The History and Impact of Earth First!

Family Reunion

While Bari was still leading Earth First!, the organization found itself implicated in another series of bombings by a group that called itself “F.C.” From 1978-1995, F.C. had sent at least 16 package bombs to various targets in technical fields and published communiques urging that radicals make their primary goal anti-industrial revolution. F.C., it was later revealed, was a former professor and probably genius who had gone to live off the grid in Montana: his name was Ted Kaczynski. I have already explained Kaczynski’s astounding story in Dark Mountain‘s “Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters.” But I didn’t quite emphasize just how closely related Kaczynski was to Earth First!.

At the time of the F.C. bombings, many Earth First!ers claimed no relation to Kaczynski’s “anarchist terror group.” Indeed, in the aforementioned 2014 rendezvous, many of the older members present still insisted that Kaczynski had absolutely nothing to do with Earth First!. This could not be more wrong. In fact, several pieces of evidence suggest that Earth First! was one of Kaczynski’s central preoccupations.

The widely-available, explicitly-stated facts are these:

  • The FBI found a copy of the Earth First! Journal and Live Wild or Die! in Kaczynski’s cabin.
  • Kaczynski misspelled the name of one of his targets, the same way the name was spelled when the target was listed in an “Eco-Fucker’s Hit List,” published by Live Wild or Die!.
  • Kaczynski’s tracts against “leftism” reflected the schism that split Earth First!
  • Some of Kaczynski’s ideas reflected exactly the radical environmentalist ideas made popular in the Earth First! Journal.
  • There is some evidence that Kaczynski attended an Earth First! Rendezvous.

These, however, are all circumstantial. The definite, less well-known evidence comes from the F.C. communiques — which includes a letter to Live Wild or Die! and several letters to Earth First!. In the letter to LWOD, F.C. tries to establish secret contact with the editors by teaching them a code and giving them the following instructions:

Place an ad in the classified section of the Los Angeles Times, classification #1660, “Personal messages.” The ad should preferably appear on May 9, 1995, but in any case leave a few days between the time when the Chronicle ad appears and the time when the LA Times ad appears. This ad should begin, “Dear Stargazer, the mystic numbers that control your fate are…” and it should be signed “Numerologist.” In between there will be a sequences of numbers conveying a coded message.

And in his letters to Earth First!, he asks the journal to publish his manifesto, gives recommendations for monkeywrenching strategy, and, under the pseudonym “Fabius Maximus,” gives his opinions on population growth. Even today Earth First! is within Kaczynski’s view. In his most recent book, for example, he notes the possibility of radicals using entryist tactics employed by the Bolsheviks to take control of the Earth First! Journal, which they could then use for revolutionary ends.

Furthermore, many Earth First!ers have expressed tacit support for Kaczynski. LWOD, for example, published two writings by Kaczynski in the seventh issue, and in 2011 the Earth First! Journal published an article entitled “Re-visiting Uncle Ted & A Few FC Targets,” which reappraised Kaczynski and implied support for some of his actions.

There is no denying it: Earth First! seemed to have found its “crazy uncle.”

Childbirth

The following is heavily based on an article originally written by Leslie James Pickering, former press officer for the Earth Liberation Front.

Then, Earth First! birthed a child.

In 1996, the Oakridge Ranger Station was struck by an arson attack, ironically conducted by Jacob Ferguson, who would later become the FBI’s primary source of information about the perpetrators. Graffiti left at the scene of the arson read, “Earth Liberation Front.” In the following years, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) would grow to become the number one domestic terrorist priority of the United States.

The ELF conducted a far-reaching campaign of destructive acts of ecological sabotage against corporations and government agencies it believed were making a profit at the expense of nature. The group was especially active between 1997 and 2002, propelling itself into the national spotlight through a series of costly and high-profile arson attacks.

For example, on October 1st, 1998, the ELF set seven fires to Vail ski resort in Colorado, resulting in $12 million in damages. In a communiqué, the ELF described its opposition to Vail’s planned expansion. “The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state. Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.”

On December 31st, 1999, the ELF turned the anti-genetic engineering movement up a notch by setting fire to offices at Michigan State University conducting research sponsored by Monsanto and USAID working to “force developing nations in Asia, Latin America and Africa to switch from natural crop plants to genetically engineered sweet potatoes, corn, bananas and pineapples.”

On May 21st, 2001 the ELF struck two locations simultaneously. Devastating fires were set at offices conducting genetic engineering research at the University of Washington and Jefferson Poplar in Oregon. At the scene of the Oregon fire, graffiti was left reading, “You Cannot Control what is Wild.”

On January 26th , 2002 the construction site for the University of Minnesota’s Microbial and Plant Genomics Research Center was struck by an arson claimed by the ELF. “We are fed up,” the communiqué read, “with capitalists like Cargill and major universities like the U of M who have long sought to develop and refine technologies which seek to exploit and control nature to the fullest extent under the guise of progress.”

