THINK LIKE A MOUNTAIN
[This is the introduction to the collection of this series, elaborating the history behind it. I consider it the high point of Concrete, though that opinion changes during attacks of enthusiasm while working on whatever the latest story happens to be. Through such benevolent delusions do we carry on. – Paul]
Soon after doing the “Concrete Celebrates Earth Day” issue in 1990, I started toying with the idea of Concrete, the gentlemanly environmentalist, hooking up with the rowdies of the green movement in Earth First! The loose-knit group spells its name with an exclamation point.
Since then, the topography has changed. Earth First! Has undergone a split; one of its prominent leaders was bombed, apparently by logging company sympathizers; the Dwyer decision locked up most Pacific Northwest logging on public lands; the Clinton Administration’s Option Nine compromise unlocked it; the Republicans were swept into power and passed the “salvage rider” which Clinton signed into law, which busted down the door. Efforts to neutralize the Endangered Species Act and other land-use regulations have been partially successful, though a green backlash against the lip-licking zeal of the anti-regulators has checked the most outrageous plans.
Earth First! Remains a vital movement, prominent especially at this writing for its efforts to save the redwoods of Headwaters forest. At a time when more genteel and professional environmental organizations are bleeding members and money and clout, EF!’s grassroots seem to be holding firm.
It’s also where the action is; in fact, “direct action” is one of the central ideas behind it. Where virtually all other environmental organizations work to patiently persuade and influence legislation, EF! seeks to dramatize the issues, and simply slow destruction, by direct confrontation: blockades, protests, tree-sits, and even monkeywrenching.
This term comes from Edward Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, one of the inspirations for the movement. In the book, some wilderness protectors destroy heavy machinery used in chewing up the land and eye longingly the wildland-drowning Glen Canyon Dam.
This became the site of EF!’s first publicity stunt: creating a faux “crack” (actually a jaggedly cut piece of black plastic) on the dam, a gesture that succinctly announced the radical character of the group.
Since then, moneywrenching (or “ecotage” or “night work”) has become a big topic of discussion (both in the how-to book Ecodefense and in a regular column in the Earth First! Journal) and, to what I suspect is a much lesser degree, an actual activity of people associated with the group. Mostly it’s fantasy talk.
This – and especially the monkeywrencher’s toughest tactic, tree spiking (the practice of inserting standing trees with hard objects that could ruin sawmill blades) – has earned the group a reputation as “eco-terrorists,” an image that has become so widespread I have even seen it crop up on the television series “Baywatch.”
My research on EF!, pro and con, reveals this as a myth. While some in the group are monkeywrenchers (most seem to be merely involved in civil disobedience and protests), I have found no cases of violence or terror. Spiking is the possible exception, but it seems it has been done with care to avoid injury by its Earth First! Practitioners. Still, it’s a complicated issue, and controversial within the movement (more on that shortly).
Along with direct action, EF!’s central concept is “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.” The sense I get is that they know this is impossible, but by starting out with a compromising attitude, the other environmental organizations inevitably set the goal too low and are dragged too far in the wrong direction when laws are passed and decisions are made. EF!, with its tough stance, hopes to pull the parameters of debate further toward the side of the angels.
As must be clear from my story, I admire the activists of Earth First! While I’m uncomfortable with the rhetoric (of the Fight Korporate Amerika! Sort) and the hemp-is-the-answer hippie culture, I realize it comes with the package.
These people endure great sacrifice, and put their bodies on the line, for beliefs most of us hold dear but fail to act on. For a window on this world – or, who knows, maybe you have it in you to join the cause – I recommend the movement’s newspaper, the Earth First! Journal.
Dave Foreman and the Creation of Earth First!
The best general introduction to Earth First! And radical environmentalism is Dave Foreman’s Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. Part memoir, part polemic, part overview of the movement, it’s all written in Foreman’s lucid, muscular prose and is charmingly forthright. In his discussions of monkeywrenching and spiking, of which he is an unapologetic advocate, when he’s on weak ground, he admits it – such as on the question of whether spiking actually accomplishes much (he doesn’t know).
