Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the controversial Earth Liberation Front set a fire in the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado in the name of protecting the habitat of the Canadian lynx, the action caused millions of dollars in damages and brought the topic of ecoterrorism to the attention of the American public.

Summary of Event

On October 19, 1998, a fire at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado destroyed three new buildings, including a lodge at the top of the mountain and the Two Elk Restaurant, and damaged four ski lifts. Investigators found empty plastic jugs that had contained gasoline near the structures and evidence that the fire had been set at numerous places around the structures. An e-mail message attributed to the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group, stated that the fire was set in retaliation for the resort’s planned expansion onto more than four thousand acres of national forest land that was among the last existing habitat for the Canadian lynx in Colorado. The Vail arson brought the attention of the American public to ecoterrorism and to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Environmental activism;Earth Liberation Front Environmental organizations Earth Liberation Front Terrorist acts [kw]Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson (Oct. 19, 1998) [kw]Arson, Earth Liberation Front Resorts to (Oct. 19, 1998) Environmental activism;Earth Liberation Front Environmental organizations Earth Liberation Front Terrorist acts [g]North America;Oct. 19, 1998: Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson[10170] [g]United States;Oct. 19, 1998: Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson[10170] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 19, 1998: Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson[10170] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Oct. 19, 1998: Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson[10170] [c]Crime and scandal;Oct. 19, 1998: Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson[10170] Rosebraugh, Craig

In the 1980’s, Earth First! Earth First! was the most widely known radical environmental group. Its tactics included “monkeywrenching,” acts of sabotage and property destruction directed against those the organization’s supporters perceived as damaging the natural environment. Monkeywrenching Ecological sabotage Among the monkeywrenchers’ techniques were tree spiking Tree spiking (embedding large nails deep into trees to interfere with saw blades, to prevent the cutting of trees or the milling of their lumber), sabotage of logging and construction equipment, and arson. When the leaders of Earth First! decided to abandon criminal acts as a tactic and move the organization into the political mainstream, members who disagreed with the decision founded the Earth Liberation Front in Brighton, England, in 1992.

The remains of Vail Mountain’s Two Elk Restaurant on October 20, 1998, after a fire destroyed the facility. The ecoterrorist group Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the arson that caused more than $12 million in damages to facilities at the Colorado ski resort.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

ELF is an international underground organization consisting of anonymous and autonomous individuals and groups that use direct action and acts of economic sabotage and property destruction (acts they would describe as “ecodefense” rather than “ecoterrorism”) to stop what they perceive to be threats to the natural environment. ELF uses the tactic of “leaderless resistance”; it has no central authority, no membership, no public meetings, and no mailing lists. All ELF actions are driven by individual conscience. The Earth Liberation Front has a connection with the Animal Liberation Front Animal Liberation Front (ALF), another organization composed of small groups of hard-line activists. ELF and ALF have similar structures, and both use individuals designated as spokespersons to communicate with the public. In fact, ELF is more an outgrowth of the European animal-rights movement than it is a product of the American environmental movement. In 1993, ELF was listed for the first time along with ALF in a communiqué declaring solidarity in actions between the two organizations.

The Earth Liberation Front advocates any direct action necessary to halt what it sees as the destruction of the environment. This includes economic sabotage and property destruction within certain nonviolent guidelines. ELF targets those it perceives as profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment while taking all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human or nonhuman. Arson has been the most destructive technique utilized by the group.

Although ELF received particular public attention with the arson at the Vail Ski Resort in 1998, the organization had claimed responsibility for a number of criminal acts conducted before that event. For example, in October, 1996, ALF and ELF claimed joint responsibility when a U.S. Forest Service truck was torched in the parking lot of the ranger district headquarters in Detroit, Oregon, causing $15,000 in damages. Two days later, ALF and ELF also claimed that they had set a fire that destroyed a U.S. Forest Service station south of Eugene, Oregon, causing an estimated $5.3 million in damages. Three more attacks were attributed to ALF and ELF activists in Oregon in 1997: tree spiking in the Willamette National Forest at a Robinson-Scott timber harvest site, arson at a meatpacking plant in Redmond, and the destruction of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management horse barn, chutes, and pens in Hines.

