The History and Impact of Earth First!

Genesis

Many workmen
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountaintop
Then they went to the valley below,
And turned to behold their work.
“It is grand,” they said;
They loved the thing.

Of a sudden, it moved:
It came upon them swiftly;
It crushed them all to blood.
But some had opportunity to squeal.

— Stephen Crane

The founding of Earth First! is steeped in myth. In the canonical story, five long-term conservationists and an old yippie drove a rickety Volkswagen into Mexico’s Pinacate Desert. Their names were Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, John Davis, Ron Kezar, Bart Koehler, and Mike Roselle, and they were seething with righteous rage over the Forest Service’s recent RARE II legislation. They were determined to fix it.

In 1967 the Forest Service began inventorying the National Forest System to identify which roadless areas were suitable for wilderness designation, as defined by the recently-passed Wilderness Act. They called this project the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, or RARE I. Finally, in 1972, the Forest Service concluded the review by noting that 56 million acres of land were suitable for wilderness designation, but it only recommended 12.3 million of them. Fortunately, the Sierra Club sued, and the courts ruled that the evaluation procedure did not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act’s assessment procedures. Thus, the Forest Service abandoned RARE I and began a new project, RARE II, in 1977, under the Carter administration. This time, it found 62 million acres suitable for designation and only recommended 15 million. Howie Wolke explains that this opened “most of the unprotected roadless wildlands under [the U.S. Forest Service’s] jurisdiction, except for a relatively few high altitude enclaves (wilderness on the rocks) … to road building, logging, mining, and other kinds of mischief incompatible with our vision of how things ought to be on the public’s land.” It was a devastating blow to conservationist morale, which had just been boosted 13 years prior by The Wilderness Act, then again in 1973 by the Endangered Species Act.

Worse, conservation organizations weren’t fighting RARE II effectively. The extractive industrial lobby was strong. In response, Rik Scarce writes, “ … the environmentalists reasoned that the only way to best the behemoths was to become one. But this entailed accepting the lowest common denominator, the weakest positions of the bunch, to keep everyone together.” Conservation thus became professionalized, and the grassroots wilderness advocates who had helped spearhead previous environmental legislation weren’t happy about it. Foreman writes that conservationists became “less part of a cause than members of a profession.” Furthermore, public participation in the debate decreased. An article in the Journal of Forestry reads, “Those sought-after folks, those moms and pops who give their disinterested opinions on wilderness, are as mythical as unicorns.”

All this was the topic of conversation in the six-man excursion to the Pinacate. Most of the group were intimately involved in the debate. Bart Koehler and Howie Wolke were representatives for the Wyoming Wilderness Society; Foreman a conservation lobbyist and long-time grassroots conservationist; Kezar an employee for the Bureau of Land Management. They believed that a sufficient response to their situation would have to come outside the mainstream. They spoke of a vast ecological reserve system, recommended the idea of “rewilding” — restoring lost tracts of land to wilderness — and they based their ideas on the budding science of conservation biology, spearheaded by eminent scientists like E. O. Wilson. Wolke writes:

Suddenly, Dave blurted out the words Earth First! I liked it and we had a name. By then, our ranting had roused Roselle from his stupor and he, too, was getting excited. Then an idea for a logo came to mind and I said, How about a clenched green fist in a circle with the words Earth First around the perimeter? Before we could say Ayatolla Khomeni, Roselle had drawn the logo and passed it up front where it met our hearty approval (the exclamation was added later). Earth First! was born.

Formation

There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not many the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express
yet cannot all conceal

— Lord Byron

Dave Foreman became the prophet and leader of the new movement, and it showed in the character of early Earth First! As Martha Lee writes, “The roots of Earth First! are closely linked to Dave Foreman’s political history and his experience in the environmental movement.”

Early in his youth, Foreman was a conservative: he supported the Vietnam War; for a period of his life strongly opposed communism; campaigned for Barry Goldwater; and was the New Mexico state chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom. But after a brief experience at the Marine Corps Officers’ Candidate School, he abandoned Republican politics, describing himself at the time as “a Jeffersonian running head on into the military state.”

