When Environmentalists Get Frustrated
By Jesse Medalia Strauss, American University
If A Tree Falls is a documentary directed, produced, written, and edited by Marshall Curry, best known for his Academy Award-nominated film, Street Fight. His new film pieces together the rise and fall of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
ELF is an environmentalist group responsible for targeted arsons in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The group burned down the nation's largest ski resort in Vail, Colorado, several SUV dealerships, the Superior Lumber Company, and other targets.
Now that the FBI has tracked down and arrested the major American players in ELF, the movie focuses primarily on Daniel McGowan, who directly planned and participated in arson attacks for ELF. He is an environmental activist who has been convicted as a terrorist, now serving an eight-year sentence. He currently is being held at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, built specifically to confine terrorists.
The film follows McGowan and his family as he remains under house arrest in an apartment in midtown Manhattan, while he awaits trial. McGowan certainly does not look the way you might imagine your stereotypical domestic terrorist. He seems much more like a young Woody Allen than a Timothy McVeigh: a neurotic native New Yorker. McGowan is a young, nerdy family man who does not seem like he could hurt a fly. It is worth noting that, despite its members having been charged with terrorism, ELF is responsible for zero deaths or injuries.
Regardless of the focus on McGowan, what makes If A Tree Falls special is the access Curry obtained to tell all sides of McGowan's story, not just McGowan's point of view. The film is a real marriage of all sides and perspectives. Curry does his best to be fair or at least respectful to all parties. It is refreshing because most documentaries, especially environmental ones, tend to be one-sided. Documentaries of this ilk tend to include the line "… declined to be interviewed in this film."
Curry conducted extensive interviews with the FBI agents who worked on McGowan's case, workers at Superior Lumber Company, McGowan's father, sister and wife, and even former ELF members poised to testify against McGowan. Together, these interviews form a well-rounded and complete mosaic that leaves the viewer with a fair, even-handed understanding of McGowan's situation.
If A Tree Falls raises two primary questions that every citizen of the United States should ponder. Firstly, what is the next step after peaceful protests, demonstrations, and petitions fall on deaf ears? Secondly, what constitutes terrorism?
It has been 105 years since President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act and created the National Park System. It has been 41 years since President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet America's environmental problems are numerous and growing.
According to the film, since the country's founding the United States has cut down 95 percent of its forests. Trees as old as 500 years are chopped down every day and reduced to fodder for the logging industry. As you read this, fracking, a process that involves drilling for natural gas with many kinds of chemicals, is contaminating our water supply. An oil spill is rushing into Yellowstone River and its wetlands. Every second, more greenhouse gases enter our atmosphere.
Just recently, House Republicans released their Appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior for FY 2012. This bill included significant cuts to the budgets for the EPA, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also included riders that would allow companies to dump pesticides without a permit, prevent regulation on mountain-top removal for mining, prevent regulation of greenhouse gases, block funding for listing new endangered species, and allow uranium mining to take place in the Grand Canyon.
The word "terrorism" has defined the last ten years of American history. Yet America still struggles to define the word itself. The FBI would argue that ELF's tactics of targeting specific sites for arson was a terror tactic, meant to strike fear into law-abiding individuals who happen to be harming the environment. This action surmounts to terrorism under the law. ELF and Daniel would argue that their tactics were not meant to strike fear, but to inflict enough property damage to prevent what they saw as environmental vandalism. Property damage is a far lesser offense than terrorism.
The film leaves the viewer to decide whether Daniel McGowan, a young working New Yorker with a brand-new family, is a terrorist or vandal, and whether ELF as a whole is an ecoterrorist organization or protectors of what little nature we have left. As If A Tree Falls makes clear, there’s an adage that rings true, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
Jesse Medalia Strauss grew up in New York City's Upper West Side and studies film and media at American University in Washington, DC. Formerly a TalkingScience intern, Jesse is now a video producer for TalkingScience.