Foreman co-founded Earth First! along with Howie Wolke, Mike Roselle, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar. Foreman had been frustrated in his former position with the Wilderness Society, seeing it and other big enviro groups compromise again and again to pass a landmark piece of wilderness legislation, RARE II, during the Carter administration. The final legislation preserved a disappointingly small amount of forested area, though plenty of “ice and rock.”
The ideas behind Earth First! Were simple. No compromise. Grass roots. Direct action. All the things that the successful enviro groups were moving away from as they gained institutional inertia, professionalism, and establishment acceptance.
A crucial distinction was thus made between EF! and its predecessor as the most extreme environmental group, Greenpeace. While Greenpeace did embrace lawbreaking within certain parameters, mainly banner-hanging publicity stunts and interposing themselves between whalers and their prey, EF! went further. They advocated monkeywrenching – the actual and expensive destruction of roads, equipment, survey stakes, animal traps, and other means of assault on the wild – as a tactic of defense.
And this is how they see it. The handbook on monkeywrenching, edited by Foreman and Bill Haywood, is titled Ecodefense. Before going further, let me point out there is not a bomb or gun or violent technique in the book, simply a myriad of ways to vandalize and get away with it.
So did EF! forever assume the reputation of the bad seed among the greens. Even if you don’t buy the industry fable of eco-terrorism (and it truly is a fable), the idea of a bunch of anarchists randomly vandalizing is hardly ennobling.
But, as Foreman takes pains to point out in both Ecodenfense and Confessions, it isn’t random, or shouldn’t be. There is a brace of monkeywrenching ethics that should be followed as carefully as the instructions on how to disable a road grader. It should be strategic, effective, and safe for human and other life.
Of course, monkeywrenching (and its even more provocative cousin, spiking) is probably more symbolic – and entertaining fantasy – than an actual practice. While the Earth First! Journal has a brief column on “Night Work” in most issues, and a how-to forum called “Dear Ned Ludd,” I can’t escape the suspicion that monkeywrenching gets talked and written about much more than it is really done.
Earth First! ‘s early actions were highly symbolic, especially their initial big splash, at Glen Canyon dam in Arizona. Throughout The Monkey Wrench Gang, the characters roil with distaste for the structure, which caused the formation of Lake Powell.
The dam drowned, as Christopher Manes’ Green Rage describes it, “one of the most beautiful stretches of the Colorado Gorge, the golden heart of the canyonlands, with its tamarisk and willow thickets, waterfalls and plunge pools, hanging gardens of orchids and maidenhair ferns that had found refuge in the pink sandstone recesses while mastodons still walked the continent during the ice age.”
In the book, they never get around to actually destroying the dam, and neither did EF! that day. But while a demonstration in the parking lot called for its dismantling, a group of six (including Foreman) hefted a rolled-up parcel out to the dam proper, and, before they were arrested, unrolled a 300-foot polyethylene “crack” down the side.
The incident Roland Sanger refers to in the story, involving Foreman being dragged by a truck, happened during a 1983 EF! effort to prevent road building (an opening to logging) in the Kalmiopsis roadless area in Oregon. Foreman was bumped by, and then fell under, a truck carrying a road crew. He held on to the bumper and seriously injured his leg as he was dragged over the rough road. The driver, Les Moore, eventually jumped out and yelled, “You dirty communist bastard! Why don’t you go back to Russia?”
Foreman replied, “But Les, I’m a registered Republican,” which he was, at the time. Foreman’s early political roots were indeed as a Goldwater Republican, which illuminates both the way the political world has shifted around environmentalism and why Foreman is no longer part of Earth First!
As the movement grew, those attracted to biocentrism and wilderness protection tended to be left-leaning and interested in social justice. There is also, at least to Foreman’s eyes, an anarchist – and revolution-for-the-hell-of-it element.
