Gondola damage not on federal eco-terrorism list | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Gondola damage not on federal eco-terrorism list

William Ferchland

Among the 17 attack sites listed in a 65-page federal indictment to members of two alleged eco-terrorist groups were spots in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California.

South Lake Tahoe, or, more specifically, the Heavenly gondola, was not on the list.

On a July day in 2001, workers found the gondola’s safety sensors damaged and a 2-by-16-inch stick lodged in a place to attempt dislodging the cable from wheels.

In black wire located near a gondola tower were three letters: ELF. It’s the acronym for Earth Liberation Front, which, along with the Animal Liberation Front, were named in the indictment returned by a grand jury last week in Eugene, Ore.

The indictment covers attacks ranging from conspiracy to commit arson to destruction of an energy facility in several Western states from 1996 to 2001, according to a release by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Damage to the gondola, which opened to the public four months after the incident, only totaled a couple hundred dollars but prompted a heightened law enforcement presence among two ski resorts, according to El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Les Lovell.

“Eco-terrorism” groups are often composed of a loose-knit membership, lack a leadership hierarchy and inspire copycats, Lovell said.

While it is unknown whether the person or people involved in the 2001 tampering of the Heavenly gondola were tied to ELF or just placing blame on the organization.

On its Web site, the Earth Liberation Front denies a membership system to the organization and disavows illegal activity on its behalf.

“Any individuals who committed arson or any other illegal acts under the ELF name are individuals who choose to do so under the banner of ELF and do so only driven by their personal conscience,” its site stated. “These choices are not endorsed, encouraged, or approved of by this Web site’s management, webmasters, affiliates or other participants.”

ELF’s Web site contained numerous articles in its news sections, including one from The Associated Press centering on the arrest of three suspected members of the organization who planned to blow up cell towers, power plants and U.S. Forest Service sites in Auburn, a town in Placer County.

In the federal indictment, attacks were listed at targets such as the Childers Meat Company in Oregon, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Holding Facility in Wyoming and Vail Ski Facility in Colorado.

In October 1998, three buildings and four chairlifts were set on fire at the popular ski resort causing about $20 million in damage.

Sierra-at-Tahoe General Manager John Rice remembered the attacks at Vail. He said he visited the destruction and, with a chuckle at the irony, added Vail used the insurance money to build a bigger resort.

“The whole terrorism thing doesn’t make sense to me, by making change by destroying things,” he said.

Rice, who was with the National Ski Area Association and remains a board member today, said the treatment of the environment by ski resorts nowadays are better than years past.

“I don’t understand why we’d still be a target. Maybe because of the high-profile (nature) of the business,” Rice said.

The Heavenly gondola tampering was investigated by the FBI, South Shore law enforcement agencies and the Joint Terrorism Task Force but unearthed little, said Karen Ernst of the Sacramento division of the FBI.

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