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Washington eco-saboteurs topple towers

Monkey-wrenching of radio station doesn't last

 

Fall is usually a tranquil season in this rural suburb north of Seattle, where small farms grow flowers, nursery trees and other niche crops along the meandering Snohomish River. At harvest time, U-pick pumpkins swell on the vine, sunflowers bow their heavy heads and enterprising farmers cut cornfield mazes, urging tourists to "Come get lost."

That bucolic spell was broken last year on Sept. 4 around 3 a.m., when one or more people sneaked up to a 40-acre site near the river, climbed a fence, fired up a large excavator that was equipped with a steel claw and aimed it at the dominant architecture: four giant broadcasting towers for KRKO, a sports-talk radio station.

Neighbors heard the grinding of metal on metal. One grabbed a shotgun and chased a fleeing man, who vanished into the darkness. Another reported seeing three people fleeing. News helicopters awoke more locals, and a flurry of excited phone calls spread the word that the main tower -- 349 feet tall -- and an adjacent 199-footer had been knocked down.

Near the crumpled steel latticework, someone left a banner with a hand-drawn heart, the scrawled words: "Wassup? Sno. Cty.?" and the signature "ELF" -- acronym for the radical Earth Liberation Front.

Barbara Bailey at first thought the toppling was some kind of miracle. Her fifth-generation 400-acre farm is just across the river from the site, and she had opposed the construction of the towers. But when she learned it was sabotage, her feelings were complicated. She thought: "It was not right. It was a crime ... but still it was a good feeling. After all the writing letters, lobbying politicians, raising money to pay lawyers, it was like somebody had decided the system wasn't working, and took matters in their own hands."

The crime remains unsolved. Lee Bennett, president of Citizens to Preserve the Upper Snohomish River Valley, says he has no clue who was behind the pre-dawn raid. "It had to be someone who knew the machine was here, how to operate it, and how to safely punch an electrified tower over without being electrocuted."

Bennett's group has waged a legal battle against the towers for a decade, arguing that they pose a threat to wildlife, scenery and human health.

But KRKO's owners aren't backing down. The Skotdal family, which made its fortune in real estate development and does its radio business as S-R Broadcasting, began rebuilding the two damaged towers in August. They expect KRKO to be broadcasting its powerful 50,000-watt signal on 1380 AM once again by January 2011. They are also preparing the site for new towers for a proposed second 50,000-watt station, 1520 AM.

"You couldn't put (the towers) in a worse possible place -- right between two beautiful county parks," says Bob Heirman, who spent decades helping restore those parks, one of which is named after him. "It's like putting a rendering plant next to your local high school."

The continuing conflict seems to highlight two notorious Northwestern character traits -- a strong green streak and a long stubborn streak. And the lack of arrests shows the of difficulty of catching the monkey-wrenchers who keep popping up in the region.

Bennett, a retired professor of geophysics and oceanography, traces the conflict to 2000, when a sign appeared in the middle of a 40-acre parcel of undeveloped farmland announcing that KRKO planned to build towers there. Opponents quickly rallied to fight the station's permit applications.

The original plans filed with the Federal Communications Commission called for up to eight antennas, some more than 400 feet tall, with more than 180 guy wires. KRKO's owners picked the site because it was the right size, had excellent ground conductivity, low population density and seemed easy to develop. Towers would boost the station's 5,000-watt signal tenfold.

KRKO has earned a loyal audience by broadcasting Fox Sports Radio, along with local high school games, hockey and announcements about church fund-raisers and other community events. It also serves as the Emergency Alert System station for Snohomish County, and supporters argued that a more powerful signal would reach a wider audience -- critical during earthquakes, floods and other life-threatening events, says Ted Buehner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle.

