Film Review: If A Tree Falls

If A Tree Falls
Directed by Marshall Curry
PBS broadcast on September 13, 2011

As a reporter covering the spotted owl wars at their peak two decades ago, I was fired up watching majestic 700-year-old trees in Oregon’s Opal Creek come crashing to the ground, only to be turned into plywood. Logging like I saw near Opal Creek really enraged the protagonists of If A Tree Falls, a powerful and mesmerizing documentary about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The difference between ELFers and environmentalists like me is that they abandoned all hope and adherence to laws. The group’s autonomous, anonymous cells torched timber company buildings, SUV dealerships, and a ski resort in Vail, Colorado. One of the saboteurs is the film’s star, Daniel McGowan, an easygoing Brooklyn-raised son of a retired cop. After a nationwide manhunt that lasted more than five years, the FBI nabbed him and his fellow arsonists whom they and the media branded “terrorists.” When McGowan was convicted, the designation enabled the feds to stick him in one of the harshest federal prisons possible, and he’s now serving his fifth year of a seven-year-sentence. McGowan, dubbed the “Disgruntled One” by his ELF peers, shows plenty of contrition, if not always introspection: “What the f…? How the hell did this happen?” It’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for him and even more for his family (his father ages before our eyes). As one activist in the film alludes, the feds never branded BP a terrorist for their crime against nature and humanity in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. Sometimes the system fails, but sometimes it works. Even if only five percent of native forests are unlogged, as the film says, in my experience, after a long political fight, Opal Creek was permanently protected. As McGowan notes in this cautionary tale, “There’s gotta be better ways of addressing things in the world than burning things down.”—David Seideman, Audubon Editor-in-Chief

Watch our interview with the director and co-director of If A Tree Falls here:

For more information about the film, including theaters where it will be playing, go to

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