Knobby Fires

Is there a link between a spate of Phoenix arson attacks and mountain bikers' passion for local singletrack?

Jan 6, 2001
Outside Magazine

Scorched earth: One of 11 luxury homes burned in the past two years goes up in smoke, December 2000.    Photo: Captain Darrel Wiseman

HIGH ABOVE downtown Phoenix, Doug Thompson and Brian Perkins are out thrashing some Sunday-afternoon singletrack. The two riders fling their mountain bikes over the crest of a ridge, skirt a bend littered with gravel—and stop dead up against an orange fence plastered with signs that threaten, "Do Not Enter," "Private Land," and "No Trespassing."

It's frustrating. Open to the public just a few weeks earlier, this spur of Trail 100 is now completely off-limits. But what Thompson and Perkins find truly galling lies just beyond the barrier that separates the Phoenix Mountains Preserve from the tendrils of the surrounding city. The hillside here has been bulldozed back to make room for the foundation of a luxury home. Next to this, an empty lot awaits another high-end hacienda. And behind that is a third site, a nearly complete mansion studded with extravagant features—including a "garage mahal," real-estate parlance for a carport that holds five vehicles—intended to seduce the cash-flush newcomers who helped make Phoenix the nation's second-fastest-growing city in the 1990s.
Not that Thompson and Perkins are in any position to cry foul. Both are very profitably piggybacking on the city's rapid expansion—Thompson, 41, designs fiber-optic networks for a large telecommunications company, while Perkins is a successful architectural designer. "I don't want to be a hypocrite," says Perkins, 35, all too aware of the irony of his own resentment. "But we never even got to ride this trail. That really sucks."

APPARENTLY, others agree. Last December, someone set fire to a house being built on the site, burning it to the ground. It was the eighth in a string of 11 arson attacks in Phoenix and neighboring Scottsdale since January 1998, all of which targeted luxury homes under construction adjacent to recreational wilderness. Despite an $88,000 bounty for information, partly posted by area homeowners, an investigative task force—run by at least six government agencies including the FBI—has failed to generate a single arrest. But on January 25, local reporter James Hibberd produced an extraordinary scoop for the New Times, the city's weekly alternative paper, when a man who claimed responsibility for the fires allowed Hibberd to interview him in a public park.

The source declined to give his name, but described himself as a management professional working in downtown Phoenix. He established his legitimacy by describing two notes that he had left behind at fire sites—letters that the investigators had not made public. He said he belongs to a four-person group called the Coalition to Save the Preserves, and he explained that he and his cohorts had scouted out construction sites during mountain-biking excursions and then returned in the middle of the night to set them on fire. Why? "Because they're encroaching on hiking and biking trails," he told Hibberd, adding, "They're an obnoxious reminder that there is no growth plan."

On this latter point, the arsonist may have drawn approving nods from groups currently fighting a losing grassroots battle against the explosion of subdivisions, parking lots, and golf courses that have gobbled up the Sonoran Desert around Phoenix at the rate of an acre an hour for the past decade. Last June, a coalition of environmental organizations—including the Sierra Club—filed a citizens' ballot initiative that would have set up boundaries around cities all over the state, beyond which development could not occur—a scheme inspired by a highly successful growth-control plan already in place in Portland, Oregon. When polls indicated that 68 percent of the public supported the proposal, an alliance of developers, builders' groups, and pro-growth city and state politicians launched a media campaign to convince voters that this "Sierra Club Secret Initiative" would rob Phoenix of 200,000 jobs and "ruin Arizona's economy." On November 7, the measure was defeated.

Meanwhile, the New Times story created a firestorm of its own, enraging law enforcement groups, which cut off all media interviews and unsuccessfully pursued court-ordered access to Hibberd's notes. The FBI is not likely to ease up anytime soon—the Bureau badly needs a success story. In the past year, ecoterrorists have destroyed bioengineered crops in Oregon, while the radical Earth Liberation Front launched still unsolved arson attacks against sprawl in Indiana, Colorado, and New York. But if the stated motives of the CSP are genuine, the Phoenix firebugs may have launched something altogether new: America's first wave of recreational ecoterrorism—felony acts in the name of protecting trails.

AS THIS article went to press, the playgrounds in and around Phoenix were quiet. No homes had been burned since January, no arrests had been made, and the trail networks in the preserve remained under round-the-clock police surveillance by helicopters and plainclothes cops. Amid the jittery stalemate, more than two dozen Phoenix bikers approached by Outside on the trails in March denounced the arsonists' tactics as misguided, but expressed sympathy with the frustrations that provoked these crimes. And yet, in voicing such views, some cyclists unwittingly revealed that they are as dependent upon development as anyone else.

"Developers are destroying the most beautiful parts of the desert," says Josh Maule, 22, who's out for a ride with several friends. "I hope they all burn in hell!"

"Dude," interrupts Josh's friend, Scott Keller, 20. "Isn't your dad. . . a developer?"

"No way!" replies Josh. "Well, I mean, he sort of is. He's working on his first million-dollar project right now. He does custom homes—but he isn't putting up, like, 50 houses a day in the desert."

Josh's defense gets lost amid roars of laughter. The riders pick up their bikes, click into their pedals, and barnstorm up the trail.  

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