Firestarter: An exclusive interview with Chelsea Gerlach.
As told to McKenzie Funk
First published in Outside Magazine, September 2007
On our way from Oregon to Vail, we stopped at every major store in every major city in three states. We stopped at every RadioShack. There are only so many, and we could get only so many components at each one without raising suspicions. We bought everything in cash and in small quantities. An alarm clock and maybe a bottle of water from a Fred Meyer. A box of matches from an Albertsons. A spool of wire from a hardware store. We always wore baseball caps to shield our faces from overhead cameras, just in case.
We stopped at a motel in Utah to assemble the timers for the incendiary devices. It was a nightmare. Avalon had instructions, but he'd never built this kind before. These timers were digital, with longer delays than the ones he'd used—delays long enough for us to get down off the mountain and out of the area before the fires started. Half the clocks we bought didn't end up working with the design. We abandoned them altogether after we realized they wouldn't work in the cold.
Once we got to Vail, we tried to drive the fuel—some gas, some diesel—up the mountain one night, but there was too much snow, and my truck got stuck. We spent hours trying to dig it out. There were maybe 75 gallons of fuel in the back, it was starting to get light out, and there were hunters around. We stashed the fuel cans in the woods and got out of there. The fuel was still miles below our target, a string of buildings and ski lifts on a ridge at 11,000 feet; it would have to be hiked up the mountain. We drove a few hours away to meet some others who'd come out from Oregon to help. Now there were a half-dozen of us, but nothing was set. Most of the group just didn't believe it was possible, so they went back to Oregon. I wasn't really thinking that Avalon and I would end up doing it alone, but that's what happened.
I dropped Avalon where we'd hidden the fuel, and we set a meet time for a few days later—long enough for him to hike fuel can after fuel can several miles and hundreds of feet up the hill and hide them near each of the buildings. When I picked him up, he was exhausted. He rested for a few hours in the campsite I'd found way up a logging road, but there wasn't much time: The bulldozers were supposed to start rolling the next day. We finalized our plans, and I dropped him back at a trailhead in Vail. I returned to my camp and waited. The night of October 18 was cold, but I couldn't make a campfire—it might attract attention. I just stood in a forest of pines and firs and took everything in. I barely slept at all.
WE WEREN'T arsonists. Many of our actions didn't involve fires at all, and none of us fit the profile of a pyromaniac. I guess "eco-saboteur" works. To call us terrorists, as the federal government did, is stretching the bounds of credibility. I got involved at a time when a right-winger had just bombed the Oklahoma City federal building—killing 168 people—and anti-abortionists were murdering doctors. But the government characterized the ELF as a top domestic terrorism threat because we burned down unoccupied buildings in the middle of the night. It shows their priorities.
Now that it's all over, I don't mind talking about my own role in the actions, and I don't mind talking about what my codefendants have already said. But otherwise I don't want to say who did what or name names. Maybe that seems funny to people who have condemned me as a snitch. I understand the general principle that turning your friends in to the cops should be discouraged. I understand it in a more personal way than my critics, actually, since I'm doing nine years because my friends turned me in.
It was just that nearly everyone had already admitted guilt, committed suicide, or fled the country, and the idea of spending the rest of your life in prison isn't something you can fathom until you've faced it. I knew that if I refused to cooperate and became a martyr for these actions, I wouldn't have been able to be honest in my critique of what we did. I felt like it was important, for the movement, to speak the truth, and not just be a cheerleader. Other radicals need to learn from us. Simply dismissing us as snitches doesn't explain why we'd all abandoned these tactics years before we were arrested.
I DON'T LIKE the term hippie. It's too associated with dirty, drugged dropouts—which my parents definitely were not. They were back-to-the-landers from Philadelphia who came out west in 1975, bought eight acres of forest outside Sweet Home, Oregon, and built a house. I was born at home, fed nutritional yeast and sprouts, and not allowed much TV. No Happy Meals. My mom was a preschool teacher, then a biology undergrad, and my dad worked at an electronics company. After they divorced in 1980, I lived some of the time in the Eugene area. At Mom's house we got mailings from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd—urgent, graphic accounts of whales being slaughtered. My dad got the Earth First! Journal, and when I kept borrowing it, he got me my own subscription.
