The History and Impact of Earth First!


As the movement grew, splits and fractures formed, even wider than the one that split Glen Canyon in 1981. Wolke explains:

… with growth and publicity, our ability to steer the ship diminished. Unintentionally, we’d created a vehicle for the counter-culture. EF! had become a vehicle for leftist, anarchist, anarchist-leftist, anti-hunting eco-feminists for gay social justice and new age woo-woo conductors of cosmic energy. To say the least, I began to feel out of place. In 1985’s rendezvous in the shimmering aspens of Colorado’s Uncompagre Plateau, I argued with an Oregon activist, to no avail, that it would be inappropriate for his EF! group to advocate legalizing pot. Not our issue, I insisted, exasperated.

A “Foreman faction” developed. One of its most radical adherents, Christopher Manes, explicated a radical primitivist vision in his articles for the Earth First! Journal. For example, in “Technology and Mortality,” writing under the pseudonym “Miss Ann Thropy,” he insisted that areas with natural human mortality rates should be preserved, that monkeywrenching should be extended to incubators of technical progress, like universities, that monkeywrenching should be extended to all urban areas, and that Earth First!ers should “spiritually reject” technology. In the same journal issue he proposed, non-pseudonymously this time, “technology-free zones.”

Meanwhile, at the 1982 Rendezvous, Foreman gave a rousing speech on “the inevitable collapse of the industrial state… Mother nature is coming, and she is pissed!” His articles in the journal became more heavy-handed. For example, in his article “Whither Earth First!?” Foreman restated what he believed were the goals of the movement, including putting the needs of the Earth before human welfare, accepting that overpopulation is an issue, antipathy to progress and technology, rejecting humanism, and “an unwillingness to set any ethnic, class, or political group of humans on a pedestal and make them immune from questioning.” He wrote:

… if I am out of the mainstream of Earth First! with these views, then please let me know and I will move on. I have no desire to embarrass good activists for Earth if the above points are not considered crucial or are detrimental to what they are trying to do. If Earth First! is no longer what I envision it to be, then I will accept that and wish the new Earth First! well. But I have no energy to continually debate the above points within my tribe and will seek my campfire elsewhere.

On the other side was the “Roselle Faction.” As has been established, Mike Roselle was not as intimately involved in wilderness conservation as his five cohorts in the Pinacate. He was in many ways the opposite of Foreman, steeped in left-wing counterculture and active in the anti-war demonstrations of the 60s. Thus, unlike Foreman, he perceived environmentalism as one of the many nexuses of social justice, along with gay liberation, women’s liberation, class war, etc. He did, however, make environmentalism his main nexus, and in 1986, Roselle became the national campaign coordinator for Greenpeace USA. Although Foreman wrote that he believed this was more a case of “Earth First! gaining Greenpeace” than “Earth First! losing Mike Roselle,” the event, as Lee put it, “emphasized [Roselle’s] distance from the other founders of Earth First!, individuals who were completely disillusioned with the character and tactics of large Washington lobbying groups”:

Greenpeace prescribed change through education, and its goal was to prevent the apocalypse by making industrial civilization more environmentally sensitive. Those tactics and goals were in direct opposition to Foreman’s vision of Earth First!. While in his more reflective moments Foreman admitted that there was a role for such groups (in their own way, they helped preserve some limited wilderness), admitting Greenpeace’s goals and tactics into Earth First! would fundamentally alter the latter movement. Ultimately, it would allow Roselle and other like-minded individuals to come together as a faction, with the tacit support of Earth First!’s leadership.

The more radical side of this faction came from left-wing eco-anarchists, who published a competitor to the Earth First! Journal entitled Live Wild or Die! The journal was organized by Mike Jakubal, who had spearheaded the tree-sitting tactic in 1985. It combined the utter rejection of industrialism that typified the Foreman faction with the social justice reasoning that typified the Roselle faction, and so helped give form to a left-wing primitivist tendency that had previously been developed by the radical left journal Fifth Estate, and that would later come to fruition with the 1999 Seattle Riots.

