20 years since attack at research station in Irvine

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society The front page of the Times Observer in the wake of the Earth Liberation Front’s claim that it set fire to the Forest Service research station in Irvine. This month marks 20 year since the blaze was set by the eco-terror group in 2002.

This month marks 20 years since a fire caused about $700,000 in damage to the U.S. Forest Service Research Station in Irvine.

While the fire was a headline on its own, no one at the time could have suspected the cause — ecoterrorism.

About three weeks after the fire, the Times Observer received a “communique” from a group taking responsibility for the blaze — the Earth Liberation Front. Reporting described the organization as a “shadowy, loosely organized environmental action group.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center in a December 2002 report described the ELF’ as “America’s top ‘domestic terrorism’ threat.

“The two groups openly promote economic sabotage and other ‘direct actions’ — they’re blamed for more than million in property damage since — but have consistently cautioned followers to steer clear of harming people,” according to the SPLC.

Congress offered its thoughts on the ELF’s efforts in a concurrent resolution, alleging that the group has “perpetrated over one-thousand crimes against private and public property” and has “continually endangered human lives by setting fire to private and public property.”

That resolution said the the Department of Justice and FBI should “agressively seek to investigate and punish actions undertaken by the Earth Liberation Front and its supporters” and “pursue the Earth Liberation Front as a terrorist organization.

But that wasn’t on anyone’s mind then fire alarms went off at the station about 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2002.

Susan Stout was the project leader at the station from 1991 until her retirement in early 2018. She got a call from the company that monitored the alarms at the lab. The report was that the fire alarm was sounding and that Youngsville firefighters had been called.

“It wasn’t that unusual to get such a call,” she said, “and we usually learned that there had been wind damage to our electrical service.”

That notion was quickly dispelled, though, when Stout called the 911 Center and was told the building was fully involved.

As she approached the lab, “the entire sky was glowing orange. I started to fall apart.”

Firefighters wanted to know whether there was anything dangerous in the building and she was able to point out where chemicals were stored.

“As the fire came under their control,” she said, “and as they were able to look around inside, we learned that the damage was not nearly as bad as it could have been….(O)ther than some smoke and water, the actual interior of the Lab was in remarkably good condition.”

They set up shop in another ANF facility and quickly got back to work.

As the day of the fire rolled along and various state and federal law enforcement officials started to investigate, Stout said “we were still not really thinking that there was any crime involved, just a bad fire.”

She explained that there had been a few calls to the station receptionist asking about work hours and whether people stayed overnight.

But it wasn’t enough to piece this thing together.

“One thing that surprised the investigators,” Stout said, “was that there was no immediate claim of responsibility by any of the groups that had been starting fires in other parts of the country.”

There was an irony to the fire — the research station was involved in developing strategies on how to sustain and ensure the perpetuation of healthy forests.

By any measure, the group that claimed responsibility shared some of the same goals as the researchers.

It would be several weeks from the date of the fire before the ELF emailed their claim to the Times Observer. It came in an email late on a Sunday night.

It said the research station would be targeted again if it were rebuilt and asserted that “all other U.S. Forest Service administration and research facilities, as well as all DCNR buildings nationwide should now be considered likely targets.”

The Times Observer turned it over to the Pennsylvania State Police and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

From that report: “The group also issued a thinly veiled threat of violence against humans: ‘… segments of this global revolutionary movement are no longer limiting their revolutionary potential by adhering to a flawed, inconsistent ‘non-violent ideology. While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice….'”

The Times Observer said a press conference held on Aug. 14 included statements from investigators that such a group might have been involved and a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest was offered by ATF.

The email was delivered via an “anonymous remailer,” an internet server which strips away sender information and forwards the message to the intended recipient.

In the week after the claim, the Times Observer published stories that security on the ANF was build evaluated and that Congressman John Peterson was already after funds to rebuild the lab.

The first story cited a spokesperson who spoke about the importance of maintaining an open relationship with the public but included this observation: “But as the arson last month showed, the many remote buildings owned by the Forest Service are particularly vulnerable to an individual or group really committed to causing damage.”

Then-Congressman Peterson asked for funding to rebuild to be included in the Interior Appropriations bill for 2003.

“As the result of a cowardly arsonist act,” he wrote in a letter to a subcommittee chair, “I am seeking your support of the subcommittee to fund the reconstruction of the US Forest Service Laboratory in Irvine, Pennsylvania.”

He said funding for the request would “boldly respond to this despicable act” and “meet an urgent unexpected need to restore a federal facility and valuable research program.”

He doubled down later in the story: “We’re fighting terrorism in general,” he said, “and eco-terrorism is part of waht we’re fighting. We can’t let people with these kinds of radical beliefs dictate how we do business…. We can’t let them win.”

Stout said the attack was “unsettling for all of us” working at the research station and that counselors with experiences with victims of attacks like this were brought in.

“In February of 2003, almost exactly six months after the fire, we moved back into the lab,” she said. “It was wonderful to have a fresh, almost new building and it was wonderful that very few of our files, or library materials, or even things in our offices had been damaged.

To date, it appears no one has been held accountable for the attack.

But the research marched on.

“We have identified habitat needs for wildlife species that were decreasing in number, and shown how timber harvests can be used to meet those needs,” Stout said. “We have shown how prescribed fire can work with natural processes to ensure that oak seedlings are able to become part of the new forest after timber harvest in oak forests. We have greatly enhanced our understanding of how atmospheric chemistry affects the forests of our region.

“Scientists at the Lab continue to work with managers and others to sustain the forests we all love.”


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