Earth First! A Voice Vying for the Wilderness : Group Says Radical Tactics Will Continue Despite Arrests

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Times Staff Writer

The snow was deep in the Cascade Mountains of western Oregon last Jan. 14 when Willamette National Forest headquarters received a letter pasted together from words cut out of newspaper headlines:

Dear Freddies:

As the destruction of old growth timber on public land continues , so will the spiking of forests slated for clearcutting. You’ll find that sale unit 8 of the Pyramid Creek timber sale has been spiked with 50 lbs. of 20 penny spikes .

This is just an example. The spiking of other sale units will not be as easy to detect.


Have fun looking.

--The Bonnie Abbzug Feminist

Garden Club

District Ranger Leonard Lucero said he attempted at the time to investigate the charge of spiking--a practice intended to keep loggers’ saws from biting into old-growth timber--but that snow and stormy weather prevented him from entering the timber sale area. It wasn’t until spring that Lucero discovered the letter was not a hoax.

“We determined that that entire cutting unit was contaminated (with nails),” Lucero said. Teams working with metal detectors and crowbars spent weeks pulling thousands of spikes out of the grove, he said.

Although the culprits in this and an earlier incident of tree spiking in the mountains east of Eugene were never apprehended, Willamette National Forest spokesman Jerry Mason said there’s every indication that the spiking was the work of the radical environmentalist group Earth First! (members insist upon the exclamation mark).

Earth Firsters are, as far as Mason knows, the only ones who address forest service workers as Freddies (after the bumbling forester once played by Fred MacMurray in a movie). And Bonnie Abbzug, the namesake of the group that claimed responsibility for last winter’s spiking, is a character from Edward Abbey’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which is something of a bible to Earth Firsters.

In Oregon, Earth First-type tactics have become enough of a nuisance that National Forest officials have declared certain timber operations off limits to the public, with intruders subject to arrest. In Jackson Hole, Wyo.--where supposed Earth First! sympathizers have damaged an oil company helicopter and a seismographic oil exploration rig, as well as vandalizing heavy equipment--companies that contract wilderness work are hiring 24-hour security guards to discourage further incidents, Teton County Sheriff Roger Millward said.


Dozens of Earth Firsters have been arrested in Western states for actions ranging from blocking the paths of bulldozers to sitting in trees slated for cutting. Earth First! co-founder Howie Wolke faces a preliminary hearing Sept. 26 on charges of felony destruction of property. He is alleged to have pulled out more than a mile of survey stakes leading to a proposed Chevron well site in the Wyoming wilderness.

Sabotaging Projects

Earth Firsters champion “monkeywrenching,” a controversial form of environmental protection that involves the sabotage of development projects.

Former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, an outspoken critic of the Earth First! movement, said in a telephone interview that monkeywrenching is a type of “extremism that is irresponsible, illegal and totally unacceptable to responsible conservationists in America.”

Now a businessman in Boise, Ida., Andrus said he was concerned that Earth First! would taint the image of conservationists who do not share the group’s views.

Doug Scott, deputy conservation director for the Sierra Club, commented, “I don’t think you can be a monkeywrencher and still expect to be taken as a serious player in the political process.”

Yet Friends of the Earth chairman David Brower argued that Earth First! should be commended for shaking up Establishment environmentalists who, he said, tend to get stodgy.


‘Deep Ecology’

Borrowing the notion of “Deep Ecology” from Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who originated the term in 1972, the Earth First! stance is that humans are not the dominant figures on the planet and as such they have no right to claim possession of the land. Earth Firsters say that plants and animals, rocks and rivers deserve to exist unmolested without regard to their usefulness to men and women.

Not content with preserving what he scornfully refers to as “dinky little backpacking areas,” Earth First! founder Dave Foreman hopes to see large chunks of America returned to wilderness status.

He wants grizzlies reintroduced to the Marble Mountains of California; bison to the Great Plains. Foreman suggests that more than a million acres northwest of Los Angeles should be closed to all human use in order to save the condor. And rather than simply prohibiting dam-building on existing wild rivers, Earth Firsters advocate tearing down some dams already built.

Gaining Momentum

The Earth First! movement is small as yet (Foreman estimates about 10,000 sympathizers; the newsletter goes out to 6,500), but the monkeywrenchers are gaining momentum in California. Santa Cruz Earth First! held its first meeting in March, and several clusters got together this year in the Bay Area. A 52-year-old tax collector, Shirley Monroe, apparently one of the few Earth First! sympathizers in the Los Angeles area, attended the group’s recent convention in the Uncompahgre National Forest near Nucla, Colo.

