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The FBI vs. the Monkeywrenchers : The Eco-Guerrillas of Earth First! Say They’re Saving the Planet. : The Government Calls Them Criminal Saboteurs.

<i> Michael A. Lerner, a former Newsweek correspondent, is a free-lance journalist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles</i>

MIKE TAIT grabbed his wire cutters from the back of his beat-up silver-blue pickup while Mark Davis scanned the block--99th and Cactus on the outskirts of Phoenix. It was around 8 p.m. The area--half industrial, half farmland--was pretty desolate that time of night, but you could never be too careful. They headed across the wide, dusty field before them to an isolated section of the fence that surrounded the sprawling Arizona Public Service storage yard. Tait clipped the fence, and they went through.

It was a simple operation, your basic breaking and entering, but it was enough to banish any lingering doubts Davis had about Tait. The two had known each other for almost a year and had become good friends, and Davis didn’t have many of those. This battered, ex-alcoholic Vietnam vet, this “redneck for wilderness,” as Tait described himself, was indeed a warrior like Davis. They snatched a couple of the 7x7-inch, 1/2-inch-thick pieces of angle iron they had come for and darted back out.

They needed the angle iron to test how long it would take Davis’ blowtorch to fire through it. The angle iron was made of the same galvanized steel as the giant electrical towers they planned to sabotage in their upcoming operation. Davis, Tait and their friends Margaret (Peg) Millett and Marc Baker would burn through the legs of the towers, toppling them and snapping the power lines they supported in the process.

The four were what you would call serious monkeywrenchers, radical environmentalists willing to damage property to free wilderness from the blight of man’s overexploitation. Their target was the Central Arizona Project, the state’s massive canal system that sucks off the Colorado River to quench desert cities and farms. Their act would temporarily disable two of the CAP’s pumping stations. Davis had the whole thing worked out, right down to the wooden boards he would tie to his shoes to ensure that no telltale footprints would be left. He even had the date set: May 30, 1989.

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There was just one problem. Davis’ good buddy Mike Tait, who’d be with them every step of the way, wasn’t much of a radical at heart. In fact, he was an undercover agent for the FBI.

The irony of the situation was that at this point Tait and his superiors weren’t really that concerned about building a case against Davis, Millett and Baker. Their massive 2 1/2-year investigation--which involved more than 50 agents and entailed planting an undercover agent--had already produced enough evidence, they believed, to nail the three for severing dozens of power lines leading to three uranium mines in Arizona, as well as downing a pylon supporting a ski lift near Flagstaff.

No, they were after a bigger prize. They were after the granddaddy of monkeywrenchers, the man whose speeches and writings had led to what seemed like an environmental guerrilla war throughout the country against logging companies, building contractors, toxic polluters and anyone else who tread callously on Mother Nature. They were after Dave Foreman, a founder of the radical environmental movement Earth First! and overt advocate of careful and deliberate monkeywrenching. Mark Davis, they hoped, would lead them to him.

NOT SO LONG ago, a “radical environmentalist” meant a longhaired Earth freak with a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker slapped on the back of a VW bus. There was something half-baked, almost peacenik-y about it. Times have changed. These days, three of four Americans consider themselves environmentalists, a recent Gallup poll indicates, and the radical fringe is anything but namby-pamby. Thanks in part to the Reagan Administration’s anti-environmentalist policies, its ranks have swelled during the past few years. We live in perilous times, they tell us. The Cold War’s threat of nuclear annihilation has given way to the threat of ecological annihilation. Ozone depletion, rain forest destruction--these are radical problems, they tell us, that demand radical solutions.

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Those solutions are sometimes effective and always controversial. The radicals’ tactics range from high-profile civil disobedience to sabotage, or ecotage, as they call it. These are the folks who face down bulldozers by day and “decommission” them by night, who hang from trees for days at a time to prevent them from being felled. They sink Japanese whaling ships off Iceland, chain themselves to giant redwoods in Northern California, pull up surveyors’ stakes wherever and whenever possible, and spike trees--driving long metal or ceramic spikes into the bark--to ward off chain saws.