When I was 15, I worked for the Northwest Youth Corps, maintaining Oregon's hiking trails. I saw miles and miles of clear-cuts. By the next summer, my dad had given me his old Subaru, which he had a shop paint forest green for me. I drove it to Cove/Mallard, in central Idaho—a huge timber sale inside one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48. That's where I met Avalon, an influential part of the Earth First! campaign. He was 28, and I was 16—the youngest person there.
Through Earth First! I was exposed to deep ecology, the philosophy that all species have inherent rights, that humans don't have dominion over the Earth. From there it isn't a big leap to see that the only ethical society is a sustainable one in harmony with its environment. A sustainable society cannot use fossil fuels to make disposable plastics or produce most of the things that constitute our economy. When I saw that political and economic systems themselves were the problem, working within these systems began to feel not only ineffectual but almost unethical.
It may seem unrealistic to say the problem is civilization itself. To me it's equally unrealistic to say that something like carbon credits are a solution. Running ethanol in SUVs won't change anything. At all. We don't live in a plastic bubble; everything is connected. Things will have to change whether we're ready or not. We're smart enough to learn that if you shit in your water supply, you eventually get sick. As a species, we need to evolve past our self-destructive patterns.
I hesitate to say this, because I don't want to sound like a terrorist. But in 1995, when I was at the Evergreen State College, up in Olympia, Washington, I read the Unabomber Manifesto, which had been published in The Washington Post. I didn't agree with what he did, but what he wrote made sense to me: that the Industrial Revolution had been a disaster, causing psychological suffering in the First World, physical suffering in the Third World, and great damage to the natural world. It was like someone put all this stuff I'd been thinking into words.
At Evergreen, I got involved with the local Earth First! group. We did a blockade of an old-growth-timber sale going ahead under the "salvage rider"—a 1995 congressional provision that exempted some sales from significant environmental regulation. After just a few hours, the blockade was broken up and the timber trucks were rolling. For me it was a turning point: If the people destroying the environment didn't have to follow the law, why should the people defending it?
I saw Avalon not long after that, and I told him I was becoming disillusioned with aboveground activism. He didn't say much to encourage me. I dropped out and soon joined an underground cell.
THE EARTH Liberation Front wasn't a group as such, and Avalon wasn't our leader. In general, we didn't know each other's names, phone numbers, or addresses. We used the ELF label as a way of telling people, "That wasn't just a random fire." Avalon recruited some of us, but we were anarchists—you couldn't tell us what to do. When people had particular skills, like deploying incendiary devices, their experience was respected. I was often the communiqué sender. I was good with words and computers—all the message-relaying and encryption we did weren't intuitive.
Targets were chosen by individuals. For example, someone would find a logging company, do some research, and then talk with whomever else they wanted involved. The first recon was usually a drive-by in a car, and the last involved walking the site at night, wearing all black and watching for neighbors, dogs, security guards, late workers, etc. We looked for spots to place the devices—overhangs, alcoves, anything that would reflect back the heat.
A big factor in selecting target=s was safety—our own and that of other people and nontargeted buildings. We never wanted to put anyone at risk. In Eugene in the late nineties, more than a couple of timber-company offices were saved by the proximity of neighboring homes. In contrast, the Childers Meat Company—a meat-distribution plant that we destroyed in 1999, on Mother's Day—stood away from any homes at the corner of an intersection. The incendiary device we developed involved an electrical current, matches, a road flare, and a bucket of fuel. The term firebomb is misleading. The fires started out with a very small flame that, over the course of ten minutes, got bigger and bigger. It went straight up. It never exploded. It was never a sudden, giant fireball.
We tried to be smart about imagining the ways we could be caught. We mapped out traffic cameras, ATMs, and gas-station cameras so we could drive around them. We cleaned the fingerprints off everything, even wristwatches, which I thought was overkill until I lost a watch climbing over a chain-link fence. We were very good at it. That's why the government didn't know who did these things until someone who was involved told them.
