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Researchers recall other attacks

Eco-terrorists destroyed years of work in Wisconsin, Washington labs

The Daily Mining Gazette
November 8, 2001

HOUGHTON — When two fire bombs were discovered at Michigan Tech University Monday morning, all Glenn Mroz could think about were people and research.

“I was thinking that all you had worked on for a long time was in harm’s way,” said Mroz, the dean of MTU’s School of Forestry, which conducts the kind of genetic research that might have been the target of Monday’s attempted attack on the U.J. Noblet Forestry Building and the U.S. Forest Service Engineering Laboratory.

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“It’s a place you grow to love,” he said. “It’s not just the school but all the people in it.”

Researchers affected by eco-terrorism around the country know precisely what he means.

“(Keweenaw residents should) feel very fortunate that whomever in Houghton spotted the incendiary devices did (spot them) — he deserves to be labeled a hero,” said Thomas Hinckley, the director of a University of Washington — Seattle research facility destroyed by eco-terrorists earlier this year.

Although no one is claiming responsibility for planting the bombs at Tech, tree research conducted there is similar to research targeted by extremist environmental groups in recent years.

The attacks include a 1999 arson at Michigan State University where the fourth floor of the campus’ Agriculture Hall was destroyed. The Earth Liberation Front, thought to be based in the Pacific Northwest, took responsibility for the fire, although the case remains under investigation by police.

On May 21, a device like the ones planted at Tech detonated in Merrill Hall at the University of Washington — Seattle. The fire damaged the building extensively, forcing the Center for Urban Horticulture to relocate, said Hinckley, the center’s director.

“It’s been a disruption and to us a major insult,” Hinckley said.

The Earth Liberation Front took responsibility for the fire and claimed to be targeting the work of a professor who is studying the genetics of poplar trees. Similar research is being done at MTU.

The ELF took credit for another fire set a nearby tree farm that same night.

While the professor’s office was destroyed, Hinckley said the researcher was able to restore his data from computer backups and resume his research just two weeks after the fire. However, the collateral damage was severe.

Hinckley said some of the university’s research into the recovery of the Mt. St. Helens volcano area was destroyed, as was the work of a researcher helping to double the population of an endangered plant population.

“They almost wiped a species off the face of the earth,” he said of the ELF.

An extension office, operated by the University of Washington, Washington State University and King County, was destroyed including materials for an urban gardening program.

Hinckley said the attack will cost the university $5.6 million — including $4.1 million to rebuild the hall.

Hinckley dismisses the ELF’s claim that the local fire department was responsible for letting the fire get out of control.

“Once you squeeze the trigger or light a match, whatever happens afterwards is your fault,” he said.

In Rhinelander, Wis., vandals destroyed 500 trees and vandalized vehicles at a US Department of Agriculture Forest Service Research Station. The ELF took responsibility for the action claiming it was targeting research of poplar and oak trees.

The Rhinelander facility is operated by the USDA’s North Central Research Station which oversees stations in seven states, including MTU’s.

“It certainly was a setback, but we’re continuing the research,” said Deb Dietzman, the Rhinelander station’s communication director.

Although none of the research data was damaged, the actual experiment has been set back by about 10 to 15 years, she said. For the experiment, scientists breed trees together to find trees that can resist pests and grow faster. It takes several generations of trees to determine results, Dietzman said.

“The greatest loss was the economic and environmental benefits these trees would have provided,” she said.

Dietzman said the trees could be used to help convert existing farm land into tree farms and to help halt erosion along rivers. The trees likely would never be planted in existing forests, she said.

The ELF has stated that it opposes the manipulation of genetic material — including modern gene techniques and traditional breeding. Dietzman said the ELF was off the mark targeting the Rhinelander facility.

“We’re really working hard to do science that benefits people,” she said. “This is something new for us that people would violently object to our work.”

Hinckley said the researcher in Washington was also using traditional plant hybridization techniques.

Despite the setbacks, the research at these facilities is progressing. Dietzman said the USDA will continue to conduct research on the trees, including using traditional plant breeding methods.

“Humans have been doing that for hundreds of years,” she said. “That’s not something we’re going to eliminate because of these attacks.”

Hinckley said the university welcomes discussion on research, but terrorist attacks damage the openness of a university environment.

“I don’t deny the right to question and query science and the risks that scientists take and there are appropriate venues for that, but to place bombs is not a civilized approach,” he said.

Hinckley said it is possible that increased security could take research out of the public and academic discussion. He said the department has increased patrols of its facilities, has people wear identification badges and wired the buildings with alarms.

Dietzman said the USDA also has taken steps to make facilities more secure.

Hinckley said he can sympathize with the threat the devices at Tech posed.

In both Rhinelander and Seattle, there have been no arrests made. Hinckley said law enforcement officials are still following leads and is offering a $15,000 reward.

Hinckley said the department is working to move beyond the fire, focusing on plans to rebuild Merrill Hall and leaving the investigation to law enforcement authorities. Still, the possibility of future terrorist action looms.

“It’s now something that is now on your radar screen that wasn’t there before,” Hinckley said.

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Material from The Daily Mining Gazette © 2001-2004, Ogden News Publishing of Mich.