A Sierra Club member who in the past has restricted herself to mainstream environmentalism, Monroe said she is the sort that obeys all traffic laws and has a hard time with the notion of civil disobedience: “I really don’t know if I’d lay down in front of a Caterpillar tractor.”

But Monroe said it’s not inconceivable that one day she too would don a black T-shirt and camouflage pants and cap--the uniform of the monkeywrencher: “The time might come when something so personal to me is threatened that I’ll become one of them.”


The Earth First! summer convention recently attracted 300 people from 35 states and four countries to a massive plateau in Western Colorado. They arrived by way of 30 miles of poorly marked direct road, driving through forests of spruce, pine, fir and aspen.

The group convened in a spacious meadow where a tree had been decorated with an American flag. (One Earth Firster explained the flag by saying that militant environmentalists are true patriots.)

The seven-day outdoor gathering featured workshops in negotiating with the Forest Service, local ecology, rain forests, dams and water projects, and grizzlies, as well as other topics.

There were no posted workshops on monkeywrenching. Dave Foreman explained that Earth Firsters have learned that monkeywrenching is something you don’t talk about in public.

Pulling Up Stakes

In between workshops, people went hiking. Earth Firsters routinely pull up survey stakes and ribbons as they walk, in an elementary form of monkeywrenching. By the end of the gathering, the surrounding area was devoid of those pink ribbons and colorful plastic stakes that often designate areas marked for road building and timber sales.

For evening entertainment, some chose to chant or to swelter in a sweat lodge someone had rigged. Others drank Jack Daniel and cavorted in the moon-lit aspens, playing a game in which people pretended to be various endangered species.


The schedule for the week was altered whenever anyone felt like it. Paul Richard, a 30-year-old writer living in Boulder, Mont., commented: “The most amazing thing about this organization is its lack of organization.”

Foreman said there are no Earth First! members (the closest thing to joining is to subscribe to the group’s Tucson-based newsletter), no leaders and no real organization.

Hammock Headquarters

Earth First! wants to remain free of the rules of the political establishment, said the burly 38-year-old activist from his encampment headquarters, a hammock strung between two aspens. Foreman contended that over-organization has taken the juice out of the established environmental movement, of which he was a part for years.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico, Foreman went from volunteer grass-roots organizing to a position as the Southwest representative for the Wilderness Society in the mid ‘70s. He later spent a year in Washington as issues coordinator for the Wilderness Society, resigning eventually over his concern that environmental good was too often being compromised for profit motives.

Soon after he had moved West again, Foreman went on a camping trip in the Pinacate Desert in Mexico with some friends who were also active in existing environmental groups. He discovered, he said, that they were as disillusioned as he.

“We were all frustrated and wanted to get out,” Foreman explained. “I’d worked in wilderness preservation for 15 years and I had not felt effective.”


Foreman and company conceived the Earth First! concept in a Volkswagen bus on the highway home from Mexico.

Beribboning a Dam

The group’s first media stunt, gaining national attention, was the unfurling of a 300-foot black plastic ribbon on the face of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah border. The visual effect was of a massive crack in the dam. The protesters chanted, “Free the Colorado.”

The dam has a special place in the hearts of Earth Firsters because in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” author Edward Abbey focused on the dam and the shackled river as a symbol of all that is evil in the technological assault on wilderness. The book details the antics of a band of environmental terrorists whose ultimate aim is to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

(Sierra Club spokesman Doug Scott commented: “There’s a dam or two that we’d like to get rid of too. But not by blowing them up.”)

The fact that Earth Firsters embrace methods involving destruction of property manages to offend plenty of people who might otherwise support Earth First! aims. But Foreman refuses to soften the group’s image in order to attract wider support. He feels Earth First! is destined to remain “a small, hardcore wing of the environmental movement.”

Detailed Instructions

Foreman’s recently released handbook, “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching,” undoubtedly will provide more fuel for those who criticize his ideas. A how-to guide with detailed instructions on skills such as tree-spiking, disabling bulldozers and toppling billboards and power-line towers, he said the self-published volume has sold 2,000 mail-order copies in less than six months.


Although warnings to exercise caution and care appear throughout the text, it’s possible that a monkeywrencher could endanger lives with tactics explained in the book.

Foreman said he understands that someone might get hurt as a result of his book.

“I’m very aware of the responsibility involved with writing the book, but it was a necessary thing to do,” he said.

“I’ll be honest: My primary loyalty right now is to the grizzly, the snail darter, the plankton, the California condor. It’s to the rocks and streams.”