Burning Down the Houses

The Earth Liberation Front Targets Long Island Sprawl

An hour east of New York City, along the former rural Route 25A, the occasional roadside nursery and peach farm stand out like orphans among the business strips and office tracts of the island’s North Shore. The farms are fast disappearing in Suffolk County, and the way developer Lennard Axxin sees it, the land he bought from a former sod farmer ""is worth a lot more as land for real-estate development than as land for broccoli."" Even if you can manage to make a living as a farmer on Long Island, he adds, ""you’re really under-utilizing your property."" The staccato punch of pneumatic hammers drives his point home. Workmen are framing luxury houses at Axxin’s development, Island Estates at Mount Sinai. At this sold-out "private neighborhood of elegant single-family estates,"" prices start at $400,000.

Island Estates is just the sort of sprawl to draw the ire of the underground Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical international movement that calls itself ""the dying rage of the burning planet."" Since 1997, ELF has claimed responsibility for numerous acts of economic sabotage in the U.S., ranging from the release of 5,000 minks at a Michigan fur farm and arson against logger Boise Cascade in Oregon to a $17 million fire bombing at a Vail ski resort.

ELF has made Long Island’s North Shore its latest battleground in what it has declared "an unbounded war on urban sprawl," leaving its calling card in the form of arson against new luxury homes and condominiums last December at Mount Sinai and the adjacent towns of Miller Place and Middle Island. Apparently started with crude incendiary devices—candles stuck inside sponges shoved into bottles of gasoline—the fires have caused $260,000 in damages (not the "millions" that ELF claimed).

Earth Liberation Front arsonists inflicted $250,000 worth of damage on newly built luxury homes in the Mount Sinai region of Long Island. An arrest has been made in the case.
Courtesy of Goldman

The group has also claimed responsibility for ""decommissioning"" bulldozers and other construction equipment, shattering hundreds of windows and spray-painting slogans such as "Earth Not For Sale"" and "Build It and We Will Burn It"" at new home sites. In December, it claimed joint responsibility with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) for smashing windows and spray-painting anti-meat slogans at a Long Island McDonald"s, a corporation the groups suggest represents ""the core idea of American capitalism, which places profit, power and greed ahead of life.""

Why the sabotage?

"Urban sprawl has undoubtedly served to alter nearly 90 percent of Long Island’s habitats, either by physically removing them, paving them, or polluting them with toxic man-made materials, making them either undesirable or unsustainable for most species,"" the group stated in a November communiqu?. It was one of numerous missives to the press sent by the group’s above-ground spokesperson, Craig Rosebraugh of Portland, Oregon, whose home has periodically been raided by federal authorities bent on solving arsons attributed to ELF. In another such communiqu?, the group claimed responsibility for several attacks on a development in Coram, Long Island, protesting that this former state-protected land includes "the fragile wetland habitat of the threatened Blue Heron, Night Heron and Painted Turtle." In December, ELF claimed responsibility for fires at the Island Estates at Mount Sinai, calling them ""an early New Years [sic] gift to Long Island’s environmental destroyers.""

If the Long Island arsons are the work of ELF, they are not isolated incidents. Last year, the FBI credited an unknown Phoenix arsonist with causing at least $5 million in damage by torching nine luxury homes bordering the environmentally sensitive Phoenix Mountains Preserve. In a January interview with the alternative weekly The Phoenix New Times, a man claiming to be both a management professional and an admirer of ELF stepped forward as "the Preserves Arsonist.""

Rosebraugh, who says he has been threatened with contempt for declining to answer questions posed by a federal grand jury about the Vail arsons, did not respond to several requests for a telephone interview.

A New York-based Earth First! affiliate member, Adam Weissman, is careful to draw distinctions between the ""tree-sitting"" civil disobedience of much of the Earth First! practitioners and the more monkey-wrenching tactics of economic sabotage practiced by ELF, which was founded by former Earth First! members in England in 1992. Weissman suggests that the groups have different, but complementary, goals. ""With all the media people who are running all over themselves to paint the Earth Liberation Front as evil, as eco-terrorists, suddenly suburban sprawl is on the map as a national issue,"" says Weissman. ""These are issues that people have been fighting, but until there was a scary terrorist face to paint on those actions, they didn’t merit media attention.""

Alan J. Leo of Coram, Long Island, president of the Open Space Preservation Trust, isn’t sure ELF is helping his cause. "I would love to say, "Yes, it is a wake-up call because of the importance of the issues involved," but realistically, I don’t really think so,"" says Leo. "I think the economic pressures and the development pressures are so severe on Long Island it really isn’t going to help anyone’s cause by becoming involved in these types of terrorist activities."

As to who lit the matches, in mid-November Jared McIntyre, a high school senior and the son of a local police sergeant, pleaded guilty to arson in the case. McIntyre, who says he is an ELF member, also reportedly agreed to cooperate with a wide-ranging group of investigators. The FBI has brought together ""a complement of people from the Joint-Terrorist Task Force,"" according to FBI Special Agent Jim Margolin, and teamed them with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and members of the Suffolk County Police Department.

At Island Estates, most residents are loath to talk. "We personally would just rather put it behind us,"" says one resident who stood with a group of neighbors in a driveway. But artist David Stein welcomed a reporter in for a brief tour of his new customized home. Stein says that, as a Baby Boomer who took part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations, he’s somewhat sympathetic to the professed goals of the perpetrators, but he disagrees with their tactics. "Whatever their point was, they could have laid down in front of the bulldozers," Stein says. "Do they really think that, once we’ve moved in, we’re going to get up and move away?"