In 1969 he visited the Sierra Club office in Albuquerque and shortly after began campaigning for wilderness. Lee continues:

A poster he had produced for the Gila Primitive Area Reclassification Campaign caught the attention of the Wilderness Society, and he began working for them in January 1973, first as their Southwestern issues consultant and later as their Southwestern representative. In 1976, he was New Mexico state chairman of Conservationists for Carter, and late the next year he moved to Washington as the Wilderness Society’s chief Congressional lobbyist.

After RARE II, Foreman left his job as a lobbyist and was hired again as the Wilderness Society’s Southwestern representative, in part working with regionally-focused groups like the eco-anarchist Black Mesa Defense Fund. During this time he came face-to-face with what came to be known in U.S. environmental history as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Although he had previously worked with ranchers to strengthen support for wilderness, ranchers started sending him death threats, demanding that public lands go first to the states and then entirely to private owners. “For Foreman,” Lee writes, “the Sagebrush Rebellion was a personal and political betrayal. …[It] provided clear evidence that the people who would be his true political allies were those who, like him, held wilderness to be the fundamental good and derived their morality and actions from that principle.”

Foreman was also heavily indebted to the works of Edward Abbey, a conservative desert eco-anarchist who thoroughly opposed industrial development of the West. Abbey is best-known for two works: Desert Solitaire, a reflection on his time as a ranger in the National Parks of Utah, and The Monkey Wrench Gang, a fictional account of a cantankerous group of rednecks who sabotaged the businesses and machinery destroying the wild lands of the West. The overall story of the latter book was inspired by a group active in the 1970s and known was the “ecoraiders.” The group, composed of teenage high school students, sabotaged billboards, drainpipes, smokestacks, and other industrial equipment after reading Abbey’s Solitaire and a widely distributed manual entitled Ecotage. For example, on April Fool’s day in 1972, the ecoraiders dumped hundreds of non-returnable bottles and cans at the entry of the Kalil Bottling Company office. Later, a 1973 report by the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association claimed that the group had cost them about $180,000 in damages. It was later revealed that the cost was higher, but the report published a lower number to prevent copycats. One member, 17-year-old John Walker, became known nationally as “The Fox,” and in 1973 allowed the New York Times to published a four-page spread of the group members in ski masks. By that time, the damage caused by the ecoraiders had reached about $2 million, and they were arrested by the end of the year.

Although the ecoraiders were the basis of Abbey’s story, the characters within were based on conservationists he personally knew. The infamous Hayduke, for example, was Abbey’s caricature of the conservationist Doug Peacock, known primarily for his work on grizzly bear protection. And the ex-mormon Seldom Seen Smith was based on Utah native and river guide Ken Sleight. This ragtag group came to be intimately involved in the early Earth First! Movement, solidifying the Earth First! stance on “monkeywrenching,” or eco-sabotage: Don’t officially condone it, but don’t condemn it either. Wolke explains the effect:

Although in the early 80s Outside Magazine labeled us The Real Monkey Wrench Gang, in the beginning there wasn’t much discussion of monkey wrenching, other than our refusal to condemn it so long as it was non-violent toward life. But that was enough for the media to create a lasting association between EF! and ecological sabotage. Dave Foreman’s 1985 publication of Ecodefense, A Field Guide to Monkey Wrenching and my own arrest and six month incarceration in 85 and 86 for eco-sabotage did little to allay the impression.

Three weeks after the journey to the Pinacate, the group hiked into New Meixco’s Gila Wilderness — the world’s first officially designated wilderness area — to erect a plaque in honor of the Apache warrior Victorio, who had destroyed a mining camp in defense of the mountains. An early member explained to the media, “We think the Sierra Club and other groups have sold out to the system. We further believe that the enemy is not capitalism, communism, or socialism. It is corporate industrialism whether it is in the United States, the Soviet Union, China, or Mexico.”