Foremen became increasingly disenchanted with these voices, and what he felt were concerns peripheral to EF!’s stated purpose as well as the criticism of political incorrectness which is always a feature of the left (Foreman’s macho, steak-and-beer environmentalism is at odds with the vegan sympathies of the majority).
The inevitable true believers grated on him, too, with their condescension toward the other players in the environmental movement, which Foreman sees as all playing a role.
Then, in 1989, Foreman was awakened to see three .357 Magnums trained on him. He was rousted out of bed and arrested by the FBI for participation in a conspiracy to cut down some power-line towers -- he allegedly gave $580 to the cutters, through he didn’t take part in the destruction.
Federal conspiracy charges are serious, and Foreman must have weighed his options carefully before plea bargaining to avoid jail time and, presumably, a bankrupting defense effort.
Foreman hasn’t cited this episode in his decision to leave Earth First!, but I can’t help but think it played a role. After guns have been trained on you, and you’ve been on the business side of a cell door, you take a look at what brought you there and where you’re going.
I think Foreman faced the prospect of martyring himself for a group he no longer felt were his people, or carrying on his work in other ways (cutting a deal, of course, brought him little respect from those carrying the banner of No Compromise). He chose the latter.
He promptly founded Wild Earth, a biocentric journal decidedly less rowdy than the EF! Journal, but no less uncompromising in its vision (an ongoing project is an attempt to link surviving “island” wilderness areas with corridors, allowing transfer and, indeed, evolution, of wild species). He was later elected to the board of the Sierra Club, where he remains active and outspoken at this writing.
Personally, I think EF! is poorer for his departure. Foreman’s a terrific writer and from all accounts an inspiring speaker. Such leaders don’t come along every day. From my reading of the situation, nobody has quite stepped in to fill his shoes, though Earth First! carries on, in its unstructured way, with numerous dedicated activists.
Judi Bari and EF!’s Loss of Innocence
After Foreman, Earth First!’s most prominent personality was Judi Bari. She too, unfortunately, has departed. But she left the movement changed and strengthened.
Bari came to Earth First! With a solid heritage of leftist activism. She worked against the Vietnam War, then in union organizing when she worked in a grocery store bakery and later, at a bulk mail center at the Post Office. None of the three unions already there did enough to protect their workers from long hours and dangerous conditions, she felt, and she convinced enough others that she would up leading a single union at the massive complex.
With this background, she identified with the overworked, endangered mill workers who toiled in Northern California. In a lot of ways, they were like stressed-out postal workers.
Pacific Lumber Company (“Palco”) had for decades been a family-run company that cut timber at a moderate, sustainable rate. But in 1985 it was taken over by the Texas conglomerate Maxxam in a leveraged buyout. It became imperative to liquidate the company’s assets quickly to service the junk-bond debt.
The assets were the towering redwoods. This meant forced overtime – meaning less family time and more accidents – and the eventual elimination of jobs as marketable timber vanished.
Bari saw the common interest between First!ers and workers and sought to build bridges between the traditionally hostile camps. Both would win if the cut was slowed to a sustainable yield.
It was no small task. Bari herself had been run off the road by a hotheaded log-truck driver. Afterwards, he was hauled out of his truck and forced to confront her. He was horrified to see that her kids were in the car. “The children, the children. I didn’t see the children,” he said. He was, incidentally, never charged.
Perhaps it was experiences like this and other attacks on First!ers that led Bari to lead the way in denouncing tree spiking. For it is surely spiking, with its implicit threat of injury, that gives timber workers the best rationale for responding with violence themselves.
Or it may have been a basic philosophical affinity for nonviolence, since her public condemnation of spiking came about in such an impromptu way. Rik Scarce, in his book Eco-Warriors, describes it like this:
… at an annual environmental law conference in Oregon in March 1990, an unexpected new opportunity presented itself. Timber worker Gene Lawhorn, who had risked losing his job by appearing on a conference panel with Bari, told an audience that the only way that Bari’s radical environmentalist-timber worker alliance could ever hope to work on a large scale was for Earth First! to renounce tree spiking.
