The History and Impact of Earth First!

Youth

In 1981, seventy-five members of Earth First! stood near the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam. By that time the dam had become a major symbol for the environmental movement. One activist, Mark DuBois, chained himself to a rock as the diverted river water flooded the beautiful Glen Canyon, vowing not to leave until the state agreed to remove the dam. Of course, it wasn’t removed, but the Army Corps of Engineers spent days looking for him, eventually forced to halt the filling of the reservoir for a while. Ken Sleight — Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang — said of the damming, “I knew that the water was gonna come up. But when it did, I wasn’t ready for it. When you actually see that water come up, inch by inch, covering all the beautiful things you ever wanted to see… It hit them runes that the Anasazi had built, came up there and tumbled them over, covered over the pictographs and the petroglyphs… .” Edward Abbey had taken the issue on as his personal crusade, channelling the rage Muir felt over Hetch Hetchy. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, the characters’ main goal was, in fact, to eventually blow the dam up.

Appropriately, then, he gave a speech before the seventy-five:

We are gathered here today to celebrate three important occasions: the rising of the full moon, the arrival of the Spring Equinox, and the imminent removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

I do not say that the third of these events will necessarily take place today—although I should warn you that some of my born-again Christian brothers and sisters have been praying, night and day, for one little pree-cision earthquake in this here immediate vicinity, and I do predict that one of these times their prayers will be answered—in fact, even now, I think I perceive an ominous-looking black fracture down the face of yonder cee-ment plug—and this earth will shake, and that dam will fall, crumble, and go. …

… All very well, you say, but we prefer not to wait. We want immediate results.

The “ominous-looking black fracture” Abbey pointed his audience’s attention to earlier in the speech was a three-hundred foot wedge of plastic, tapered at one end, and rolled down the edge of Glen Canyon to create the illusion of a crack. While the crowd had distracted dam security, five silhouettes snuck up the dam with the plastic to unfurl it.

“The FBI interpreted the event as a harbinger of domestic terrorism,” Lee writes — the bureau even dusted the plastic for fingerprints — “and business interests began to express concern to the bureau’s Washington office soon afterwards.”

In these early years, Earth First! was ideologically unified and sported a “rednecks for wilderness” image. “ …it was to counter the tendency for social change and environmental groups to lose focus and drift into general left wing politics,” Wolke explains. So during the 1981 Rendezvous, which was held on the Fourth of July weekend, the three-hundred in attendance opened their meeting with an Independence Day celebration — flags and songs and all. Foreman and Abbey established a connection between wilderness and the American identity. “Wilderness is America. What can be more patriotic than the love of the land?”

The newsletter directly following that year’s Rendezvous discussed real ecotage for the first time explicitly. Foreman noted that reports had blamed Earth First! on the toppled transmission tower belonging to Utah Power and Light. He compared it to the Reichstag Fire of 1933, when ten Nazi agents committed an arson attack on the Berlin Reichstag and blamed the communists. Later, in 1985, Foreman published guidelines for monkeywrenching, writing it was “not revolutionary,” that “it must be strategic, it must be thoughtful, it must be deliberate in order to succeed.”

In October 1981, Foreman, perhaps paradoxically, published an article in The Progressive, outlining the ideology and purpose of Earth First! He wrote that “for a group more committed to Gila monsters and mountain lions than to people, there will not be a total alliance with other social movements,” but he nevertheless invited activists of various causes to participate so long as they agreed to the mantra that the Earth came first. He then began to tour the U.S. with the Earth First! Road Show. The movement continued to grow.

Adulthood

Over the next few years, several major battles positioned Earth First! as the cutting edge of the environmental movement. It helped lead the charge in RARE II suits, it popularized the challenges facing old growth forests and rainforests, and its vision of ecologically vast, connected wilderness later came to define conservation biology. Through all this, it supported itself economically by selling bumper stickers, posters, and Foreman’s 1985 manual Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. It also established the Earth First! Foundation, a tax-deductible organization that later became the Fund for Wild Nature.

"Malthus was Right"

Earth First! bumper sticker

By the end of 1981 the newsletter was converted to a newspaper to account for the influx of articles and letters. By 1982 there were about fifteen hundred official members. Foreman, who originally imagined that the Circle was to have “really solid control” to prevent “anybody selling out on us,” instead encouraged diversity in the movement and loosened his vision of the Circle’s reach. And then, in 1984, Earth First! membership was in the thousands. Foreman made management of the organization his full-time job.

At the year’s Rendezvous, Foreman stressed that Earth First!’s responsibility was to fight industry, always keeping in mind a vision of the people of the Pleistocene, who “knew [their] proper place in the world”:

In just a few generations, we and our forebears have taken the most magnificent and diverse of all the continents on Earth — in essence, the Pleistocene, with its great flowering of large animals, those thundering herds of biomass — and we have turned it into freeways and condominiums and Pac-Man and Pop Tarts. And we call that progress. We call that civilization.

In 1985, Earth First!er Mike Jakubal and Ron Huber conducted the first “tree sit” to protect Millennium Grove from deforestation. The tactic is rather self-explanatory: build a platform a few dozen feet up the tree, sit on it, and refuse to move. This prevented loggers from doing anything until they could get the protestors down, which, when it came to Huber, took over a month. It also succeeded in attracting the media, which prevented logging companies and law enforcement from dealing with the protestors too ruggedly.

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.

Leave a Reply