No one remembers exactly when the first message--DEVELOPERS BEWARE"--appeared. It was scrawled in big, blue brush strokes on a palisade fence bordering the new subdivision on Highway 180 north of Flagstaff.

The second message--FINAL WARNING"--appeared after the Super Bowl, on the night of January 30, and it was documented because it coincided with a bigger piece of vandalism. Someone had doused a three-bedroom house that was under construction with gasoline and burned it to the ground.

The only other apparent clues at the crime scene were footprints in the snow that led police to an empty, red gasoline can discarded 100 yards up the road.

Without the painted missives, it might have seemed just another nasty juvenile misdeed. But being Flagstaff, the crime touched more than a few raw nerves. Longtime natives assume those danged environmentalists did it; the enviros say it sounds more like pesky good old boys trying to make the tree huggers look bad.

If the message implied that the blaze was an antidevelopment statement, no group or individual claimed responsibility. And if it was, in fact, intended as a noble act of eco-sabotage, it missed its mark.

The field where the house burned had been at the center of a debate a few years back, when a developer was denied a rezoning petition to build a motel there. The current residential subdivision had been under way for nearly two years, and hardly constituted a pristine wilderness area, as there are hundreds of houses right across the street from it.

Nor was the homeowner any sort of rapacious land despoiler--though his name is Raper, Gary Raper. He owns a laundromat in town and drives a truck for a living, and he'd scraped together some money to build the house on speculation.

"I've lived here 30 years, and I'm not some fat, chain-smoking developer in a leased Cadillac and a polyester suit, either," he says. The police are clueless. "We have not received one phone call in reference to the case," says detective Rex Gilliland.

(Gilliland's superior, Lieutenant Bob White, assures New Times that police reports on the incident contain no interesting information. Nonetheless, despite a formal request under the Arizona Public Records Law, he just didn't know when he'd be able to turn over the entire report. He was concerned with the amount of time it would take to redact--or black out all the uninteresting stuff. "I can get to it when I get to it," White says.)

Raper, the victim, understandably took the fire personally. First, he had insurance adjusters wondering if he'd set the fire himself. Then his contractor's insurance policy was canceled. So he put up his own sign on the fence: "Kiss my big ass you rat S.O.B. It's going back up."

The police quietly removed Raper's sign, fearing it might provoke further terrorist action. "Went right on my property and tore it down, but left his up for a month, the thug that threatened everyone," Raper complains. "I have a right to free speech in this country."

Locals have exercised that right freely in the local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Sun. On February 18, an editorial beneath the headline "Eco-terrorists kill their cause" rattled and roiled. "Environmentalists' who are so misguided that they resort to violence or destruction are a big reason many Americans aren't more sympathetic to environmental concerns," it read. "Acts of terrorism carried out under the cloak of darkness and anonymity tell us all we need to know about the terrorist: that the person is a gutless criminal who does not deserve to roam free in society."

One Sasha Davis wrote a rebutting letter to the editor. "Perhaps the time has come to move from protest to resistance," Davis wrote. "Since money is the only thing these 'developers' understand, this person has succeeded in kicking them where they live. . . . Viva la Revolution!"

Davis' name does not appear in the telephone book, on voter rolls or anywhere else, for that matter. The police have checked. "I wonder if it's one of those names out of The Monkey Wrench Gang?" says Lieutenant White, referring to the Edward Abbey novel that coined the phrase. "There always seem to be overtones to that, especially in this part of the country."

After Davis' war whoop, the letters flew, usually identifying their object of scorn by spelling it out between quotation marks--environmentalist," "developer"--until, finally, a former Flagstaff city planner named Charlie Scully wrote: "Before people go off automatically assuming the fire was set by 'eco-terrorists' and that anyone with an environmental agenda would support such an act, consider the terrible irony that the dastardly deed may very likely have been committed as a desperate, last-ditch effort by prodevelopment extremists in an attempt to influence the [imminent city] election by creating an antienvironmentalist backlash. Of course, I am only speculating."

Scully, who now owns a retail store specializing in environmentally correct products, later told New Times, "If there had been anyone who was purposely trying to do this as a strategic move and making a symbolic statement against development, they'd have to be a little bit out of touch. Of course, our society produces far too many confused people on all sides of the issue."

Then he points out that the fire "doesn't even fit the m.o. of eco-saboteur."
Indeed, as Dave Foreman, the Tucson-based co-founder of the radical environmental group Earth First!, wrote in his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, the rules of engagement for monkeywrenchers demand that "careful monkeywrenchers avoid explosives, firearms and arson . . ." and insist that monkeywrenchers "be willing to disavow stupid acts," one of which is arson.

Foreman, incidentally, is still on probation for guilt by association with Flagstaff's last major monkeywrenching incident. Mark Davis, an environmental zealot who was more erstwhile than Earth First!, cut several bolts on the chair-lift towers at Arizona Snowbowl. The FBI put Davis in jail and accused Foreman of being in on the conspiracy, which he denies.

There is no denying the sentiments that remain in Flagstaff between environmental outsiders who moved to Flagstaff for its relatively unspoiled greenery and locals for whom development means jobs. There seems to be no middle ground.

Gary Raper, whose spec home was torched, says, "I've known a lot of people who move here and then think they can put a fence around Flagstaff. They want all these regulations, but when prices go up, they're the first ones to raise hell."

Speculating about the arsonist, Raper adds, "If I was going to throw the dice, I'd put my money on the environmentalists. You hear them talking all the time. There was even a group around here for a while that was playing ninja, running around and cutting billboards down."

"If it had anything to do with the environment at all, the behavior looks much more like the other side to me," counters Betsy McKellar of the environmental group Friends of Walnut Canyon. She speaks of people spray-painting hateful slogans on cars bearing liberal bumper stickers and of rednecks deliberately driving on roads that have been closed on public lands for environmental reasons.

But then she admits that she has done some small-scale monkeywrenching to protest the National Forest Service's shoddy road-closing techniques. To make sure a certain road was impassable, she threw large rocks in the middle of it, and when she was caught, she paid a fine of $100.

There are guilty consciences on both sides. Shortly after the first painted message appeared on the subdivision fence, a truck was stolen from Warren Smith, the contractor who was building the roads into the parcel of land. Smith wondered if it was in retaliation for a dispute he has with the City of Flagstaff over water rights to an inholding he owns in Walnut Canyon National Monument, just east of town.

"Warren's water thing ain't no big deal," says McKellar of Friends of Walnut Canyon.

Still, Smith fears a conspiracy. "You're aware that the Grand Canyon Trust headquarters is about a half-mile down the street here?" he says with suspicion in his voice. The trust, of course, is a staid and respectable environmental organization, and when that is pointed out to Smith, he responds, "Well, it has you thinkin'."

"I was wondering when somebody was going to make that assumption," quips Roger Clark, director of conservation programs for the Grand Canyon Trust. He admits he is angry with the National Park Service for not aggressively pursuing the purchase of Smith's inholding. He assumes that Smith is holding out for a profit, but Clark doesn't see monkeywrenching within his organization's method of operations.

Then he makes a confession of his own. "Is the statute of limitations over?" Clark asks before continuing. "I did chain-saw down a billboard on the way to the Grand Canyon in a fit of anger one night in 1970, when I was a college student. But I've developed other tactics, and I haven't been involved in any monkeywrenching before or since then.

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Michael Kiefer