Dave Foreman is considered by some to be the dean of direct action; he wrote the book on it--literally. Called “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching,” it describes, for instance, the proper way to spike a tree and explains why, when decommissioning a bulldozer, pouring sand into its gas tank is much more effective than pouring sugar. Earth First!, the Tucson-based organization he helped found in 1980, today counts about 15,000 members (whose names are rigorously kept confidential) and has a network of 50 “bureaus” around the world. Its main organ is the Earth First! Journal, a 40-page tabloid published eight times a year that prints material ranging from the scientific to the philosophic, more often than not combining both.

Last summer, Foreman, Davis, Millett and Baker were charged with conspiring to sabotage three nuclear facilities. Davis, Millett and Baker also were charged with separate counts of destroying private property and an energy facility. The date of the trial, postponed numerous times, has yet to be set. If convicted, Davis, Millet and Baker face a maximum of 15 years in prison and Foreman faces a maximum term of five years.

Foreman’s lawyer doesn’t think that’s likely to happen, however. In fact, he will probably turn the case into a mega-media showcase for the environmental movement as a whole, a man’s right to freedom of expression and the government’s efforts to quash both. After all, Foreman’s lawyer is none other than Gerry Spence, the fiery Lone Ranger of law in the West. To call Spence high-profile is an understatement. His mammoth success in 1976 against the Kerr-McGee Oil corporation in the Karen Silkwood case placed him in that small pantheon of lawyers whose name alone sends shudders of fear through his opponents and whose very decision to take on a case can, quite possibly, influence a jury. He currently is defending former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, who is accused of helping her late husband, Ferdinand, steal more than $100 million from their country’s treasury.

Spence claims that the FBI’s investigation was less a crippling blow against domestic terrorism than an elaborate, mean-spirited campaign to discredit and cripple Dave Foreman, his cause and his organization. “The procedures that the FBI is using here are very similar to the procedures the FBI used in the 1960s against dissident groups,” says Spence, comparing the work and methods of Foreman and other radicals to those of civil-rights protesters and anti-war activists.

AT FIRST glance, Dave Foreman appears anything but a crazed radical. At 42, he is a big, balding bear of a guy with a trim beard and lazy eyes that fold down at the outer corners. He likes to portray himself in his speeches as a beer-guzzling redneck, but the truth is, on the afternoon I met him in Tucson, he had just taken his niece to see “The Nutcracker.” His house--a modest one-story, brick dwelling with a “natural growth” desert garden in the front yard--is a middle-class paradigm. He speaks slowly, deliberately, with those long, ubiquitous a ‘s associated with his part of the world (“Ya have ta get out thar an’ do somethan”).

Foreman’s path to radicalism forms a huge arc that begins far on the right. An Air Force brat, Foreman campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and was the New Mexico chairman for Young Americans for Freedom. In 1968, the year of the Yippie, Foreman joined the Marines. “I didn’t know my left from my right, and I have this terrible sense of rhythm. It was an absolute disaster,” he recalls.

More important, he realized that he didn’t support America’s war in Vietnam. He marched into his drill instructor’s office shortly after enlisting and told him so. When the drill instructor wouldn’t let Foreman out of the corps, Foreman deserted. His father turned him in. “So, out of 61 days in the Marine Corps, I spent 31 days in the brig,” he says. Today, Foreman still considers himself a reluctant radical. “I don’t like being a radical. I feel uncomfortable on a picket line. I do it because I have to.”

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Foreman discovered that he had to in the spring of 1980. Back then, Foreman was the Wilderness Society’s chief lobbyist based in Washington, D. C., and with his graduate degree in biology and his proven skill at working the halls of Congress, he was amassing clout rapidly. “I thought, if I play my cards right, I could become assistant secretary for the Interior, no problem,” he says. Then RARE II came along.

The Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, the second of its kind, was an 18-month U.S. Forest Service inventory of the undeveloped areas under its jurisdiction. Foreman was one of the chief coordinators of the campaign by the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club to save as much land as possible for conservation. He lobbied hard and offered practical proposals, but his efforts didn’t give him much satisfaction: Of the 80 million acres of undeveloped land in the national forests, the Forest Service concluded that only 15 million should be protected. “I realized then that our mildly reformist stance had blown it,” he says. “We’d been factual and rational and got our butts kicked.” So, burnt out and demoralized, he drove out to Mexico’s Sonoran desert to rethink things.

With him on the trip were his good friends Howie Wolke, the Wyoming representative of Friends of the Earth; Bart Koehler and Ron Kezar, two conservationists, and Mike Roselle, an outside agitator by profession. “We were all reeling from RARE II. The trip was for us kind of a coming back to our roots, being in the wilderness again, doing what we wanted to do,” recalls Roselle, who today heads Earth First!'s Direct Action Fund. “We decided that there wasn’t enough passion in the environmental movement, not enough vision. The mainstream groups weren’t raising the right questions.”

They talked about author Edward Abbey, the environmentalists’ cult hero, who in 1975 had written “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a novel about a group of Southwestern eco-raiders who burned billboards, decommissioned bulldozers and plotted “freeing” the rivers--by blowing up the dams--in the name of fun and wilderness. It was either at one of the cantinas across the border in Sonora or near Pinacate Peak, a mountain they tried to climb, that they decided to form a new group based on Abbey’s fiction and call it Earth First!

By the time they were back in Arizona, Earth First! had its logo, a clenched green fist, and its motto: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.” Earth First! would be nonviolent toward humans but plenty violent toward machinery. At its philosophic heart would be the principle of biodiversity, the view that every living thing has an equal, intrinsic right to share the wealth of the planet.

The gang’s first action, in 1981, was a classic piece of guerrilla theater: Foreman and his cohorts unfurled a 300-foot roll of plastic sheeting down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. From afar, the dam looked as if it had cracked. Things got more serious with the Bald Mountain Road episode in 1983. The place was a remote piece of wilderness in the Siskiyou National Forest near Grants Pass, Ore. A construction company had begun bulldozing an access road to clear-cut an area of “old growth” forest--ancient American woodlands that had never been logged. Foreman, Roselle and a group of Earth First!ers set up a log roadblock. When the logs were removed by sheriff’s deputies to make way for construction trucks, Foreman took their place.

As the story goes, the driver of one of the trucks knew Foreman and didn’t like him. When Foreman wouldn’t move, the driver put his foot on the gas, knocking Foreman in the chest. Still Foreman refused to move. Again the driver accelerated, this time backing Foreman up a hill until he could no longer keep his balance. As Foreman went down, he grabbed the truck’s front bumper, refusing to cede to the machine. The driver, a man named Les, dragged Foreman 100 yards before finally stopping. Les got out of his truck and began shouting: “You goddamned Communist son of a bitch! Why don’t you go back to Russia?”

“But, Les,” Foreman replied casually, “I’m a registered Republican.”

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Foreman’s run-in with Les permanently damaged his knees, but Bald Mountain Road has yet to be completed: A series of other blockades bought time for the Oregon Natural Resources Council to file a lawsuit and obtain a temporary injunction. “There comes a time when you have to live up to your words and take a stand, actually do something,” Foreman says. “There has never been a time when it’s been so necessary to stand up and do something more than talk. I think that’s one of the differences between the Earth First! movement and the more mainstream groups. We recognize today that we are in the middle of an eco-catastrophe. For 3 1/2 billion years, life on this planet has been blossoming, diversifying, going in all kinds of incredible directions. And right now we have the most rapid rate of extinction ever in that 3 1/2 billion years.

“Some of the most prominent biologists in the world have formed the Society for Conservation Biology. They tell us that by the end of this century, one-third of all species on the planet will be extinct. They tell us that in 20 years, the only large mammals left will be those we allow to exist. Think about that for a minute. This is not business as usual.”

This is not business as usual for opponents of Earth First! either. If Earth First! “eco-guerrillas” are making their protests known, they’re also infuriating a lot of people. “In my opinion, they’re criminally insane,” says Hal Salwasser of the Forest Service’s land and resource research division. William Perry Pendley, president of the Denver-based ultraconservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, likens them to the Viet Cong. Loggers these days are “essentially walking the point in Vietnam again,” he says, because of the ecotage going on in the nation’s outback.

The foundation was once headed by notorious former Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. Its self-proclaimed mission is to go to court to defend individual liberty and the free-enterprise system. Last July, the private foundation assigned three of its six lawyers to dig up as much material as possible on Earth First! and other environmental groups in hopes of filing lawsuits on behalf of loggers, cattlemen, oil-industry types and other eco-targets. They have yet to file their first suit.

The past year has also seen a considerable crackdown by state and federal law-enforcement authorities. Arrests of eco-guerrillas have escalated considerably, and last year Congress made tree spiking a felony. “They want to send a message, that this type of behavior is unacceptable,” says Michael Black, Peg Millett’s attorney in Phoenix. And what better way to send that message than to nail Earth First!'s most visible representative, Dave Foreman.

ON MAY 30, a series of red phosphorus flares rose high in the Arizona desert night. An estimated 30 to 50 FBI agents in black SWAT jumpsuits--some on foot with bloodhounds, some on horseback, some in helicopters--roared out of the darkness. Davis, Baker and Millett--along with Tait--were carrying out their plan to torch through the CAP’s electrical towers. “I had on welding goggles, so I didn’t see much,” Davis says. “Suddenly, there were all these guns pointing at me.” Davis and Baker were arrested on the spot. Millett, who managed to escape, was arrested later in Prescott. Tait, Davis recalls, simply “disappeared.”

At 7 the next morning and some 200 miles south, four FBI agents dressed in full body armor and brandishing guns burst into Foreman’s home. The four men pushed past his wife and charged into the bedroom, where Foreman lay asleep under a flowered sheet, naked save for a set of earplugs. “I sort of heard some noise from the hall,” Foreman recalls. “I open my eyes, and there’s three .357 magnums in my face.” The agents yanked him out of bed, let him put some shorts on, handcuffed him and frog-marched him to their car.

The government claims that the CAP incident was a trial run for a far more ambitious project. Davis, Millett and Baker, it alleges, planned to sever the power lines running from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado and the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California--simultaneously. The three were jailed for two months before being released on bail. Foreman, who was released immediately on $50,000 bail, helped finance their operation, the government says, and conspired with them to attack the nuclear facilities.

There was a lot of backslapping going on down at the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Phoenix the day Foreman and the others were brought in. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney held press conferences announcing their triumph over “terrorism.” Phoenix’s U.S. Attorney, Stephen McNamee, called the arrests “a significant development for law enforcement.” The investigation against Foreman and the others was one of the largest ever undertaken by the FBI’s Phoenix office: Tait--whose real name is Michael Fain--spent a year undercover, during which the FBI amassed 1,000 hours of secretly recorded conversations. “I’ve never seen so many investigators used in one case,” says Thomas Hoidal, Davis’ public defender. “I’ve never seen this volume of material in anything other than a Mafia case. It’s unbelievable.”

Roger Dokken, first assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, made the government’s priorities quite clear at Foreman’s June 2 detention hearing on the conspiracy charge. “Mr. Foreman is the worst,” he said. Dokken characterized Foreman as “the financier, the leader, sort of the guru to get all this stuff going.” He even compared Foreman to Mafia bosses who “always send their little munchkins out to do the dirty work. That’s essentially the type of role that he’s playing. A mind guru and a leader, and that’s even more dangerous.”