IT WAS OCTOBER 1998 when Avalon showed up at the cabin I shared with my partner, Stan, outside Eugene and asked if we wanted to take part in a really big action. It would be my first arson, and it would be Stan's first action of any kind. We said yes. We went on a walk in the meadow, because we never discussed anything indoors. A few days later, we followed Avalon east in my truck. We didn't know where we were going until we got to Colorado. He told us the target= was the Vail ski area.
I had read about Vail's plans to expand into an 885-acre wilderness where, 15 years prior, Colorado's last wild lynx had been spotted. Vail Resorts seemed like the worst of the worst: not only destroying critical habitat but also destroying local businesses and communities. All for corporate profit earned by building second homes. There had been a large public- outreach campaign, administrative appeals, and lawsuits, but it was still going to happen. If any company deserved to be target=ed, Vail did.
In the predawn hours of October 19, with everyone else but me gone back to Oregon and with no timers, Avalon set all the fires himself, by hand. He had to travel on foot, running from building to building on the mile-and-a-half-long ridge. As he lit the last ones, the flames from the first ones were lighting up the sky. There were some scary moments. A hunter was sleeping in a heated restroom in one of the buildings. Avalon opened the door, saw him there, and left it alone.
Down below, I had no way to be sure he'd be back on time. When I was returning from my campsite to pick him up, I heard over the scanner that the police and fire departments were looking for a blue pickup, which was exactly what I was driving. There was nothing to do but keep going. I had to meet Avalon down in town, at a popular trailhead.
I got there right on time. It was morning, it was light out, and day hikers were showing up. I stayed in my truck and shuffled through my things, pretending to be getting ready for a hike. Up on the trail, Avalon had exchanged his black clothing for the hiker's garb that he'd carried in a backpack, and whenever he heard voices coming, he stepped into the woods and hid.
I waited ten minutes, then 20. After a half-hour, as I was wondering if I should leave, Avalon appeared. He just walked up to the truck and got inside. He said two things: He was injured. And the action was successful. It wasn't the time to get details. I just drove.
The first thing we did was go to a library in Denver, and I looked up his injury: a strained Achilles tendon—he'd done too much running. It required ice, not surgery. We went to a second library. He could barely walk, so I entered alone and e-mailed the communiqué.
In the days that followed, I read the news, and it was funny to see speculation that was so completely off base: that at least a dozen people had been responsible, that it must have been an inside job, etc. People tend to think this stuff is much harder than it actually is. We did $12 million in damage—a big part of the $15,894,755.42 I'm supposed to pay in restitution. The expansion went forward—we didn't stop them—and insurance money paid to replace the buildings. But it didn't pay back the $13 million they lost in revenues. Call that the ELF tax.
And we were looking at a much larger canvas anyway, even if, as we later found out, we each had our own concept of what we were achieving. To some degree Avalon still believed in the political process. He thought we could shift the middle of the debate: By being so far at one extreme, we'd make the rest of the environmental movement appear more reasonable. That didn't really ring true to me from the beginning, and after the fallout from Vail—which turned out to be detrimental to local activism—it was even clearer. But even for Avalon, Vail wasn't really about Vail. It was about what we as a society are doing. It was about inspiring people, and that certainly did happen to some extent.
During the four years that I was most active with the ELF, there were parts of my life that were enjoyable. And there were parts that were not. Like being in a hotel room for days on end, everyone clad in painter's suits and face masks and hairnets and multiple layers of latex gloves, craned over tiny electronic devices and soldering irons. Nothing working out, and all of us sweating, frustrated, yelling at each other.
But then there was running around in the wilderness at night, and this incredible sense of being alive. You got to that point of just being totally in the moment. I felt connected to the natural world and really empowered in defending it. The emotion is hard to articulate—like we'd broken through the veil of what was possible. Like things didn't have to be the way they were. Some would call that idealism.
BY 2001, EVERYTHING was falling apart. People were getting more reckless just when I thought we needed to be more careful. There was reason to believe Jake was on the radar of investigators, but instead of keeping a distance, some of the others invited him along on another action. That spring's trial of Jeff "Free" Luers, an activist who had set fire to three SUVs at Eugene's Romania Chevrolet Truck Center the previous summer, was coming up, and pressure was building. One night in March, Avalon, Stan, and three others (but not Jake) went to Romania and burned another 35 SUVs—an attempt at solidarity.
