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Know the West

Burning one for the road

Ecoterrorists strike in Southern California, and an SUV owners’ group lashes out at environmentalists


Occupying nebulous ground between a military Humvee and a limousine, General Motors’ Hummer H2 represents American ingenuity and corporate marketing at its best. The 316-horsepower H2 weighs in at 8,600 pounds, can ford water up to 20 inches deep, and gets somewhere between 8 and 10 miles per gallon. With its $50,000 price tag, it also comes with a 6-disk CD changer and leather seats and is available in colors like “sunset orange metallic.” Popular among “soccer moms,” urban hipsters and celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and rapper Coolio, the Hummer has also become a unifying symbol among environmentalists lobbying both Detroit and Washington, D.C., for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Its cumbersome size and chic status make the Hummer an easy target: Earlier this summer, the Sierra Club launched its “Hummerdinger” Web site, featuring a spoof of GM’s advertisements for the vehicle. Even Arianna Huffington, the Independent gubernatorial candidate in California’s recall election, has taken a stab at the Hummer: On her Web site, she pokes fun at Republican candidate Schwarzenegger and his yellow Hummer.

But in Southern California, radical environmentalists went beyond virtual criticism and took direct action against the gas-guzzlers: At the end of August, vandals swarmed four car dealerships, destroying or damaging more than 100 H2s and SUVs. A West Covina Chevy dealership was hardest hit: Vandals torched about 20 H2s and set fire to a parts warehouse, damaging 20 more H2s and Chevy Tahoes — and causing about $1 million in damage.

Smoke and (rearview) mirrors

Once the smoke cleared, investigators found “terrorist,” “killer,” “gross polluter,” “American Wastefulness” and “ELF” spray-painted across the vehicles. And by the next morning, the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, had claimed credit for the crimes on its Web site.

The amorphous underground group was spawned by disgruntled activists in 1992, after Earth First! abandoned its “monkey-wrenching” sabotage tactics. Since 1997, ELF has claimed responsibility for more than $100 million in property damage across the nation, including fires at a Vail, Colo., ski area, a Phoenix subdivision and a logging company’s headquarters in Oregon (HCN, 11/9/98: Vail fires outrage community) (HCN, 2/1/99: ELF strikes again).

Despite the high visibility of its actions, ELF, which the FBI considers a domestic terrorist organization, has remained elusive to investigators. Individuals commit “direct action” under guidelines listed on the ELF Web site, then leave graffiti or banners at the scene of the crime, proclaiming solidarity with the ELF cause. Then, the ELF Web site posts press releases, claiming ELF responsibility for the action. In the wake of the Hummer attack, the ELF Web site has been shut down (an FBI spokeswoman says her agency is not responsible).

Road rage

While FBI investigators seek underground criminals, SUV Owners of America (SUVOA) is looking for someone visible to blame. SUVOA, which bills itself as a nonprofit — but which watchdogs call an “industry front group” — has accused the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as well as Arianna Huffington, of inciting the violence. Rob DeFore, SUVOA’s communications director, says the environmental groups’ campaigns have given “political permission” to groups like ELF to commit crimes.

Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming and energy program, says acts of violence undermine the efforts of environmentalists who are working with automakers and Congress to develop more responsible vehicles. Both the Sierra Club and NRDC also condemn SUVOA’s efforts to link them to the vandals. “We and other mainstream environmental organizations advocate tougher fuel efficiency standards,” says Daniel Hinerfeld, spokesman for NRDC. “To try and associate (us) with ELF is nuts.”

The author is an assistant editor for High Country News.