TOM HINCKLEY'S FIRST CLUE was where it started. The fire began just after 3 a.m. in the office of...

TOM HINCKLEY’S FIRST CLUE was where it started. The fire began just after 3 a.m. in the office of his controversial colleague, eventually burning so hot that only two things would survive: a gasoline-tinged dollar bill, and the doorknob.

Then Hinckley saw the boxes, two plastic containers that usually held corn snakes. His colleague, Professor Toby Bradshaw, used the snakes to explain genetics to biology students, even though his own research involved hybridizing poplar trees. Arsonists had gingerly carted the containers 50 feet from the building, setting them beneath a tree to shelter the reptiles from the blaze — apparently unaware the boxes were empty. The snakes were at home with Bradshaw.

That was it.

By 7 a.m. on May 21, 2001, Hinckley, a professor of tree physiology who was then the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, already suspected the fire was the work of eco-guerrillas. Soon he’d know for sure.

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Awakened by telephone at 6:10 that morning, Hinckley had arrived expecting he’d find the remnants of a small lab explosion, or have to console a guilt-ridden graduate student who’d let a teapot boil dry.

Instead he saw television antennas, a spaghetti network of hoses, an army of fire trucks. Faculty members were in tears before a smoking husk of building on a blazing blue-sky day. Flames had been so intense two bald eagles surfed thermals above. Volunteers ducked under crime tape and into the smoldering library. They were shuttling damp, charred 16th-century books about herbs into a refrigerated truck to halt the spread of mildew. Hinckley saw a flare-up in his own office, where he’d stashed 20 years of research. I have to get in there, he thought. But, of course, he couldn’t.

By late afternoon, word spread that another fire had been set the same night at a poplar farm in Clatskanie, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a barn, someone had spray-painted ELF, the acronym for the Earth Liberation Front, along with a message: “You can not control what is wild.”

So there it was.

Forget, for a moment, that Hinckley wasn’t the intended victim. That Bradshaw wasn’t actually doing genetic engineering, which ELF would later cite as its reason for burning the center. Forget that Hinckley’s own mother expressed fleeting philosophical support for ELF’s cause, if not its tactics. Hinckley was incensed. “How can you talk about saving the wild when you are driving through the night, carrying gasoline and burning down buildings?” Hinckley says today. “What’s wild about that?”

Beneath this frustration is incredulity. Hinckley is a naturalist, an outdoor geek, an old lefty. He lost years of research in the fire — wonky, eco-stuff like data about trees’ responses to varying moisture levels, and year-by-year slide photographs showing the regrowth of Pacific silver fir trees at Mount St. Helens. He has harsh words for agri-giant pesticide producers like Monsanto, and those who wear fur coats. You can imagine him thinking: “But we’re on the same side!”

Except that Hinckley knows they’re really not.

IMAGINE THE TWO factions of the environmental movement as tortoise and hare. They often revile one another, but share — in theory — basic goals, in this case: preserving wildness, respecting animals, promoting sustainability.

The tortoise does the laborious work of promoting change. It reads excruciatingly dry reports, hires lobbyists, drums up grassroots support, extracts money from donors, and protests, begs, prods, cajoles and sometimes bullies the power structure on behalf of the Earth. Sometimes it wins, sometimes it loses, sometimes it’s misguided. But it works within the system. Think of the Sierra Club, of which Hinckley has been a member for 40 years. Think of Hinckley, who toiled for years in scientific minutiae most of us don’t understand to answer simple questions: How will plants respond to moisture changes from global warming? Can non-native diseases be bred out of trees?

Then there’s that irreverent, impulsive hare. The hare is convinced the political system is broken, that we’re running out of time. Real change demands revolution. To win we must restart the clock, break through the fog. Want America to think about global warming? Blow up SUVs, which two activists did in Eugene in 2000. Horrified by killing animals for fur? Set the mink free.

On May 21, 2001, the radical hare grew particularly impatient. It ran up and kicked the tortoise in the side.

Arsonists torched Bradshaw’s office, and the flames spread through the crawl space, causing $5 million in damage. Lost were valuable seeds, pressed plants, research on wetlands restoration, and 100 endangered showy stickseed plants — one third of all those remaining on the planet. An assistant professor had been growing them from tissue samples. The stout flowering plant now exists on just a single acre of ground outside Leavenworth.

Bradshaw’s research, like his corn snakes, was safe at home.

In taking credit for the fire, ELF wrote that Bradshaw “continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is (sic) certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems. As long as universities continue to pursue this reckless ‘science,’ they run the risk of suffering severe losses.”

