Washington eco-saboteurs topple towers

Monkey-wrenching of radio station doesn't last

  • Two KRKO radio towers, pushed down by vandals last fall near Snohomish, Washington.

    Michael O'Leary/The Everett Herald
  • A banner, signed "ELF," was left near the towers.

    Michael O'Leary/The Everett Herald
  • Lee Bennett, president of Citizens to Preserve the Upper Snohomish River Valley, has led the 10-year legal battle against the radio towers (in the background) and says, "We're not done yet."

    M.L. Lyke

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.

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