Many of us who weren't involved in Romania thought it would result in a longer sentence for Free and increase the heat on the activist community. We were right on both counts. Free got 23 years, and, by a twist of fate, Jake ended up becoming a prime suspect in Romania, an action he hadn't done and knew nothing about. Coincidentally, the day after it happened, he was accused of having stolen his former housemate's truck. The cops found the timing of that suspicious—though it was actually unrelated—and he was served with a subpoena. He didn't talk then, but it was the beginning of his relationship with the feds.
Since 2000, we'd been holding meetings of what we called the Praxis Book Club—a forum to discuss techniques and share skills. There'd been one in Eugene, another in Tucson, another in Santa Cruz, another in Olympia. At the fifth and final Praxis meeting, in Sisters, Oregon, things came to a head. Romania had exposed fissures. We talked about them, about strategy in general, and suddenly it was clear that we all had very different ideas about what we were doing and why. In the radical movement there is a lot of reading and philosophizing about direct action, and we'd wanted to focus on actually doing it. We should have had that discussion much earlier. There didn't seem to be any reason to meet again. I decided it wasn't safe for me to stick around, and I left Eugene.
A few months later came September 11. I was in another hotel room, getting ready to do another recon. The TV in the next room was blaring: A plane had hit a building or something. So I turned on my own TV and watched all day. The newscasters kept talking about all the crazy security; everything was on high alert. Military jets kept flying back and forth overhead—the hotel was near an Air Force base. It was the wrong time to be creeping around in black in the middle of the night, and we called the recon off.
My aunt lives in Connecticut, and my grandmother was in Philadelphia, and that November my family and I went out for Thanksgiving. Before my flight back out of JFK, I took a few hours to visit Ground Zero. The World Trade Center and Pentagon had been the heart of an American empire responsible for a lot of violence around the world, so I wasn't shocked by the attack. But I wasn't hardened to it, either. It was a tragedy, and Ground Zero was a powerful place. I walked around sobbing.
AFTER LEAVING EUGENE in 2001, I spent six months hiding out in Canada. This time was like an extended retreat for me. In my years as an activist, I'd never taken any time for myself. The problems of the world were so urgent, I felt like it was self-indulgent to just relax and have fun. But it was a mistake not to have a balanced life. We'd sacrificed so much that our egos were enmeshed in our actions. We were so steeped in bitterness about the world that it spilled over into the group and broke us apart. Away from all that, I could see it more clearly, and I decided I wanted to do things differently.
My move away from my ELF cell was a gradual process, and it was hard. I was still underground. I'd started living with Darren, a Canadian activist who'd done time for animal releases, and he wasn't legally allowed in the country. We went to San Francisco, then Portland, both using fake identities. We couldn't talk to any of our new friends about our past. I had a pre-paid cell phone to call my family, and I was very careful about when and where I turned it on.
In Portland I started DJ'ing. The beat that defines house music is the same beat as a human heart; the connection to life and the Earth is intuitive. I often played music with a subversive, overtly political message. It was January of 2005 when I played a party in Eugene and Jake showed up, already wearing his FBI wire. I didn't want to be rude, but I didn't spend much time talking to him.
The following October, he showed up in line at a Portland coffee shop. I made small talk and bought him some food, since he'd always been broke, but I didn't tell him anything. In late November of 2005, a week before my arrest, I played one of my best sets ever, at a martial-arts studio in Eugene. The studio had been decorated in a jungle motif—big plants and overhead netting—and I played African-influenced rhythms until the whole place was jumping up and down.
Jake just happened to stop by. The government had arranged to have a Childers Meat Company truck parked right out front, hoping it would prompt me to reminisce about the action. It didn't work. I was focused on performing, and the agents got to listen to boom boom boom all night.
THE DAY I WAS ARRESTED, I'd driven to a coffee shop in northwest Portland and was stopped outside. Two cop cars blocked the intersection in front of me, and one came up from behind. There were at least two others. The agents approached my door, guns drawn, and yelled, "Put your hands on the steering wheel." They pulled me out, handcuffed me, and stuffed me in the back of an unmarked sedan.