The owners scaled down the towers' size and number, eliminated guy wires and cut down on hazard lighting after people raised concerns about birds colliding with the structures. (Many studies show that bird mortality rates vary depending on the design of towers.) The area is a major flyway for ducks and trumpeter swans, and Jan van Niel, one of the leaders of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, says the birds retreat to a lake in the Bob Heirman Wildlife Park, which is off-limits to dogs and hunting. "The towers are between the county park refuge and the agricultural fields where they feed, so most birds pass that way."

The area is also prized by anglers, who pack the banks of the Snohomish River fishing for migrating salmon and steelhead trout. Some of them also didn't want like the towers there.

In the prolonged legal battle, three independent hearing examiners denied key county permits. One examiner said the towers would be "stark, garish, angular and incompatible" with the landscape. Another studied dozens of reports on the health impacts of radio-frequency radiation, including several that tied AM transmitters to increased cases of childhood leukemia. In her 64-page decision, she acknowledged that research had yet to prove conclusive links, but said it was important to take precautionary measures "without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of the risks become fully apparent."

Protester Angela Day, a political science doctoral student at the University of Washington, focused on the health issue. "When initial studies suggested cigarettes might be bad for you, you could choose to either keep smoking or quit," she says. "With the towers, we didn't have the choice. I was uncomfortable with that."

The station, which hired its own scientific experts to testify, says on its website: "We absolutely deny that there is credible evidence to support the contention that someone can get cancer from living near an AM radio antenna."

That was also the opinion of a slim majority of the Snohomish County Council members. They eventually approved the four KRKO towers and two additional towers for the new station, saying that there was no hard evidence of health impacts and dismissing other concerns.

Tower backers describe the protests as "NIMBYism." "They've used up every excuse they can, and now, the bottom line is, these people are saying we don't like having towers here screwing up our view," says Steve Burling, an electronics technician and ham radio operator.

But once the first towers began broadcasting in February 2009, many neighbors heard KRKO coming through their corded phone lines -- even after the station provided them with special filters. "They sent a little thing to clip on the phone, but it didn't do much good. All you can hear is the sports radio going loud and clear," says Agnes Elkins, whose house overlooks the site from an upscale hillside development. Locals also complained that the KRKO signal interferes with and sometimes wipes out other AM stations.

Mark Craven, an agri-tourism entrepreneur who runs nearby Craven Farm, says the radio signal has disrupted his walkie-talkies and other machines: "Last year we had to buy new Visa machines. The old ones would cut off mid-transaction."

Craven, who has a clear view of the towers, thinks they detract from the pastoral ambiance of his place. He draws about 50,000 visitors annually with weddings, antique shows, hay rides, baby farm animal petting, and pumpkin picking and flinging. For two years, the pumpkin slingshot's target was a five-foot radio tower built out of rebar with a flashing red light on top. It mimicked KRKO's tallest tower, which was topped in blinking red lights. The model "got totally trashed," says Craven.

The Gigantic 2009 monkey-wrenching occurred shortly after the tower opponents lost another costly round in their legal battle. Seattle FBI special agent Fred Gutt, with the agency's typical taciturnity, says the strike might not even be an act of eco-sabotage. "Just because one group claimed responsibility doesn't mean that they are responsible. We're not even sure if environmental concerns are the motivation for this activity."

KRKO president and general manager Andrew Skotdal, who has kept the station on the air with a weaker signal, suggested early on that the estimated $2 million vandalism might have been done by locals. "I was furious when I heard him being interviewed on the radio," says Craven. "To suggest we might have had something to do with it was just ridiculous."

But anyone could have hung up that "Wassup?" ELF banner. ELF is an enigma; it reportedly has no command structure, no leaders, no meetings, no mailing list. Its small cells are unknown to each other -- a model that "eco-terrorist" researcher Gary Perlstein traces back to Mao Zedong's guerilla warfare in China from the 1920s to the 1940s. "An ELF cell can actually be one single person," says Perlstein, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at Oregon's Portland State University. "The way ELF operates -- and I'm talking about a group that doesn't really exist as a group -- as long as they believe that someone's action is in their interest, they will claim it."