The lumberjacks and millhands felt their lives were being placed in danger, despite Earth First!’s practice of warning when an area had been spiked. Lawhorn looked at Bari and waited for a response. Unprepared and on the spot, she simply said, “I hereby renounce tree-spiking.” The room erupted in applause. Even the Earth First!ers in the audience supported her.
Soon after this, Earth First! groups in California and Oregon formally renounced spiking in their areas, though the statements tacitly encouraged equipment sabotage by mill workers to slow the industry’s cutting. And this seems to be the drift of EF! opinion, though years later there are voices still defending the practice.
Bari preferred that all monkeywrenching be abandoned, at least by Earth First!
She argued that EF! was an above-ground movement that would always be vulnerable if it provided any basis for believing that attacks on its members were somehow a taste of their own medicine. Since monkeywrenching was so easily transformed into terrorism in public perception, she felt it was best to leave it to truly underground groups (such as the Earth Liberation Front, a group active in England known for all manner of elfin mischief).
The bombing of Bari and Darryl Cherney occurred in May of 1990, just a month after the Earth Day 1990 celebration (which I consider a watershed event, though Bari and other First!ers dismissed it as corporate greenwash). That year, environmental concerns were front and center, especially in California, where an important forest initiative was on the ballot (it failed, alas). Bari was in the thick of organizing “Redwood Summer,” which sought to draw forest demonstrators the way the 1964‘s “Mississippi Summer” brought in Freedom Riders to focus attention on segregation.
Bari and Cherney were on their way to give a concert in Santa Cruz to round up support. A bomb under Bari’s seat exploded. Shrapnel sliced into Cherney’s eye; Bari’s pelvis fractured and she suffered massive soft tissue trauma as fragments including finishing nails were driven upwards. The pain was horrendous. “I wanted to die,” Bari wrote. “I begged the paramedics to put me out.”
She woke up twelve hours later to find that the authorities already had a suspect: Judi Bari. “You are under arrest for possession of explosives,” a figure staring down at her told her.
It was the beginning of a long legal ordeal, though eventually the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. In the meantime, the FBI selectively leaked information to smear Bari and Cherney and discredit Earth First!
The positive development was that in their subsequent lawsuit against the FBI, Bari and Cherney gained access to 5000 pages of documents detailing this sordid campaign and other operations aimed at crippling EF!
The documents revealed that the FBI essentially nipped in the bud any serious investigation by the Oakland police, telling them Bari and Cherney were responsible. Then they continued to leak evidence to the press of the duo’s guilt even though none of it held up, and indeed, much was outright falsehood from the start.
The FBI told the press the bomb was on the floor of the back seat, so the victims must have seen it and known about it. But their own photos show the bomb expert holding a mockup on the back-seat floor and also the gaping hole centered under the front seat. It was unquestionably under the front seat – covered with a blue towel, to boot.
It was also a motion-activated bomb; a ball bearing had to roll slightly to make contact, perhaps while the car was turning. As if someone would transport a motion-activated bomb under his or her own car seat!
There were many other deceptions, as well as serious leads that were simply never pursued. The FBI – or Richard Held, the head of the operation – had already settled on who should take the fall.
It never made sense. Bari and Cherney were clearly gregarious, people-oriented activists and musical performers as well. Coalition-builders do not manufacture bombs in their spare time. Yet this picture of them was eclipsed by something foolish but understandable on Bari’s part.
It was also the product of manipulation by a fellow who would seem by other evidence to be an FBI informant with a grudge against Bari.
Bari knew this fellow casually from work in the Central America justice movement and an abortion clinic defense she organized. After a demonstration, he was part of a small group who went to Cherney’s house to unwind. They smoked dope and got silly. They fantasized about dumping oil into the swimming pool of a pro-oil industry congressman.
Then he pulled out a modified Uzi and suggested they all pose for photos with it. They did, Bari included.