At the FBI headquarters, they showed me a picture of the Bonneville Power Administration tower we'd downed. They said other people had been arrested and were talking, and that I should, too. I asked if I could have a cigarette. They let me go outside. I don't smoke very often, but I knew I was going to jail for a while, and I wanted to take advantage of my last bit of freedom. I watched some birds and tried to take in the trees, wind, grass, and sky. When I came back in, I went to the restroom and threw up.
I resisted cooperating for almost two months. I argued and argued with my court-appointed lawyer. I didn't think it was ethical to put someone else in jail so I could get out of jail. Just before Christmas, Avalon killed himself in his cell. I learned that other people were beginning to talk, one after another. Soon I knew of at least eight, six of whom would testify against me. I was facing a mandatory minimum of 35 years, and it reached a point where I felt my cooperation wouldn't put anyone in jail. So I talked.
Later, some of my codefendants got a deal in which they were allowed to cooperate without naming names. This wasn't possible for me. They had minor roles in one or two arsons in Oregon. I could have been indicted for nine major actions in five separate federal districts spanning the entire period of the conspiracy, so I had much greater culpability. Colorado investigators were determined to get me to say who else was involved in the Vail arson. They were convinced Avalon and I couldn't have done it alone, and they seemed disappointed when I told them the truth.
Jail is overwhelmingly beige. I rarely get to see anything natural or beautiful here, except, occasionally, small bits of sky. I have a daily routine. Sleep through 5:30 a.m. breakfast. Lunch at 10:30. Read the newspaper. Exercise for two or three hours. Yoga. Shower. Write letters. Eat dinner. Work on whatever requires concentration after lights-out. Meditate for an hour or two. Sleep.
I'd never been a particularly spiritual person, but meditation came to me as a way to be at peace with a seemingly untenable situation. I've started to feel more grounded—more intertwined with the spirit of life while alone in my concrete box than I did during much of my time in the free world. Activists need to incorporate this internal work into the movement. It's the basis of true compassion. Once you realize that there's really no "them"—no other—moral action is not sacrifice. It's just aligning yourself with what is good.
WERE WE WRONG? I don't know if I can answer that yet.
I don't regret doing what I felt was right. I don't regret trying to protect the environment. I had good intentions, and I don't regret that I dedicated so much of my life to this. I can't change the past, and I'm not sure I would. The actions were important for my personal evolution—and also for the evolution of the radical movement. I wouldn't be where I am without those experiences. I don't mean sitting in jail. I mean my mind-set.
Even now I can't say that destroying property is always wrong. Our main motive at Vail and in other actions was to inspire people, and we did that. But we were wrong to think more people would adopt our tactics. I can finally understand why they didn't. Activism is motivated fundamentally by compassion and a desire for peace. It's a big step to use force, and it should be.
It's an act of violence to close your heart to anyone, even for a moment. We were certainly guilty of that. We didn't really consider how our actions would impact individuals. We felt the pain of the Earth, and that was what we focused on. A few lost jobs didn't even measure on the scale of the extinction of species. But it doesn't matter what the scale is. You're hurting someone, and you have to grapple with the consequences of that.
True compassion has to apply to everyone: lynx and skiers. I apologized to my victims in court, and I meant it. I couldn't have done that two years ago. The primary responsibility we have as activists and as human beings is to ensure that whatever action we take is based on love. In my involvement with the ELF, we didn't do that, and in that sense we failed.
In martial arts there's a concept that you're not fighting against another person but taking a stand against violence itself. You use only the minimum amount of force necessary to stop an attack. I'm in jail. I'm not going to be doing any more direct action, and I'm not saying anyone else should. But what would a truly moral direct action look like? Maybe it would mean taking in the pain of your victims—opening your heart to them, being wholly present with them—and at the same time truly taking in the pain they're causing to the natural world. Meditating on it. Fully contemplating it. And then, at the end of that process, perhaps deciding that the most compassionate thing in the world is to light their buildings on fire.