For historical context, the debate between the Foreman and Roselle factions, what Bron Taylor calls a conflict between the “Wilders” and the “Holies,” was a microcosm of an argument taking place within the larger environmental movement. George Sessions writes

The schism between the Foreman ecological faction and the Roselle social justice faction that tore Earth First! apart is part of larger anthropocentric/ecocentric conflicts that have existed throughout the history of American environmentalism. During the 1960’s, as Stephen Fox has pointed out, “newer man-centred leaders” arose in the environmental ranks, such as the socialist/biologist Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader, who saw industrial pollution as the essence of the environmental problem, while viewing wildlife and wilderness protection with disdain. By Earthday 1970, the environmental movement had essentially split into an anthropocentric urban pollution wing, led by Commoner, Nader, and Murray Bookchin, and an ecocentric wing concerned primarily with human overpopulation and protection of wilderness and the Earth’s ecological integrity, centred around Brower, Paul Ehrlich, and most professional ecologists …

In other words, environmentalism was in a crucial stage of development at the time, and the greater battle that the Foreman/Roselle conflict typified seemed like it would determine the movement’s final form. The characters involved, then, justifiably took a high-stakes approach, cashing in all their chips and fighting tooth and nail.

And although the Foreman faction later made some significant victories, and may very well win the war, they lost the battle of Earth First! Most observers attribute this to the FBI’s THERMCON operation.

Late in the 1980s, a group calling itself the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC) began several high profile sabotage operations. For example, in 1986, within the span of thirty minutes, EMETIC sabotaged several 500-kilowat power lines in three different locations, each about 10-30 miles from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station. The station had just finished a decade of construction, and the sabotage delayed its tests for its reactor at Palo Verde’s Unit 2 for a day. Later, in 1987, the group again struck, this time downing pylons that supported the main chair lift at the Fairfield Snowbowl ski resort. The next year, they severed five power lines leading to the Canyon Uranium Mine, fourteen miles south of the Grand Canyon, causing a blackout.

EMETIC signaled a more serious kind of ecotage group, and Earth First! would later birth several more. But at the time, EMETIC was one of the FBI’s top priorities. So they infiltrated the group with undercover agent Mike Fain, who posed as an enthusiastic saboteur and later motivated members of EMETIC to conduct the monkeywrenching operation that got the group arrested. Unfortunately for him, he also forgot to turn off his wires when he said, “I don’t really look for them to be doing a lot of hurting people… [Foreman] isn’t really the guy we need to pop — I mean in terms of an actual perpetrator. This is the guy we need to pop to send a message. And that’s all we’re really doing… Uh-oh! We don’t need that on tape! Hoo boy!” This later got Foreman a pretty nice plea deal — his case was separated from the greater one, deferred until 1996, and his sentence was reduced to a single misdemeanor with a $250 fine. But the other members were not as lucky. One member got a one-month prison sentence and a $2,000 fine; another got six months and a $5,000 fine; another received a three-year prison sentence and was ordered to pay $19,821 in restitution to Fairfield Snowbowl; and another was sentenced to a restitution of $19,821 to Snowbowl and six years in prison.

This not only shook Foreman; it solidified the schism that had been tearing the group in two for years. Foreman and some of the other founding members left the group, and a member of the Roselle faction, Judi Bari, became the new prophet for Earth First!


While under Bari’s leadership, the schism took a definite form. Earth First! now belonged to the “Holies”; the “Wilders,” on the other hand, went off to form an organization now known as The Wildlands Network. The organizations did not get along. In a review of Foreman’s account of his time with Earth First!, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Bari wrote:

Dave Foreman concludes that we hippie anarchists have steered Earth First! away from its original principles, and it’s time for him to quit. He says we have already accomplished what we set out to do 10 years ago. I certainly disagree with that. Sure, we’ve educated a lot of people, but they’re still butchering the forest, and our country just destroyed Iraq. What I think we’ve been doing is putting the principles of biocentrism into practice in the real world. And the radical implications of the theory, as well as the repression we’ve encountered, have scared Dave Foreman off.

So I’ll return the compliment you gave me last year, Dave. You’re a hero who will be remembered 100 years from now. But the movement has passed you by, and it’s time to step aside. Work elsewhere, where you feel more comfortable. But quit bashing those of us who are still on the front lines.

Deep Ecology, the philosophy the original Earth First!ers operated under, was eventually supplanted by “social ecology,” a theory devised by the anarchist Murray Bookchin. Again, the relationship between the two philosophies was not amicable. Bookchin, for example, repeatedly called the Deep Ecologists “ecofascists,” and regarded them as enemies of a true ecological philosophy, not simply allies who disagreed.

