Film Review: If a Tree Falls

Maybe it’s like hearing a tree fall in a distant forest: we can’t really see it, but we know that somehow the world has changed, and not for the better. That, at least, is one of the feelings I encountered when I watched Marshall Curry’s documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front last spring at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film, which is a nominee for a 2012 Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category, tells the true story that unfolded in front of Curry, beginning in December 2005, when a worker in his wife’s New York office turned out to have a history with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). Daniel McGowan’s arrest by federal agents was part of a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists—a sweep that targeted the ELF in particular, an organization the FBI has called America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.”

The film made me squirm in my seat. It describes a post-9/11 world where the FBI has turned environmentalists into a terrorist threat (a campaign that’s earned the moniker “Green Scare”), and where special prisons, referred to as “communication management units,” contain young activists like McGowan. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel that our government is silencing the lambs that grew out of the unrest seeded in the Sixties. But mostly, I think: How did this happen on my watch? Wasn’t I of an age to be making positive change politically? I feel a deep sadness, made more penetrating by the fact that Daniel McGowan looks a bit like my own son.

Watching the film again, I see a tragic mash-up of heavy-handed law enforcement, individuals seeking nonviolent change, and ill-informed plans made in the face of broken promises. In If a Tree Falls, Curry has crafted something complex and worthy of attention, a film that asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, and the way we define terrorism. Let’s see if it’s honored with a nod by the Academy.

The Academy Awards will be televised on Sunday, February 26, 2012.

Pamela Biery is a freelance writer who divides her time between the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in regional and national publications. Photo by T.J. Watt.


  1. I disagree with the characterization of “non-violent change”. I’m conscious of the ongoing discussion about the role of property damage and whether that is violence in the context of Occupy. I don’t believe that property damage is violence, per-se.

    But I put arson into a different category, that straddles the distinction. Once you set fire to a building, you have no more control over what happens. If there is someone inside it, or if it spreads to another occupied building, or if a firefighter who responds is killed, the act crosses the line to violence. Because of that uncertainty, I consider arson to be a potentially violent act that individuals who are truly seeking non-violent change will eschew.

    There are arguments for violent change, and I know people are making them. Fine. My problem is with the assertion that arsonists are non-violent. I don’t consider arson violent because it damages property, but because it poses a very real danger to the health of humans.

    As for ELF, I will say this: the fires at Vail not only failed to accomplish the goal of slowing down the Vail expansion, but had some very bad consequences. The town of Vail rallied around the ski resort, where there had previously been some local resistance and unhappiness. Vail’s insurance paid for the destroyed buildings, and they went on to open the new terrain ahead of schedule. That year they saw record profits.

    The Colorado environmental community was under investigation by the FBI and a Grand Jury. This had the effect of driving young new activists away from the movement, and Ancient Forest Rescue effectively disbanded within a year or so after the fires.

    So not only did ELF’s tactics fail to achieve their stated goals, but they actually facilitated the destruction of wilderness that was purportedly being saved by the arson.

    One of the cardinal rules of the direct action eco-defense movement (as outlined in Dave Foreman’s book Eco-Defense, the veritable bible of the movement in those days) is that you do NOT mix above-ground civil disobedience campaigns with underground sabotage. There was activists on the mountain that weekend who were preparing for road blockades and burying sleeping dragons to be used in later public civil disobedience. They were targeted by the FBI and Grand Jury and hampered in ways they wouldn’t have been otherwise, if not for ELF.

    The bottom line is this: none of the tactics available were sufficient to stop the ski area expansion, but one of those tactics (arson) alienated the public and drove away young activists who might well have been effective in other actions.

    I publicly offered a reward for the arsonists’ capture back when the Vail fires happened, and sought out a private investigator because I believed the FBI was ignoring the prime suspect (Vail Resorts). Given how much they gained from the fires, and how little they actually lost, it seemed obvious to me they were behind it.

  2. If A Tree Falls: We live in a word that changes. this film made me change. Can i change the world changing? that is the biggest question….my power. i admire very much the ELf and where do they as individuals end? Is this the question or the point they make. and NOW where do i direct my left?

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