If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

A new documentary gives viewers a rare inside look at the workings of the Earth Liberation Front, a group the FBI once considered America’s top domestic terrorist threat.
A thought-provoking documentary released this past June takes a rare, intimate look inside radical environmental activism. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, is directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman. It centers on Daniel McGowan, an unassuming former member of a local E.L.F. group. McGowan was arrested in 2005 for domestic terrorism when federal agents swept his office workplace, years after McGowan had left the small activist group.

Prior to 2001, the F.B.I categorized E.L.F. as America’s top domestic terrorist threat. No one was harmed by E.L.F., but the leaderless, anonymous network of local environmental groups caused millions of dollars in damage. Acting under E.L.F., these groups burnt down factories and businesses, sabotaged work equipment, and chained themselves to trees, among other things. McGowan was involved in burning down two empty factories. What would have been charges of arson were exaggerated by his connection to an E.L.F.-affiliated group. His sister, Lisa McGowan, says in the film, “They wanted to give him 330 years for burning down two empty buildings.”

“If A Tree Falls” examines the development of radical environmentalism and the string of property destruction carried out by E.L.F. members beginning in the 1990s. It also looks unflinchingly at the government’s definition of terrorism in a post-9/11 world, and how that has been applied to acts of environmental activism.

Curry and Cullman present both sides of the issue without bias. The film asks viewers to think about whether crimes such as arson should be categorized as terrorism, and to consider whether nonviolent environmental activism can effect real change.