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

 Marshall Curry directs this even-handed documentary about the environmental group, Earth Liberation Front (ETF).  Its members become frustrated after no one seems to be listening to their claims, so they turn to economic sabotage, which does result in greater appreciation of their efforts to protect the environment, but is eventually their undoing.

 Daniel McGowan, the founder, holds firmly to his motto of “no one hurt, no one injured.”  However, his question eventually becomes, “When you are screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?”  What they do is dig trenches and build various kinds of blockades to prevent offending businesses like logging companies from carrying on their work, and eventually, they turn to arson.

 The U.S. Forest Service, ostensibly in the pocket of big companies, begins to seriously interfere with ETF activities, including spraying protesters in trees with pepper spray, and rubbing it in the eyes of apprehended protesters.  This is when the ETF turns to arson.  Although they make sure no one is harmed, they begin to set fire to places like a tree farm, a ski lodge preparing for detrimental expansion, and a polluting meat-packing plant.  Unfortunately, based on inaccurate information, they also set fire to a University of Washington genetics research lab.  Within the ETF group, opinion is divided between those for and against using arson.

 But by this time, ETF is labeled as a “terrorist” organization by the U.S. government, despite the fact that no one has been injured or killed by their activities.  Eventually, one of their most vulnerable members who has a criminal record is arrested, and he agrees in plea bargaining to name the 13 other individuals in the ETF who are responsible for the fires.  All of them are apprehended and sentenced to prison.  McGowan, however, true to his character, arranges his plea bargain so that he does not have to betray his accomplices.  He is sent to prison for seven years, but worse, to him, is being labeled as a terrorist and sent to a prison especially constructed for terrorists.

 This film raises ethical questions about whether “eco-terrorism” is really terrorism, especially when no human being is injured; and when its expressed purpose is to protect the environment—which, ultimately, protects human beings.  Why are a few protesters labeled terrorists and given harsh sentences, but oil companies that have rendered untold harm to the environment and killed humans are let off with only a fine?

Grade:  A- By Donna R. Copeland