The battle of Bear Creek: New threat in America's backyard

An attack by eco-terrorists on one of Seattle's most exclusive enclaves has exposed the dark side of environmental activism. By Leonard Doyle reports

When developers were looking for a new "Street of Dreams" to market to Seattle's upscale homebuyers, they alighted on Woodinville, a peaceful wooded community in Snohomish County, about 25 miles north of the city.

Known for its stables and boutique wineries, it seemed a perfect location to build the next generation of million-dollar show homes. And, in a twist to attract the eye of upscale Prius-driving buyers from Seattle, the houses would be built to the latest environmental standards.

They would be marketed as low carbon footprint or "built green" in developer-speak. It was a win-win formula and so confident were the developers in their eco-marketing skills that they overrode the opposition of residents, certain that environmentally aware liberals wishing to flee Seattle, would scramble to buy the houses.

Today those dreams are in ruins, along with five of the luxury buildings, put to the torch in the early hours of Monday, apparently by members of the Earth Liberation Front. The FBI has been called in and the attack is being investigated as "a domestic-terrorism act" because "there's a claim of ELF responsibility", according to Fred Gutt, a special agent with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Seattle. "Built green?" read the spray-painted letters on a sheet left hanging on a builder's fence at the site, "Nope Black!" The sheet was also signed with the letters ELF.

No one was injured because none of the houses was occupied. Neighbours said they were woken by what they thought was gunfire or explosions and fire-fighters fearing booby-traps let the buildings burn.

Far from complementing the wooded wetlands, many believed any houses built there would threaten the delicate ecosystem and, with it, the endangered Chinook salmon. Opponents of the development argued forcibly but in vain that the development would pollute nearby Bear Creek as well as the wetlands that feed it. But it did not take a radical environmentalist to appreciate the potential harm posed by the development. After a near-miraculous journey across the Pacific Ocean and up Bear Creek, the Chinook salmon spawns in the icy headwaters.

There, the tiny alevins, with a transparent body and enormous eyes, develop. Millions are born in the streams that feed Bear Creek, surviving off their yolk sacs before turning into a fry, a real fish with small fins and scales capable of making its way back to the Pacific Ocean.

However cleverly designed with the latest energy-saving materials, the very construction of new houses in the wetlands and new hardtop roads to service them created a source of oil-polluted runoff water that environmentalists say will potentially kill millions of tiny fish. For the ELF, it seems to have boiled down to a choice between the salmon and the expensive houses that no locals wanted anyway.

The ELF, a collection of loosely organised environmentalists and animal rights advocates with a history of direct action across the United States, has been hard for the authorities to crack although members have taken responsibility for attacks on property across the US over the past few years.

The FBI's Mr Gutt alluded to the agency's frustration when he told The New York Times: "There's no membership rolls. There's no clubhouse. It's more of an ideology. They're organised only to the extent of maybe cells that get together and decide to act on their belief."

The developers and estate agents were equally mystified. They had promoted the houses as "best practice", and their literature emphasised landscaping that requires minimal water, footpaths that minimise runoff into drains and the use of recycled timber.

Looking at the charred remains of the "dream homes", the developer, Grey Lundberg, shook his head and said: "It's just so ironic. I can't even begin to fathom that mentality; we were trying to demonstrate a better way to build out here."

The houses are part of a "rural cluster development" which architects and planners claim prevents sprawl by limiting development density in rural areas. Known as Quinn's Crossing at Yarrowbay Communities, the development has less than a dozen houses on a small cul-de-sac in an area which, up till now, has been only had self-built houses and mobile homes.

Tours of luxury houses are common in the US, but Seattle claims to have "the most popular and highest-attended single- site luxury home and garden tour in the US". To drum up business, thousands of people from across Washington State would pay to tour the new houses. It's a tried and trusted formula, used by developers in the posher parts of cities and suburbs in North America.

The new houses were showcased at Seattle's 2007 "Street of Dreams" in which developers first build the top-of-the-line houses and have them decorated by local designers and lushly landscaped by local firms. To get a "greenbuilt" designation, the houses had to be priced less than $2m (£1m) and have an undetermined amount of "environmentally friendly elements".

At the smouldering ruins on Monday, sightseer Lois Keer said she wanted to see "the shameful thing that happened". But her husband, Loren, was more worried about the speed at which developers' bulldozers were carving out new sub-divisions for executives' houses. "I don't feel sorry for the developer," he said, and cited over-development and the slapdash methods of the builders.

Eric Olsen, 21, who grew up in Woodinville and lives a few streets from the fire, told reporters that many neighbours remained angry that the development had destroyed beaver dams as well as backwoods trails. The new roads in the area were pushing oil-polluted runoff into the very streams where the Chinook spawn, he said.

Told that the ELF had claimed responsibility for the fires he said "Stick it to the man!", quickly adding: "I'm not supportive of those tactics but there's been far too much development. Nobody wanted it." For many years, the Pacific North-west has been a breeding ground for environmental activism and the sort of direct action favoured by the ELF.

Its members, who tend to be young, politically aware and well educated, have been firebombing car dealerships, ski resorts and developments for years, almost never endangering human life. Its members have attacked government buildings, farms, a McDonald's outlet by the Space Needle, car dealerships and the University of Washington's research facilities. Between 1990 and 2004, the ELF and its sister organisation the Animal Liberation Front, were responsible for more than 1,200 incidents costing tens of millions of dollars, US officials say.

The ELF has set fires and caused explosions to protest against what its members say is corporate and government complicity in ruining America's environment. A 1998 arson fire at a Vail, Colorado, ski resort did damage reckoned at $12m, and in 1999, power lines in Oregon were sabotaged; attacks have also been launched in Utah, Virginia, California and Wyoming. By 2005, FBI officials were telling Congress that these domestic terror attacks were growing in "frequency and size" and there were at least 150 investigations. "It's underground," said Katie Fedor, a spokeswoman for the ELF, after it set fire to two Department of Agriculture buildings a decade ago. It does illegal, direct action. It operates in cells."

When caught, the ELF members are invariably treated as domestic terrorists. Many have been sentenced to decades behind bars in some of the harshest prison conditions in the US. Jeffrey Luers, who helped firebomb 4x4 vehicles on a car dealer's forecourt, got 22 years. His sentence was reduced to 10 years last month after an international campaign for a more appropriate sentence for a crime in which no one was hurt.

The US, which has never taken kindly to malicious attacks on property, began treating members of the ELF as dangerous terrorists after the September 11 attacks. In a courthouse this week in Seattle, a federal jury began deliberating on an arson attack in 2001 at the University of Washington. Before the court is Briana Waters, a 32-year-old violin teacher accused of serving as a lookout while her friends planted a firebomb at the Centre for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington. ELF members believed, mistakenly it now seems, that researchers were genetically altering larch trees. Ms Waters, who testified that she had nothing to do with the arson, could face as long as 35 years in prison if convicted. Though no one was hurt in the blaze, the department building was ruined and it will cost $7m to rebuild.

The houses at Quinn's Crossing will be rebuilt in time, but there may be more serious consequences for Ms Waters as her trial proceeds, given the country's high state of anxiety about anything that smacks of terrorism. Her lawyer asked the judge to declare a mistrial on Monday after news of the alleged ELF attack broke, saying that the publicity surrounding the fires was bound to influence the jury.

"It is inconceivable that anybody who is supporting Briana's case could have been responsible for this," he said. Not surprisingly, the judge rejected his plea.

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