ELF's self-appointed spokesman in Washington, D.C., quickly issued a press release claiming that the group had toppled the towers but acknowledged he hadn't heard directly from anyone involved. To date, says Leslie James Pickering, an ELFer who wrote a book about the group, "The only claim of responsibility I am aware of was the note left at the scene."

The unsuccessful legal battle against the towers became a "textbook case for the necessity of direct action," says Pickering. "When writing letters and protesting for a cause hasn't proven successful -- and it most often isn't -- it does not mean that the cause is unworthy, only that KRKO is unresponsive to public interest when it conflicts with their economic interest."

The FBI considers eco-saboteurs and animal-rights extremists a serious threat. The underground radicals have been linked to more than 2,000 crimes since 1979, a sizable portion of them in the Northwest, a corner of the country that tends to draw tree-, mammal- and fish-huggers who relentlessly recycle, demand cage-free eggs, and bring an almost religious fervor to their love of nature. "You can look at it as a good thing or a bad thing, but we're probably more accepting of these types of organizations than elsewhere in the country," says Perlstein. "Here, nature comes first. Animals are put on pedestals." That sentiment resonates in Ernest Callenbach's landmark 1975 novel Ecotopia, which called for the Northwest to secede from the U.S. and form a separate country dedicated to environmentalism.

The Seattle Times reported that between 1996 and 2001, 18 people were indicted on charges of ELF-related arson and sabotage in the Western U.S. Targets included a slaughterhouse, a timber-company headquarters and several buildings at Colorado's Vail ski resort. ELF also claimed responsibility for a 2001 fire at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture that destroyed decades of research as well as structures. Three women from ELF were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay nearly $6 million in restitution in that case. One of them, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, was also involved in the Vail arson and the toppling of an Oregon power-line tower in 1999, prosecutors said.

The Snohomish Valley area, in particular, has been a hotbed of ELF activity. In 2004, ELF took credit for burning down two homes under construction. Flammable liquids were also found at other housing developments. In 2008, arsonists destroyed three massive luxury homes and damaged a fourth on the "Street of Dreams," a high-efficiency development. They left a sign that said "Built Green? Nope black!" and signed it "ELF."

More recently, following last year's attack on the towers, someone claiming to be from ELF spray-painted graffiti addressed to the Master Builders Association and KRKO on a nearby abandoned warehouse, warning: "If you continue to risk killing children, mother earth and her creations, all your holdings are targets."

The FBI says it is "casting a wide net" in its investigation of the tower toppling. Agents have actively questioned many members of the Citizens group, including Toshenika Rosford, a flower wholesaler who owns a farm adjoining the KRKO site. "I told them to look for drag marks -- because whoever did it must have huge balls," says Rosford. "I was shocked someone had the gall to do it ... somebody really put their life on the line."

Now, 14 months after the attack, tower opponents have their hopes pinned on the Federal Communications Commission. The agency has yet to approve either a permanent operating license for KRKO or a license application for the proposed 1520 AM station. Opponents have jammed the agency with objections in an attempt to sway the process. They took heart in June when the FCC requested additional information from the owners about the new station's impacts. The FCC followed up in mid-October with a letter calling the owners' response incomplete and saying that if the additional information was not received within 30 days, the application for the new station would be dismissed.

At this point, the Citizens group has exhausted its war chest. The group still owes a sizable chunk in legal fees, and is holding ice cream socials, spaghetti dinners, wine tastings and barn sales to raise money. But members believe their fight is important, with implications beyond the local community. Rural land is being developed all over the country, they say, and many small farms struggle to retain their unique character.

In their most recent fight, they pushed an amendment to the county shoreline management program that would prevent any future AM radio towers from being built in places like the valley floodplain along the Snohomish River. On Oct. 13, the county approved the amendment.

It was a sweet moment of victory in the uphill legal battle. And as Bennett says, "We're not done yet."

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund