Earth First! Tactics in Fight to Save Planet Anger Some, Tickle Others

Times Staff Writer

The call went out to newspaper and television assignment editors one day last year: Position photographers at the state Department of Fish and Game office in downtown San Diego for a great picture of cow manure being dumped on a bureaucrat’s desk.

The stunt, which necessarily required media cooperation, was meant to protest cattle grazing on public lands--a policy that affronts some conservationists as detrimental to Mother Earth’s fragile ecosystem, especially in terms of erosion and related problems caused by cattle near streams.

And so it was that photographers from The Times and the Union-Tribune stationed themselves outside the DFG office at the appointed hour. Suddenly, two men, bandannas covering their faces, appeared out of a stairwell, ran into the lobby of the DFG office, dumped the manure on a desk and scurried off. Each photographer took a few quick pictures as office workers looked on, bewildered.


The newspapers, wary of being manipulated, didn’t publish the photographs, and so it was that another publicity stunt by the radical environmental group Earth First! fell short of its mark.

But this group of never-say-die environmentalists has not gone for want of other ideas and protests to promote their battle cry--Earth First!--and its conviction: “No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.”

In San Diego County, local compatriots of the nationwide Earth First! movement (they don’t call themselves an organization or group, and there are no leaders in the traditional, bureaucratic sense) have orchestrated any number of stunts--some playful, some illegal, and some costly to their targets--in their fervor to protect the world’s ecosystem from what they say is its most insidious threat: man.

Earth First!ers (who insist on the exclamation mark) are perhaps best known nationally for their so-called “monkey-wrenching” tactics to slow or disable man and machine’s rape of the earth, as they see it. Indeed, their ploy of spiking trees in virgin, old-growth woods of Northern California and the Northwest has effectively protected entire tracts of land from lumber harvesting, with lumber companies fearful of the damage that could be done should a mill saw rip into a steel spike.

There is no lumbering in San Diego County, so Earth First!ers here have other focuses locally:

- Earth First! protested development along Los Penasquitos Canyon by pouring sand in the crank cases of earth movers and bulldozers. The ploy, for which Earth First! takes credit and was out under cover of darkness, cost the contractor more than $75,000 in repair bills.

- To protest the same North City development, two members chained themselves to a fence at the corporate offices of the developer and were cited and fined for trespassing.

- Earth First!ers rounded up more than 30 head of cattle in the Los Penasquitos Canyon and let them out in an industrial park on the canyon’s west side, to protest cattle grazing on city-owned land and possible damage to mesa mint.

- They’ve cut down billboards along the San Diego County coastline, saying they were not only eyesores but were erected illegally.

- They’ve disabled the vehicles--and tried to make citizen arrests--of off-road enthusiasts who they say were driving illegally off marked trails in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

- And they’ve joined their colleagues elsewhere in the state to stalk hunters looking for bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert, dressing themselves in camouflage and sounding air horns to scare off the animals just as hunters raised their rifles.

Forty-two-year-old Claude Mathis, an assistant manager of a backpacking outfitters store in Solana Beach, is the spokesman for the 90 or so people who he says subscribe to Earth First! in San Diego County.

“What sets us apart (from mainstream environmental groups) is our eco-defense, which other groups stop short of,” Mathis says. “It does make a difference. We’re not just a few guys blowing off steam. We’re

calculated, we’re efficient.”

And they’re receiving mixed reviews.

The movement generally is scorned by mainstream environmentalists for being too radical, for putting their convictions ahead of the law, for being unwilling to compromise and for not having brought about changes in law or policy to further their philosophical aims.

And Earth First!ers generally interpret that criticism as praise for their message and their methods.

“We need to protect land for land’s sake, and all the species in the world for the species’ sake, because they have intrinsic value in and of themselves,” says Mathis. No other organization has the grass-roots fervor, energy and dedication--and surely no other group is willing to embrace militant and and sometimes illegal tactics--to protect the earth, now and for the future, he said.

“They’re drawing attention to very serious issues, and they’re doing it in a way that other organizations are not equipped to do,” said Bob Hartman, former chapter chairman for the Sierra Club in San Diego and currently a member of the conservation committee for the Sierra Club in California.

“They are companions with us in environmental work, although we may take a different tack than them,” Hartman said. “The Sierra Club, being a corporation, has assets that could be attached in a judgment. If the club were to endorse nonviolent demonstrations that resulted in economic loss or destruction of property, the club could be found liable. The club’s bylaws and statement of purpose clearly state that we’ll work for our goals through all lawful means.

“But the goals of our organizations are parallel, even though there is divergence in the methods and tactics the organizations subscribe to to affect change,” Hartman said.

He added as an aside, drawing reference to some Earth First! tactics and costuming at protests: “Some of our members wouldn’t feel comfortable dressed as a blue heron when discussing water quality issues. I personally feel more comfortable wearing a coat and tie.”

Formed in Early 1980s

Indeed, Earth First! was formed in the early 1980s by a trio of men who had been deeply involved in environmental issues with more mainstream groups, but felt hamstrung by having to work through the system and in the spirit of compromise.

“Maybe it was time for a new joker in the deck: a militant, uncompromising group unafraid to say what needed to be said or to back it up with stronger actions than the established organizations were willing to take,” Dave Foreman, one of the founders and a former wilderness coordinator for The Wilderness Society, wrote in an Earth First! position paper.

The movement, he said, would serve to prick society’s conscience and, by its extremist attitudes and tactics, at least force mainstream organizations from “straying too far from their philosophical base.”

A major tenet of Earth First! philosophy is that there can be no compromise on issues of conservation, because to do so would compromise the earth into extinction.

“For Earth First! it is all or nothing,” Foreman said. “Win or lose. No truce or cease-fire. No surrender. No partitioning of the territory.”

Earth First! holds that man is not on top of the pyramid and king of the hill on earth, but simply a component in the biocentric circle of living things who shouldn’t hold his needs ahead of, say, the snail darter, the bighorn sheep, the organisms that exist in Los Penasquitos’ vernal pools, or any other element in the ecosystem.

Mathis invokes the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and the players in the Boston Tea Party in justifying why Earth First! is not troubled by violating the law--as long as there is no personal violence--to make its point.

“I feel so strongly about what I do, I do it. I’m willing to take responsibility for my actions, and to serve jail time if I have to,” Mathis said. “You’ve got to do what you believe in. We’re not terrorists and we’re not anarchists. We’re not violent. We don’t harm people. We just throw a monkey wrench in the works, and we’ll let history judge if what I did for the environment was wrong. I’m comfortable with what history will say about Earth First!”

Others Disagree

Not everyone sees it that way, especially Earth First!'s notion that all things must be saved for the future.

“They want to save everything for the future, but the future is now. We have people now. We have kids now,” said Jim Peterson, chairman of the 500-strong San Diego Off Road Coalition.

“They don’t know how to intelligently oppose or legislate. They go out and do things violently,” he said. “Earth First! is a reactionary group that uses Gestapo-type tactics. They have no place in the environment movement.”

Peterson maintains that only a few off-road enthusiasts are guilty of violating state park laws in riding their vehicles off marked paths, and that Earth First!ers have muddied the name of all off-road enthusiasts.

Mathis said his compatriots have vandalized dirt bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles when they were seen off the marked trails, and has tried to place some off-road drivers under citizen’s arrest--only to be talked out of it by a park ranger who successfully argued that the case probably would not be prosecuted.

“But we established good contact with the rangers,” Mathis said.

Indeed, Ken Smith, head ranger at Anza Borrego Desert State Park, credits Earth First! for being “supportive” of rangers trying to put the nix on illegal off-roading. But, he adds emphatically:

“I’ve had to warn them we couldn’t encourage in any way any type of violence or illegal activity.”

Supports Aims, Not Tactics

Harriet Allen, spokesman for the San Diego-based Mountain Defense League, said she applauds the aims of Earth First!, if not its tactics.

“We would rather work through community planning groups as much as we can and stimulate local people to act on behalf of the earth,” she said. “We don’t advocate their methods. We tend to try to make corrections at the source of the problem, the decision makers.”

Still, she said, “When they’re thinking through the ultimate consequences of their actions, they have been a very effective physical presence, and there are some groups and people who only react to that kind of a physical presence . . . and that makes them a very necessary part of the educational and informational process.”

