The Latest Chapter of the Vail Arsons

Vail Arson Photo 600 dpi

Another chapter in the 1998 Vail Arsons, which saw the destruction of twelve buildings on the nation’s largest ski resort by members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), has come to an end.

This past Thursday, 39-year old Rebecca Jeanette Rubin turned herself into federal authorities after a decade on the lam in Canada.

A former member of the small band known as “The Family,” Rubin was involved in twenty arsons across six western states, including Colorado, Oregon, and California.

Based out of Oregon, The Family’s initial targets included a USFS pickup truck, the BLM wild horse corrals near Burns, Oregon, the U.S. Forest Industries offices in Medford, Oregon, luxury homes under construction in both Phoenix and Longmont, Colorado, and the arson of the office of Toby Bradshaw a leading researching in genetic engineered trees at the University of Washington.

The total costs of the group’s five-year rampage, stretching from 1996 until 2001, ranged somewhere between $40 and $50 million.

Yet, it was the setting on fire of Vail Ski Resort’s lavish Two Elks Lodge, which overlooked the ski resort’s Back Bowls and proposed Category III expansion that brought widespread notoriety to the group.

Prior to the arsons, few Westerners had ever heard of the ELF. Radicalism had played a role in the region’s environmental battles. And while spiking a tree or chaining oneself to bulldozer was often decried as act of extremism, arson remained an act most activists refused to undertake.

Frustrated over their perceived failure to halt the continued destruction of the environment, and their disenfranchisement from a political system that fostered development over preservation, Rubin and her fellow conspirators believed violence was their only option.

“When I saw that political and economic systems themselves were the problem,” former member of The Family Chelsea Gerlach told a reporter in 2007, “working within these systems began to feel not only ineffective but almost unethical.”

But the decision to use arson proved folly, often casting the targets of their anger as victims and painting all environmental organizations as “eco-terrorists”, a highly problematic term based more upon politics than reality.

Rubin’s surrender most likely will not garner much attention beyond a few short news articles, but it should give us pause when thinking about the continued contentious debates over the West’s environment and the costs of disenfranchisement.

by Michael W. Childers

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