In January and February of this year, 13 people were indicted in connection with a string of arsons and acts of environmental sabotage that took place from 1996 to 2001 across Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, California and Colorado, including the firebombing of a ski resort in Vail, Colo. Prosecutors allege that 28-year-old Stanislas Meyerhoff and William C. Rodgers, a 40-year-old bookstore owner, talked about setting the two May 21 fires and made at least one scouting trip to the UW. Afterward, the two men allegedly drafted a document: “Setting Fire with Electrical Timers, an Earth Liberation Front Guide.” Late last month, Briana Waters, a 30-year-old Berkeley, Calif., woman, was charged in western Washington for allegedly helping carry out the UW fire.

The UW fire may have been an attempt to act in concert with an underground American tradition of political sabotage that stretches from the Boston Tea Party to the labor movement’s Wobblies and from the Weathermen to Edward Abbey, the raucous, curmudgeonly author of “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

But some of the arsonists’ ideological forebears miss the connection.

“This action was incredibly stupid at every level, from the direct damage it did to its larger strategic implications to the way it reflects on people who engage in direct action,” Mitch Friedman wrote in a letter to the Earth First! Journal. Friedman, a former Earth First!er, was among Washington’s first tree-sitters during the 1980s’ Timber Wars, and now heads Conservation Northwest, which led a campaign that raised millions to preserve Eastern Washington’s Loomis Forest.

Calling the arsonists morons — “and I don’t use the term ‘moron’ lightly” — Friedman argued that the UW fire targeted a scientist whose work was little different from that of the average orchardist. Bradshaw “unleashes no more mutant genes than Mother Nature herself” (without mutation, we’d all be blue green algae now) and uses “the same process humans have used in agriculture for thousands of years.”

Worse, Friedman wrote, the Center for Urban Horticulture fosters “conservation values that are consistent with even the most utopian anarchistic post-industrial vision.” It was a place where gardeners studied how to turn their own backyards into wildlife sanctuaries — a place dedicated to urban stewardship of land. People in the community could learn everything from how to replace junipers to the intricacies of fruit-tree grafting. Professionals caught up on the latest in eco-friendly storm-water management. “Isn’t this exactly the kind of place that we want to support?” Friedman asked.

It’s among a number of questions that trail would-be revolutionaries: Where is the line between calculated rebellion and pointless chaos? When is eco-sabotage simply romanticized wilding? Who keeps the gadflies and wannabes in check? In a post 9-11 world, how much will the public take before tuning out?

“It is easy to teach techniques, such as ‘put wrench A on bolt B and turn counterclockwise,’ ” Friedman wrote. “It is much more difficult to impart the insight and wisdom that generates intelligent political strategy.”

HINCKLEY, SOFT-SPOKEN and thoughtful, understands desperation. He’s been there.

After joining his grandparents on a trip to the Canadian Rockies at age 11, the outdoors became his sanctuary. He hiked in the Alps, climbed Japan’s Mount Fuji. At 19 he took an outdoor-skills class under famed mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, who later wrote the how-to bible for low-impact wilderness camping. Studying botany and forestry as a graduate student at the UW in the late 1960s and early 1970s enhanced Hinckley’s appreciation for the wonder of forests. “It helped me truly become a naturalist.”

Those, like these, were troubled times for the Left. Hinckley distributed anti-war leaflets and marched through the UW president’s office over race issues. While the Weather Underground, a Students for a Democratic Society splinter group, blew up statues in Chicago, and Silas Bissell placed a bomb in a paper bag at an ROTC building on the UW campus, Hinckley was studying Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Then Hinckley heard talk of a mine proposed for one of his sacred places, near Miners Ridge in the Glacier Peak area of the North Cascades. Peaceful protest suddenly seemed insufficient. “We thought seriously about putting sugar in the gas tanks of bulldozers and destroying equipment,” Hinckley recalls. “It never came to that.”

Few gave voice to such feelings of impotence, to the wild urge to fight back, like “Cactus Ed” Abbey.

The son of a Walt Whitman-quoting radical Marxist, Abbey was a student of the early 20th-century Industrial Workers of the World, whose vocal support for political sabotage helped its enemies pass early anti-terrorism laws. Abbey wrote a master’s thesis on “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence.”

Though ultimately concluding violence was rarely justified, Abbey stirred a generation with anguished, absurdist novels and pointed essays about hard-drinking redneck eco-warriors who burned billboards, drove bulldozers off cliffs and prayed for precision earthquakes to save his battered and beloved Southwest from rampant development.

In one of his more famous calls-to-arms, Abbey wrote: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul. Or as an old friend of mine once said, ‘If I regret anything it is my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?’ “

Even in real life, Abbey was not above manipulating a Caterpillar’s crankcase on Mother Nature’s behalf, and inspired Dave Foreman to help form the tree-spiking Earth First! The men became friends.

“But people forget that, foremost, Abbey was a professor and a writer,” says Jim Cahalan, author of the biography “Edward Abbey: A Life.” “He was no hard-lined ideologue. He was full of contradictions. He rolled tires into the Grand Canyon just to be a wild man. He drove a big gas-sucking Cadillac at the end of his life. He threw beer cans out the window. He would probably not have blown up buildings, and I’m sure he would never have blown up cars — he loved cars.”