But when the educational process transcends to vandalism, the number of critics explodes.

Executives at Newland California, the developer building a 1,300-unit residential project at Los Penasquitos Canyon, say they have no tolerance for Earth First!, given the damage done to bulldozers and earth movers at their construction site.

“We never before had a project sabotaged, and that (putting sand in crank cases) was the first I had heard of Earth First!” said Brian Laidlaw, senior vice president at Newland. “They never called us to talk about the problem as they see it. They think they’re above the law and I don’t know if I want to deal with them.”

Weighing News Value

Earth First! tactics can easily become media attractive, and local news executives say the decision on whether to publicize their movement’s stunts can be a hard call.

“We try to weigh each instance as it comes up. There are no hard-and-fast rules,” said Jim Holtzman, news director at Channel 8. “When groups like them say they’ll be at a certain place at a certain time, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Is this a story only because we’re going to be there, or would it be a legitimate story to report even if we’re not there?’ It’s a question of the tree falling in the woods.

“Sometimes we’ve felt badly that we were a party to it, but other times they’ve been a reasonable story to cover,” he said.

Said Paul Sands, news director at Channel 10: “They’re like covering the anti-war protests. Our approach is to go out and look at it and see, and if there really is an activity (worth publicizing), then we’ll record it, versus pulling the camera out as soon as we get out of the car and end up triggering the demonstration by our presence.”

Earth First! has won local publicity, including an incident in May when two Earth First!ers chained themselves to a fence at the Newland corporate office in Sorrento Valley.

One of the participants was Pamela Bell, 30, of Solana Beach, who along with another Earth First!er was ultimately fined $210 and placed on three years’ probation--with a condition that she not again return to Newland.

The antic, she said, “wasn’t a difficult decision to make. It was a calculated risk. My friends said, ‘Hey, go for it!’ My folks are of another generation. They just kind of hurrumph at me once in a while. They may not approve what I do, but they won’t condemn me.”

Disillusioned as a Ranger

Bell spent five years as a national park service ranger--during the tenure of Interior Secretary James Watt--and then quit. She was disillusioned, she said, and came to believe that national parks were not true caretakers of the land, but rather were part of a political system requiring them to compromise on their policies in deference to the masses and the powers that be in Washington.

But she chose not to join, say, the Sierra Club.

“Coming from the bureaucracy, who wants to put themselves back in that, and be a little cog in a big wheel, when you can create your own movement and do your own actions as you see the problem?” she asks rhetorically.

Another local Earth First!er is Van Clothier, a 28-year-old Encinitas resident and former self-described Young Republican who graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in physics.

He said his entry into the environmental movement came with brushing shoulders with student activists at UCSD, and he ultimately threw himself in with Earth First!

He recalls an Earth First! rally three years ago in Idaho, where he learned about “grabbing the attention of the generic, urban-industrial consuming humans, to be more concerned about what’s going on. The way we do things--whether through humor, direct action or confrontation--is very inspirational and is an effective way of bringing attention to certain issues.”

What About Consequences?

But what if Earth First!'s actions cause economic harm, perhaps trickling down to a bulldozer operator who is left without a job for several days?

“That bulldozer was destroying one of the last vernal pools in San Diego County and causing the extinction of a whole species of plant, the mesa mint,” Clothier contended.

“The mesa mint has a necessary part in the global ecosystem. That’s the essence of the biocentric perspective. So, so what if a guy misses a few days of work? He’ll get over it. But if you as a species go extinct, you can’t get over it.”

Even if Earth First! can’t lay direct claim to promoting legislation or promoting changes in conservation policy, Clothier and others say their actions may have challenged mainstream organizations and agencies to do just that.

“There’s an extreme amount of frustration,” he said. “Doing an action makes you feel good for a while, especially when you see some successes, some front-page coverage or some TV news time in which you can state facts relating to the issue at hand.

“But after that, there’s a big letdown because society’s momentum, like lemmings jumping off a cliff, seems relatively undisturbed despite our most poignant pleas.

“But I’ll keep on doing it because it’s right. What else can I do? I can’t close my eyes to the world’s problems.”