Perhaps Bari’s biggest achievement as an Earth First! leader was her union of labor and environmental issues. Specifically, she allied Earth First! closely with the anarchist group International Workers of the World (known as the “wobblies”), allowing Earth First!ers to mount a two pronged attack in some of their campaigns: from one side, the radical hippies in the forest, from another, the radical socialists inside the heavy equipment vehicles. Because of this union, she strongly discouraged the previously ubiquitous tactic of “tree spiking” — hammering nails into trees to slow deforestation — because they might be unsafe for the deforesters. Over time this resulted in an overall decrease of monkeywrenching activity.

Nevertheless, monkeywrenching remained an important element of Earth First!’s identity, largely because, in May 1990, a vehicle used by Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney (an Earth First! musician) was blown up by a pipe bomb. Bari was severely injured, Cherney injured only in minor ways. For a while the FBI claimed that Bari and Cherney were transporting the bomb for monkeywrenching activities, but they later discovered that this couldn’t have been the case: an analysis revealed that the pipe bomb, its surface wrapped in nails, was equipped with a trigger that would only activate when the car was driven. It was also revealed that an FBI chief had received the following anonymous tip:

Dear Chief Keplinger:

I joined Earth First to be able to report illegal activities of the organization. Now I want to establish a contact to provide information to the authorities.

The leader and main force of Earth First in Ukiah is Judi Bari. She is facing a trespassing charge in connection with the Earth First sabotage of a logging road in the Cahte Peak area. She did jail time in Sonoma County for blocking the federal building to support the Communist government in Nicaragua.

Bari and the Ukiah Earth First are planning vandalism directed at Congressman Doug Bosco to protest offshore oil drilling.

Earth First recently began automatic weapons training.

Bari sells marijuana to finance Earth First activities. She sometimes receives and sends marijuana by U.S. mail. On December 23 she mailed a box of marijuana at the Ukiah post office.

There is no point in pursuing local charges. But the use of the U.S. mail means serious federal charges. If you would like to receive confidential information on short notice to make possible an arrest on federal charges at a U.S. post office next time she mails dope, do the following:

Place an advertisement in the “Notices” section of the classified ad section of the Ukiah Daily Journal. It should be addressed to “Dear A” and give the name and telephone number(s), preferably 24-hour, of a detective who would be called to receive this information.

When a call is made, I will identify myself as “Argus.”

This created quite the frenzy in Earth First! Everywhere people were trying to figure out who this “Argus” was, and blame touched major people in the organization, including Bari’s ex-husband. Bari herself blamed the FBI, arguing that their speedy arrival at the FBI site was simply them “waiting around the corner with their fingers in their ears.” One of Earth First!’s leaders once again involved in a major FBI case, the organization weakened, even though a suit by Bari and Cherney eventually did result in prosecution of two FBI agents in charge of Bari’s case.

Meanwhile, Foreman and those who left with him, notably Reed Noss and John Davis, attempted to normalize some of the original ideas of Earth First!, particularly its ecological reserve system. They began an organization first known as The Wildlands Project, later The Wildlands Network, and by utilizing conservation science they made a strong scientific argument for the reserves. It is outlined in the project’s seminal text, Continental Conservation, edited by Reed Noss and the geneticist Michael Soule. The latter also wrote one of the founding documents of conservation biology, in which he modeled the new science’s “normative postulates” after Deep Ecology. Other ex-Earth First!ers worked closely on the National Forum on Biological Diversity to help popularize the concept of “biodiversity,” now a crucial concept in conservation biology. Still other ex-Earth First!ers helped establish major conservation organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity.

In recent years, Earth First!’s only notable project was a 2012 direct action campaign against the Marcellus Shale fracking site. Other than that, the organized is in disarray. In an Earth First! Rendezvous I attended in 2014, a significant portion of the event was spent addressing one shouting, crying woman’s frustration with dreadlocked white people in attendance.

Foreman and co., on the other hand, have permanently changed the world. Conservation biology is now a leading science and the reason we know so much about climate change, ocean acidification, or the ongoing mass extinction. It is popularly accepted that at least some degree of wilderness conservation is desirable, and almost any scientist today accepts “biodiversity” as a legitimate scientific concept.


  • 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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