Skepticism and condemnation greeted Saturday's claim by underground activists that the Dec. 27 arson at U.S. Forest Industries was Medford's first brush with eco-terrorism.

There is a difference between claiming it and it actually being a fact, U.S. Forest Industries President Jerry Bramwell said Sunday. The Republic of Ireland has gone through that on numerous occasions.

Taking responsibility for an arson it termed a holiday celebration was the Earth Liberation Front, a fringe group that first surfaced in Oregon with an autumn 1996 arson attack on the Willamette National Forest's Oakridge Ranger Station southeast of Eugene.

Since then the group's actions, mostly fires, have caused $7.25 million in damage in Oregon and $21.4 million in damage nationwide, including the $12 million torching at Colorado's Vail ski resort last October.

I can only defer to the law enforcement agencies that are conducting the investigation. If they find this piece of information to be pertinent and relevant, they will pursue it, because that's their job, Bramwell said.

While federal cops, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been investigating ELF for at least two years, local environmentalists know little about the group.

This is one of those fringe groups and nobody really knows who they are or what they're about or where they'll strike next, said Charlotte Holzkamaper, who chairs the Rogue Group Sierra Club.

The activism of many mainstream environmentalists focuses on watchdogging federal land managers, using the environmental rules requiring public participation to shape both policy and specific actions. As a last resort, activist organizations go to court.

We'd rather work with people to come to solutions, said Jim Moore, president of Headwaters environmental group.

While more radical elements of the environmental movement once dismissed the mainstream as milquetoasts, even famed monkey-wrenchers like Earth First! have recently toned down.

ELF reportedly was born from a 1992 split in England's Earth First! movement, which renounced criminal acts. American Earth Firsters followed suit in 1994, a few months after ELF joined the radical Animal Liberation Front in announcing solidarity of action.

But U.S. Forest Industries has been a target of both Colorado's radical and mainstream environmental movement. The Boulder Earth First! Worldwide Website terms the Medford-based company the international earth destroyer for a five-year logging contract on the Taylor Ranch south of Colorado Springs near the New Mexico border.

Despite such rhetoric, local environmentalsts say there's no excuse for escalating southern Oregon's timber wars to arson.

This is a very adolescent and rather terrible thing to do in an attempt to right what they feel is a wrong, said Holzkamaper.

I would think that people understand that that doesn't represent the environmental movement, said Moore.

(Beth Quinn of the Mail Tribune contributed to this report.)