In the 1980s, eco-saboteurs tried to marry Abbey’s theatrical flourish with serious policy proposals.

While Earth First! is most associated with hippies pounding 6-inch nails in trees, sitting in forest canopies to halt logging or rolling a huge plastic strip down Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam to make it look like the concrete monolith was cracked, activists weren’t just howling at the moon. Foreman, a former lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, and Friedman, a biologist, also proposed million-acre wilderness areas.

“We were just as much about conservation biology,” Friedman says today. “We were trying to change a paradigm. Foreman had these idealistic images of guys like him — war veterans, blue-collar guys, experienced men — doing well-thought-out monkeywrenching, but also proposing grand visions.”

By the late 1980s, just before Abbey’s death, the dynamics of Earth First! were changing. Abbey was jeered while giving a speech at an Earth First! gathering in the Southwest. Foreman felt so isolated he spent the day flyfishing. A new generation was taking over. The animal-rights movement that had taken hold in Europe was spreading to the States. That faction, less interested in ecology than ending the suffering of individual creatures, was more aggressive, its politics more far-reaching. There were calls in the Earth First! Journal to “go for the jugular.” Animal-rights protesters in British Columbia were accused of mailing razor blades to hunters — and mailing pipe bombs to racists.

Certainly, nonviolent civil disobedience continued, sometimes with success. In recent years, Rainforest Action Network protesters stole lumber, chained themselves to doors, hung from rafters and broke into loudspeaker systems at Home Depot and Lowe’s to complain about the use of old-growth wood. Group leaders, meanwhile, were exchanging letters with the chains’ CEOs outlining acceptable alternatives. Both companies ultimately changed their practices.

But through the 1990s, other actions by a more radical contingent took a decidedly anarchistic bent. Circus vehicles were bombed in New Jersey. A logging truck was set on fire in Oregon. Arsonists torched an Olympia wildlife laboratory.

Friedman, never much for anarchy, had long since moved on. “It always seemed to me that monkeywrenchers would need to be seen in the spirit of Robin Hood,” he said. “Then you notice you’re getting arrested with the same six hippies, and it seems unlikely you’ll be seen as anything but rascals.” He’d infiltrated what he thought was a stodgy Northwest Audubon Society only to be impressed by their thoughtfulness.

In a sense, he grew up. Feeling overwhelmed by the march of industrialization, over-consumption, over-population or global warming, Friedman once found comfort in an old bumper sticker: “Nature Bats Last.” Even if humans destroy the planet for themselves, he concluded, the Earth would survive. After becoming a father, however, that was no longer reassuring; it was motivating. “It all changes once you have kids,” Friedman says. “Eco-apocalypse is no longer an option.”

IT’S TOO SOON TO calculate the full toll from the UW fire.

Rodgers, the bookstore owner accused of helping plan the double arson, suffocated himself with a plastic bag in an Arizona jail. Three suspects wanted in connection with that blaze and others fled and remain fugitives. Some of those indicted could face decades of prison time. (Jeff “Free” Luers, who torched SUVs at an Oregon Chevrolet dealer, is already serving a 22-year prison sentence — as much time as Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian caught in 1999 at the Canadian border with a trunk full of explosives he planned to use to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.)

Merrill Hall, the heart of the Center for Urban Horticulture, was rebuilt, at a cost of $7 million, with no small amount of help from private benefactors and individual community donations. With its bamboo floors, solar panels and grassy roof, the facility is larger than before, and a model of eco-friendly construction. But the difficult rebuilding process, occasioned by sometimes-lackluster support from UW administrators, disheartened some.

Bradshaw moved on, and now has a faculty appointment in a new biology department at the university, complete with a new laboratory and new graduate students. He no longer works with trees, but only because his field-research station has since been converted into a housing development. Instead, he does similar work with smaller plants. In many ways, he was, perhaps, the least hurt by the fire.

“In terms of my work, I lost absolutely nothing, and I think I’m the only person in the building who can say that,” Bradshaw says. He now rarely turns down an opportunity to explain his work to the public.

Hinckley, in his way, is different. The fire made him uneasy. It made him suspicious. Earlier this winter, he called 911 because someone, probably a campus facilities worker, had left a gas can outside near a building. “I hate being so paranoid,” he says. But he also forged new relationships. He was so pleased with Friedman’s letter to the Earth First! Journal, he immediately became a generous contributor to Conservation Northwest.

For his part, Friedman hasn’t sworn off civil disobedience, but he hasn’t returned to it, either. “It’s the responsibility of people like me to promote hope,” he says. “That may be delusional. But yelling fire in a burning theater doesn’t help put out the fire. We have to act, but with judgment and honor.”

Craig Welch is a Seattle Times staff writer. He can be reached at 206-464-2093 or Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.