In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested by four federal agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF. For years, the ELF had launched spectacular acts of arson against dozens of businesses it accused of destroying the environment, including timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses and a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colorado. No one had ever been hurt in any of the fires, but the FBI considered the group the “No. 1 domestic terrorism threat” in the United States, and soon after his arrest, McGowan discovered that the arson carried a sentence of life in prison.
Winner of the U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is a layered narrative that carefully weaves together a variety of clashing points of view using vérité footage, surprisingly candid interviews and a trove of archival material (much of it never before seen). The result is a nuanced story that asks its audience to wrestle with questions intentionally left unresolved.
The film begins with McGowan in his sister Lisa’s Manhattan apartment, where he has been placed on house arrest as he awaits trial for two arsons that he committed against Oregon timber facilities. With an ankle bracelet monitoring his movement, he contemplates his future and reflects on his past.
On the surface, McGowan is an unlikely revolutionary. He went to Catholic school in Queens, was the son of a New York police officer and was a business major in college. “Growing up, he wasn’t the political kid fighting for anything,” his sister says. “He was just a regular kid.”
That was part of his appeal to director Marshall Curry and cinematographer/co-director Sam Cullman. Curry explains, “I’m always intrigued when reality cuts against my expectations or stereotypes. How did this guy — who could be anyone’s little brother, or employee, or next-door neighbor — wind up facing life in prison for ‘eco-terrorism’?”
ELF Fire at Superior Lumber. Credit: Roy Milburn.
McGowan recounts how after college, while working at a New York public relations film, he discovered the widespread environmental destruction going on around him. That moment, he says, “took the blinders off,” and he leapt into the environmental movement, writing letters, petitioning and then engaging in civil disobedience. When those actions seemed ineffective — and non-violent protests were met by force from law enforcement — he moved on to small acts of property destruction and eventually to arson. As a member of the ELF, he took part in two multimillion dollar fires in Oregon — one against a timber company engaged in old-growth logging and the other aimed at a tree farm he believed was involved in genetic engineering projects. But after that second fire, McGowan began to question the use of arson as a tactic.
As the film explores McGowan’s case, other dramatic characters fill out his story and sometimes challenge him: Jake Ferguson, the quiet, charismatic “pirate” who started the ELF in the United States; Suzanne Savoie, McGowan’s ex-girlfriend, who took part in two fires with him; Tim Lewis, an activist/filmmaker who lives in a one-room cabin in the mountains of Oregon and captured on film the environmental movement that spawned the ELF; Greg Harvey, a police detective who describes the day he and his partners broke the case as “one of the best days I’ve ever had”; Kirk Engdall, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case but by the end of the film holds a nuanced view of the group.
McGowan, like many supporters of the ELF, feels conflicted about the fires. On one hand, ELF supporters believe that the group’s actions were following the traditions of the Boston Tea Party: symbolic property destruction designed to draw attention to important issues. But they also recognize the danger and unanticipated consequences of arson and question whether the fires helped the ELF achieve its goals.
McGowan does not feel conflicted about whether the arsons should be considered acts of terrorism. Terrorism, he feels, has become a term that people use to win public relations battles against their political opponents. His sister points out that she witnessed the violence and devastation of 9/11 first hand, and it’s hard to see the same word used to characterize both Al Qaeda and her brother, who took care to make sure that no one was hurt by his actions. Still, the victims of his arsons did feel terrorized by the fires, and one prosecutor says, “You don’t have to be Bonnie and Clyde to be a bank robber, and you don’t have to be Al Qaeda to be a terrorist.”
The distinction between a criminal and a terrorist is a serious one. A federal judge must decide whether to apply “terrorism enhancement” to McGowan’s arson charges, which could translate into McGowan being assigned to one of the restrictive terrorist prisons in the United States known as “communication management units.”