A month later, the police received the photo of her with a letter saying the writer had infiltrated Earth First! And learned they had started automatic weapons training.
Talk about a setup! Bari walked into it, sweetly smiling in a marijuana haze. But when released to the papers in the wake of the bombing, the photo seemed to make all the words and the facts irrelevant. She was even wearing an Earth First! T-shirt. The picture is actually kind of comical. A compact woman, Bari looked like a stout twelve-year–old playing army.
Images are powerful influences. The story line of Think Like a Mountain pivots on this fact, you may notice. In the bombing episode, the widest publicity Earth First! Ever got, the eco-terrorist label was applied with super-glue.
Bari spent the rest of her life crippled. Hiking in the woods was out of the question. The cost she paid for her activism was horrendous.
I first dismissed the idea that the FBI itself targeted her for assassination. But I may be naïve in this, considering things that have come to light. Agents appeared at the bombing scene in a suspiciously short time. The bomb was of a sort built in a bomb seminar held in the Bay area by the FBI only a short time earlier.
I am not a cynic, and I presume most institutions of government are made up of people trying to do more or less the right thing. The episodes at Ruby Ridge and Waco involved parties with outrageous arsenals and situations thick with “the fog of war.” I can believe the killings were due mainly to bad decisions and the loss of personal responsibility through organizational diffusion.
But it’s also true that law enforcement draws personalities with some kinks in their attitudes toward power. In a cop culture that sees itself pinned down by a billion laws while the bad guys do anything they want, occasionally some sick hot dogs cross the line while their fellow cops look the other way.
The FBI personnel involved, with a background in the FBI’s darkest dealings (the COINTELPRO) operations of the early seventies), seem believable candidates for such an act.
I don’t know. This is America, not El Salvador. But the more I lean about this, the more troubled I am.
Bari and Cherney’s civil case against the FBI finally succeeded in 2002. There was a $4.4 million verdict <http://www.judibari.org/>. Sad to say, Bari didn’t have the satisfaction of court victory. She died March 2nd, 1997, of breast cancer, depriving the movement of one of its truly heroic activists.
Captain Paul Watson
Before I leave the subject of prominent eco-activists, I must touch briefly on the living legend of direct action, Captain Paul Watson. Perhaps it is his crew which Roland joins at the end of our story.
Watson co-founded Greenpeace, then was ousted from the organization, ostensibly for violating their nonviolent creed (he grabbed a bludgeon from a sealer about to, as it’s said, “harvest” a seal pup and threw it into the sea).
Watson went on to establish the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, sometimes called “Earth First’s Navy” (although there’s no formal connection). Watson and his crews have rammed illegal whalers, scuttled whalers at the dock, cut and weighted drift nets sending them to the bottom, and interfered with the Spanish fishing fleet’s pillage of Nova Scotia’s fish stocks.
In return, their own vessels have been sabotaged, sunk, boarded by troops; they’ve had knives flung at them and their props fouled by drag lines. Last year Watson was attacked in his hotel room by a mob that literally broke down the door and gave him a beating that required hospitalization.
When, after the seal defense action described above, he handcuffed himself to a bale of pelts, he was repeatedly dipped in the frigid water until hypothermia set in; the cuffs broke and he would have drowned if not saved by some other Greenpeacers at the time.
Sometime I’d like to go into Watson’s astounding exploits at length. And – who knows? – I might do another Concrete series dealing with these sea-faring warriors for the Earth.
This story was a big undertaking. It took about five years to pull together, and it educated me mightily. I think the environmental movement will strengthen, simply because the escalating damage to the environment is inevitable and will touch more lives as the years pass. I hope Earth First! Continues to break trail; with its intentionally disorganized structure, I think it has a good chance of lasting a long time.
The title Think Like a Mountain comes from Aldo Leopold, one of the grand old men of the environmental movement, author of A Sand Country Almanac. This beautiful phrase suggests we take the long view, considering what is of value beyond the next fiscal year or, indeed, our own life spans.