Charred SUVs and the End of Citizen Eco-Activism

On June 16, 2000, 22-year-old forest activist Jeffrey “Free” Leurs joined with Craig “Critter” Marshall and proceeded to a Eugene, Oregon car dealership and set fire to three SUVs as a statement against such vehicles’ contribution to Global Warming. The fire was put out quickly; no one was hurt; the SUVs sustained less than $40,000 in damages and were restored and later sold. An arson expert later testified that no one was ever in danger as the fire was small and far from any fuel sources.

Leurs was arrested within 30 minutes of the arson by three undercover agents who it seems were following him that night. How they got on to him remains a mystery as does the question of why they didn’t stop the arson in the first place.

A year later, on June 1, 2001, Leurs was sentenced by Judge Lyle Velure to 22 years and 8 months in prison. He has been in the Oregon State Penitentiary ever since. He filed an Appeal of the sentence in January 2002. After three-and-a-half years, the Appeal was finally heard on November 30, 2005. Another year dragged on before, on February 14, 2007 the Court of Appeals unanimously ruled to reverse the case and remand it back to the Circuit Court for resentencing — an effort likely to reduce the Draconian sentence by 15 years. A new trial date for appeal has yet to be set and Jeff Leurs continues to be confined.

Property Destruction = Terrorism

Obviously, Leurs’ sentence was a message to Eugene activists that property destruction dissent would not be tolerated — a message driven home recently with the Green Scare arsonists also getting sentences much larger than the median for no human injury property offenses. Symbolic property destruction — a la the Boston Tea Party — was effectively morphed into “terrorism” upon Leurs’ sentence. (Judge Velure and prosecutor Karen Tracy would put Sam Adams away for decades if they could.)

A comparative analysis of Oregon sentences handed down in 2001 in other cases with human harm (arsons, rapes, murders, assaults) is available at Of course the disparity between sentences for political property damage and those with harm against persons make it very clear that this was a political sentencing. Whether one agrees with such arsons or not (I do not), it is clear that Jeffrey Leurs is a political prisoner — the judge made it quite clear.

Free “Free”

On Wednesday, June 13th, the Jeff Luers’ Support Group, the Civil Liberties Defense Center and the International Socialist Organization co-sponsored a gathering of activists in Eugene to note Leurs seventh year in prison and to get updates on his appeal and the recent sentencings of the Green Scare defendants. They also saw the premier showing of Brooklyn filmmaker Lauren Cynamon’s new film on Leurs’ life: How I Became an Eco-Warrior.

What’s Next

The wave of political arsons that started with charred SUVs and culminated with the Green Scare sentences (check the CLDC website for a list of sentences) has weakened the forest protection movement to such a point that on June 12th, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to remove hard-won protection for the Northern spotted owl on over 1.5 million acres of their habitat — 22% of the set aside habitat that was inadequate to begin with in 1993 when Bill Clinton resumed old growth logging in public-owned owl habitat.

Such a blatant timber grab would rightly have been met with sustained resistance just a few years ago. But, now opposition has evaporated. The defense has been left to the very foundation grant-dependent folks — eco-attorneys EarthJustice and other Big Greens — who signed off on Clinton’s plan in the first place. Predictably EarthJustice attorney Kristen Boyles bleated “There’s no scientific justification for this,” referring to the new Bush plan. As if there was any “scientific justification” for the insufficient Clinton plan EarthJustice rammed down the throats of their eco-plaintiffs back in 1993!

“If they don’t have a seat at the table, they got nothing to sell.”
–Steve Spahr

Even more predictably, the token Big Green forest ecologist on the panel that came up with the new plan, foundation carpetbagger Dominick DellaSalla of the World Wildlife Fund failed miserably. He failed to defend the wildlife dependent on the lands to be stripped of protection; he failed to expose it to the depleted grassroots (who had to wait for press reports to find out) and he failed to lambaste the obvious non-science pressure emanating out of DC while the plan was being concocted – preferring to keep silent and protect his “seat at the table” instead, when exposing it while on the drawing board was the only way to derail it.

The “terrorism” label applied to non-lawyer, non-foundation-dependent eco-activism by industry and their captive politicians and judges has paid off — for now. The unpaid, effective, non-property destruction activism of just a decade ago has evaporated.

Jeff Leurs’ Appeal will proceed and his outrageous sentence will be changed and he likely will be released on time served. The Green Scare sentences will also likely be reduced after another round of excruciatingly slow Appeals. In the end, the damage done to SUVs, genetic tree farms, feral horse slaughtering plants, etc., pales compared to the damage done to the forest protection movement.

MICHAEL DONNELLY was plaintiff in the first successful lawsuit over continued destruction of Ancient Forest habitat. Ultimately, that led to the habitat set asides. He can be reached at

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at