bradshaw's research includes the study of genetically engineered poplars
kept in a nearby greenhouse; none of those trees were damaged in the fire.
He said that his own basic research was geared toward identifying the genes
that affect plant growth and form, rather than the creation of a marketable

And some of the work done there has been supported by the Department of
Energy as well as giant timber companies like Weyerhaeuser and Boise

If the fires were the work of the ELF or a similar group, they are acts
virtually no mainstream environmental group has countenanced.

Indeed, some have supported genetic research into trees, saying that the
greater mass and other properties such work produces for commercial tree
farms could actually help alleviate the commercial pressures to log in
native and old-growth sites.

Kevin Favreau, the F.B.I.'s supervisory special agent for the Portland
office's joint terrorism task force, said in a telephone interview tonight
that no arrests had been made in either case, nor in a rash of other acts
against timber companies and other businesses in the Northwest.

Generally, he said, fires had been set in remote places, leaving little
chance that the arsonists would be caught. "The people committing these
acts and getting away with them so far are very good at what they do.
They do pre-raid surveillances, they know what the security situation is
like," he said.

The fact that the arsonists were willing to attack an urban campus may be an
indication that they have become further emboldened, Mr. Favreau said. In
any event, he added, the F.B.I. believed that the two fires were related and
were the work of those with "some message to spread about what they view
as how to protect the environment."

Speaking of the Earth Liberation Front, Mr. Favreau said, "what we'll
get is, a couple of days to a week later, their press office will receive a
communiqué whereby they will explain why this act was committed."

Mr. Pickering, the group spokesman, said it would have "no concrete
omment until and even if we get a communiqué."

But, he said, some members of the group support interfering because
the research "is taking a risk, a real shot in the dark" with alterations
members believe could eventually harm native species of trees. Other
critics have raised the specter of "Frankenforests" that could take over
wild ones.

Scientists involved in the type of work done by Dr. Bradshaw and others
here expressed anger today at the fires. "What's really scary is that they're
attacking people like Toby and his colleagues doing top notch scientific
work," said Dr. Steve Strauss, plant geneticist at Oregon State University,
whose own research was vandalized in March. "I don't call them ecoterrorists
anymore. They don't deserve the `eco.' They're terrorists against science."

In the attack at Dr. Strauss's laboratory, 900 trees were cut or girdled,
only some of which were genetically engineered. Many were traditionally
bred, "standard old hybrid poplars that have been grown for hundreds of
years," he said, adding that the vandals knew the trees had not been
genetically modified.

Dr. Strauss said he planned to cut back on research on genetically
engineered trees, in part because of the attacks. "If we can't protect our
academic institutions to do the kind of work that scientists think make
sense, do we do what's dictated by these terrorists? That's a really scary
prospect," he said.

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