SEATTLE – Dr. Toby Bradshaw was lucky.
The plant geneticist at the University of Washington wasn't killed or hurt in the May 21 arson fire militant environmentalists set to protest his biotech research on trees, and he was able to salvage most of his work.
But the school's Center for Urban Horticulture burned to the ground in the blaze, which the radical Earth Liberation Front (ELF) has claimed responsibility for. And next time, Bradshaw may not be so lucky.
He is one of a score of victims of an extreme environmental movement that's becoming ever more violent — prompting the federal government to take action with a newly-proposed law to crack down more harshly on the crimes.
While tofu pie-throwing was once the most outrageous thing extreme environmental groups did to prove a point, today they make an impact with weapons like firebombs, arson and vandalism. Such acts of "eco-terrorism" are increasingly common on university campuses where biotech research is underway.
"It’s just a matter of time before somebody dies or is seriously injured," said U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., a sponsor of the federal bill. "We have to get ahead of it."
Nethercutt wants to expand the current legislation to protect plant lab research in addition to animal research. He’s proposing to increase the penalties for terrorism directed against scientists, including a mandatory minimum penalty of five years in prison for fire bombings and the possibility of a death sentence if lives are lost.
"This is an act of hatred against science, against scientific research. And we need to say, in no uncertain terms, that’s not acceptable," said Bradshaw.
Bradshaw, a plant genetics professor who studies hybrid poplar trees, said the ELF was misguided in targeting him. Though the group’s self-proclaimed reason for the attack was its opposition to genetic engineering and its effects on the environment, Bradshaw said he doesn’t genetically engineer trees. Instead, he said, he uses traditional means of cross-breeding to study how the trees pass on traits instead of injecting them with genes.
Still, the attack shook Bradshaw enough to band with other victims of eco-terrorism and speak at a news conference this week to heighten awareness about the problem. Their hope is that public education will help curb the violence.
"I would like there to be a social outrage … about these attempts to stifle open research and universities," said one of the panelists, Dr. Steve Strauss. Strauss, a forest science professor at Oregon State University, lost 900 trees that were cut down by vandals in protest of his work.
'It's Not Violent to Destroy Property'
But groups like the ELF — which claimed responsibility for destroying offices and equipment at an Oregon tree farm at the same time it burned the Washington facility — justify extreme acts as the only way their protests will be heeded. They brag that their vandalism and destruction has cost more than $40 million in damages in the last four years — but say they haven’t physically harmed anyone.
"Mainstream tactics used throughout history to further the environmental movement aren’t working," said the ELF’s Leslie James Pickering. "It’s time to take it a bit further. Property is not human. It is not violent to destroy property."
Scientists say those groups are defeating their own purpose, because it’s through research that they learn what is and isn’t safe for the environment. Biotech researcher Dr. Catherine Ives, who had her office at Michigan State University torched, said she isn’t sure whether universities can do anything to appease militant activists.
She and the other two panelists also expressed dismay that mainstream environmental groups like Greenpeace haven’t stepped up to denounce eco-terrorist acts.
But Greenpeace USA said the organization avoids the debate because it doesn’t practice such tactics.
"We have a 30-year tradition of non-violent protests," said spokeswoman Carol Gregory. "We draw the line at ‘terrorist’ acts. That’s just not our gig….But we don’t speak for other people."
Oregon has already tried tackling the issue at the state level with legislation that makes eco-terrorism akin to racketeering — allowing for more severe punishment.
The ELF, for its part, says new laws at any level aren’t going to prevent future attacks.
"Anyone, potentially, who is making a profit off the destruction of the natural environment could be a target," the group warned in a statement.
Even Bradshaw isn’t convinced of the value of stricter laws.
"We don’t need any new legislation," he said. "Public education is No. 1. We have been victims of attacks, and would like the public to be informed."
— Fox News’ Jonathan Serrie contributed to this report.