While the ELF rose in prominence, an aboveground faction of radical environmentalists explicitly supportive of them began conducting less radical activities against the same kind of companies the ELF targeted. Because of the influence of the animal rights movement, especially the animal rights terror group known as SHAC, these above-ground activists often borrowed tactics that had previously been confined to right-wing groups, like publishing scientists’ personal contact information or visiting the homes of corporate executives en masse.

Mainstream environmental organizations, however, did not regard the ELF highly, fearing that the group’s actions would delegitimize the entire environmental movement. One Sierra Club spokesman said of the group’s actions: “It’s too bad — every time it happens the environmental movement gets a lot of bad press. …Our only thought about them is hoping that law enforcement brings them justice swiftly.”

For many years, the Earth Liberation Front operated entirely beyond the reach of the law. Eventually, some individuals were charged and convicted of ELF actions, but the bulk of the most significant actions went unsolved until a sweep of arrests were initiated on December 7th , 2005. The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” indicted a number of individuals active in the environmental, anarchist and animal liberation movements and many were convicted largely due to information that they gave on each other.

The cooperation of Jacob Ferguson was the key to the government’s case against the Operation Backfire defendants. Ferguson wore a hidden audio recording device for the FBI while initiating incriminating conversations with his former comrades. By the time of their arrests, the individuals indicted were no-longer functioning together as a unit and a number had personal resentments towards each other and/or had undergone significant political conversions. In 2011, filmmaker Michael Curry made an acclaimed documentary about the case, If a Tree Falls. Curry’s film largely ignores the spectacle of the terrorism and focuses mostly on the failing or broken relationship of a formerly close-knit group of eco-terrorists.

Ferguson’s recordings, and subsequent testimony offered by defendants turned state’s witness, made up the vast majority of the evidence in the government’s case. While some Operation Backfire defendants cooperated for plea deals, a handful of ELF members got somewhere between 4-20 years in prison — sentences that were mostly unprecedented in the history of radical environmentalism. Many of these members, it was revealed, were dedicated Earth First! activists. Some even worked for mainstream organizations like Greenpeace.

One member of the ELF known as “Avalon,” considered by the FBI to be the mastermind of the ELF and the author of texts detailing the construction of powerful incendiary devices, committed suicide in his prison cell rather than face the government’s charges. “Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia,” Rodgers wrote in a suicide note. “I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild. I am just the most recent casualty in that war. But tonight I have made a jail break — I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins.”

The ELF is no longer a powerful force, and almost all of its members are now out of the legal system, but occasionally a new generation of saboteurs attach the initials to their communiques. Many ELF actions, including a number of very significant actions, remain unsolved and at least some strategic evolutions have apparently taken place to better prevent a repeat of Operation Backfire. It is unclear if the group will ever rise to its former glory, but at the very least it has left a permanent mark on radical environmentalism.

Final Thoughts

In the following decades several other groups sprouted from the radical environmentalism that Earth First! spearheaded. Notably, in 1999 during the World Trade Organization meeting, groups of green anarchists successfully turned the demonstrations into a riot that disrupted economic negotiations and shocked the American public, who before were mostly unfamiliar with that particular brand of protesting.

In the late 2000s three activists — Eric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen — published a book outlining radical political tactics a militant environmentalist group might use. The book advocated a direct and immediate dismantling of industrial technological systems like dams, mines, and the electric grid, something it called “decisive ecological warfare.” The authors later founded an organization with the same name as the book, Deep Green Resistance. Although initially receiving wide support from eco-radicals, the organization, like Earth First!, was eventually beset by issues tangential to environmentalism, trangender politics in particular.

Groups continue to proliferate. Attacks on industrial infrastructure continue to be accompanied by communiques signed by the Earth Liberation Front, and new eco-terror groups like Individualists Tending Toward Savagery have formed. Less radical groups in conservation are progressively uniting themselves under a platform advocating wilderness preservation and restoration, and are beginning to offer bold, previously unthinkable proposals like setting aside half of the earth for protection from industrial development. And a schlew of what Foreman once called “passionate amateurs” are spearheading little known but impressive projects, like the United Green Alliance.

These groups are becoming more connected, setting aside minuscule differences for the sake of the larger goal: protect the land, and rewild what has been lost. Unfortunately, many suffer from funding issues and are often beset by schisms like those suffered by Earth First! and DGR. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of schisms also haunted the activism of the 60s as part of the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO program, which hoped to use dividing lines between activists of various stripes to prevent anything approaching a “united front.” But it appears as though those kinds of tactics are losing their power as the critique of civilization is becoming the standard critique for all kinds of political action, left and right. More and more people are beginning to see wild nature as a path to freedom and meaning, and are beginning to question the dominance of invasive and controlling technologies. And eco-terrorism is still the top domestic terror threat in the United States. Earth First!, or something like it, is due for a revival.

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.

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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