Over sixty people attended the first official meeting of the group, held in July of 1980 and known as the “Round River Rendezvous.” Such meetings would become an annual event, where members would strengthen their ties with each other, learn monkeywrenching tactics, and otherwise coordinate their efforts for wilderness preservation.

Later that year, Foreman and a former education coordinator for the Wilderness Society, Susan Morgan, put out the first ever newsletter for the movement, originally entitled Nature More, later known as the Earth First! Newsletter, and finally as the Earth First! Journal. In the first few issues, Foreman and others laid the foundations for the movement. For example, as part of the movement platform, the first issue demanded about 40 wilderness reserves — including wilderness designation for the moon — and the end of nukes, mining, power plants, dams, and any roads on public lands. “Not blind opposition to progress, but wide-eyed opposition to progress!”

Among other things, the strategy was to appear so unreasonable that moderate groups, like the Sierra Club, could make stronger, more uncompromising demands. In the proto-issue of the newsletter (“volume 0, issue 0”), which was distributed only to a small cadre of founding members, Foreman listed the goals of the movement:

  • Make existing environmental groups and proposals look more reasonable.
  • Keep the environmental movement from straying too far from its ideal; in other words, from becoming too conservative.
  • Raise the ecological conscience of the American people.
  • Instigate a widespread radical environmental movement in the 1980’s that is not afraid to use civil disobedience, demonstrations, etc. as tactics. Earth First will remain quasi legal. There is great potential here in tying into the infantile anti-nuke movement.

And in a membership brochure, Foreman listed the group’s basic ideological principles:

  • Wilderness has a right to exist for its own sake
  • All life forms, from virus to the great whales, have an inherent and equal right to existence
  • Mankind is no greater than any other form of life and has no legitimate claim to dominate Earth
  • Humankind, through overpopulation, anthropocentrism, industrialization, excessive energy consumption/resource extraction, state capitalism, father-figure hierarchies, imperialism, pollution, and natural area destruction, threatens the basic life processes of EARTH
  • All human decisions should consider Earth first, humankind second
  • The only true test of morality is whether an action, individual, social, or political, benefits Earth
  • Humankind will be happier, healthier, more secure, and more comfortable in a society that recognizes humankind’s true biological nature and which is in dynamic harmony with the total biosphere
  • Political compromise has no place in the defense of Earth
  • Earth is Goddess and the proper object of human worship [later omitted]

Finally, Foreman outlined the organization of the group. Predominantly, its organization was to be loose: “[W]hen you take on the structure of the corporate state, you develop the ideology and the bottom line of the corporate state. So what is the one kind of human organization that’s really worked? The hunter/gatherer tribe, so we tried to model ourselves structurally after that.” But the movement was showing signs of growth, and after the 1980 Round River Rendezvous, it established “two formal governing structures”: the Circle of Darkness and La Manta Mojada.

The Circle of Darkness was to determine Earth First! policies and approve memberships and group chapters. They had to willingly identify with Earth First! and could not be employees of mainstream conservation organizations. La Manta Mojada, on the other hand, was to remain secret, a “group of advisors to the Circle.” It was never again mentioned, although Lee claims that “in interviews … Foreman stated that its existence was short-lived and implied that it was also ineffectual …”

2 Comments

  • Anon says:

    Great piece of history, terrible piece of prescriptionism.

    • The Wild Will Project says:

      Can you critique it? It’s only a paragraph:

      When, however, the now scattered groups begin to join forces — and as I’ve mentioned, this process is underway already — the new movement will have to learn from the problems outlined in this history. It will, for example, have to learn how to deal with divisive issues without devolving into harmful schisms; and when necessary schisms occur, it cannot let them sap the grassroots of its energy. It will have to keep its focus on land preservation and restoration, and avoid tricks that relate words like “wild” to mere acting out, or that transform strategic ecosabotage into an outlet for hostility and criminality. Most importantly, it will have to be diligent in breeding a new generation capable of keeping on the tradition, something that early Earth First! did well, and the reason why a revival is now a possibility.

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