In 1998, ecoterrorist activities occurred in several other U.S. states, including Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Among the acts for which ELF claimed responsibility were the release of minks and ferrets from a United Vaccines laboratory in Wisconsin, the release of five thousand minks from a private farm in Michigan, the freeing of about forty wild horses from a corral in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the spray painting of the Mexican consulate in Boston to protest the treatment of peasants in Chiapas, Mexico. ELF also claimed responsibility for two arson fires in Oregon and one in Washington in addition to the fire at the Vail resort.

In 1999, arson continued to be ELF’s tactic of choice. In that year, ELF activists claimed responsibility for three fires: one in Escanaba, Michigan, that destroyed a boat owned by a veterinarian who once worked as a mink farmer, a second at a timber management office in Monmouth, Oregon, and a third at an office on the campus of Michigan State University. The last of these was said to be a protest against the university’s financing of the development of genetically modified crops. By 2004, John Lewis, the deputy director of the Counterterrorism Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), estimated that ALF and ELF had committed more than one thousand criminal acts and had caused more than $100 million in damages.

Because the Earth Liberation Front has no formal membership, it is difficult to generalize about the individuals who support the movement. Craig Rosebraugh, who served as spokesman for ELF for more than four years, perhaps best personifies the supporters of that organization. Young, educated, and white, Rosebraugh, who owned a vegan bakery in Portland, Oregon, became involved with the Animal Liberation Front after he spent a night in jail with an ALF activist in 1997. Within three months, Rosebraugh made his first statement on behalf of ALF when he announced that ALF activists had broken into a mink farm and released hundreds of animals. Soon thereafter, Rosebraugh switched to ELF and announced the organization’s claim of responsibility for the arson in Vail, Colorado. From that time until September, 2001, Rosebraugh released to the mass media statements sent to him by ELF activists. Rosebraugh was also a frequent speaker at animal-rights conferences. His activities attracted the attention of the FBI, which in 2002 listed ELF as the biggest and most active terrorist group in the United States.


Unlike mainstream environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club, the Earth Liberation Front is part of a movement that justifies criminal activity as a method for protesting and preventing threats to the natural environment. Although ELF employs radical methods to achieve its goals, it does not advocate the use of violence directed toward individuals. Perhaps the greatest threat of such a movement is its potential to inspire violence on the part of other activists. For example, ELF’s rejection of violence directed at individuals led to frustration among some activists within the movement, some of whom formed even more radical organizations. One such ecoterrorist group, the Justice Department, Justice Department (ecoterrorist group) which started in the United Kingdom in 1993, claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks using letter bombs and envelopes rigged with poison. In January, 1996, this movement claimed responsibility for sending razor blades dipped in rat poison to eighty researchers and hunting guides in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, and the United States. Environmental activism;Earth Liberation Front Environmental organizations Earth Liberation Front Terrorist acts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liddick, Donald R., Jr. Eco-terrorism: Radical Environmental and Animal Liberation Movements. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides a thorough examination of the environmental terrorist movement. Discusses the history of the movement as well as the ideologies, methods, and rhetoric of individual groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFall, Kathleen. Ecoterrorism: The Next American Revolution? Gold Beach, Oreg.: High Sierra Books, 2005. Examines the backgrounds and motivations of the people involved in the ecoterrorism movement. Features interviews with and profiles of ELF supporters, including former spokesman Craig Rosebraugh.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosebraugh, Craig. Burning Rage of a Dying Planet: Speaking for the Earth Liberation Front. New York: Lantern Books, 2004. The spokesperson for ELF from 1997 to September, 2001, describes the history and ideology of the movement and evaluates the use of violence within the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Logic of Political Violence: Lessons in Reform and Revolution. Portland, Oreg.: Arissa Media Group, 2003. Discusses the roles played by nonviolent and violent protest in social and political movements in the United States and around the world. Argues that a political and social revolution is needed in the United States.

Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace

The Monkey Wrench Gang Advocates “Ecotage”

Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Lovelock Publishes Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Is Founded

“Deep Ecology” Platform Is Drafted

Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”

Categories: History