How had the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office pulled off such a massive sting? Steven Mitchell, an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, declined to comment on the case. “It’s obviously inappropriate for any lawyer to try the case in the media,” Mitchell said. The FBI was no more forthright. It would confirm only that Fain was a G S 13 agent--general-service 13 is the highest-ranking and highest-paid agent at the bureau. Fain, in other words, was a senior FBI agent, working out of the Phoenix office. And he had probably done this type of undercover work before. “Due to the potentially catastrophic consequences of the gang’s alleged plan to sabotage nuclear facilities, it was elevated to a major investigation,” said David Small of the FBI’s domestic counter-terrorism squad. “It was a major investigation in (our) unit.”

DAVIS, BAKER and Millett all live in or around Prescott, a rugged town of 27,000 people at the foot of the San Francisco Mountains north of Phoenix. I managed to track down Davis and planned to meet him beneath the statue of “Bucky” O’Neil, one of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, in the town square. He said it would be easy to find him: “I’m 5 feet 10, 190 pounds, with long hair and a beard and my nose has been broken a lot.”

Davis, 39, is a different breed from Foreman altogether. If the wilds are on Foreman’s mind, they are in Davis’ soul. He is as intense as Foreman seems relaxed. Adept at various martial arts, he also has a pronounced spiritual bent: His one-man carpentry business, for instance, is called 1st Noble Truth Woodworking. And his nose was indeed a mess. “First it was a dog. Then motorcycles, then fists,” he explained.

Davis says he has been an environmentalist since the age of 16, when he had his first ecological epiphany. It happened one day when he took his dad’s car and drove out of Phoenix into the desert. He parked the car and, moved by the beauty of the surroundings, took off his shoes and started running barefoot across the sand and prickly pears, a man possessed. Later, having children only increased his commitment to the environment. “I’d like for my kids to have a chance to raise their kids. We keep going the way we’re going, and they won’t. And I am morally bound to oppose that,” he says. “It’s no different than seeing your children assaulted by thugs.”

Given the strong opinions that Davis holds on any number of subjects, he is understandably something of a loner. It is hard to imagine how Fain managed not only to gain Davis’ trust but to befriend him as well. The two first met at one of Prescott’s numerous rock ‘n’ roll honky-tonks; Davis’ friend Peg Millett, who was introduced to Fain in Washington state at the July, 1988, Earth First! annual Round River Rendezvous, had asked him along. A slender but strong man with a beard and an ever-present “Arizona Feeds” baseball cap always pulled down low, Fain said that he had moved to Prescott to renovate some old houses for his boss, who lived “back East.”

Fain, it seems, was a master at plucking everyone’s soft strings. To Millett, for instance, he portrayed himself as an emotionally bruised ex-alcoholic Vietnam vet in need of feminine healing. He also said he had dyslexia. The ploy worked brilliantly. So brilliantly that Millett took to accompanying Fain to local clubs as his dance partner. Millett declined to comment on the case.

Fain was as adept at playing Davis as he was at playing Millett. He’d often drive to Davis’ house in his pickup at the crack of dawn, and the two would work out together on Davis’ punching bag. Sometimes they’d meet for lunch at Nick’s Feed Yer Face, a sandwich shop in town, then head for a seat in the town square and talk about their respective environmental priorities. Davis says Fain tried to persuade him to use high-grade explosives rather than a blowtorch to down the electrical towers. He claimed to know a circle of former Vietnam vets who ran a profitable operation running guns and explosives and who could supply them with whatever they needed.

Fain managed to dupe everyone, even people outside the Earth First! circle. Millett had steered him toward a friend of hers “because he was such a lonely, good fellow,” recalls Nancy Zierenberg, an Earth First! organizer and a close friend of Millett’s. The woman, a widow in her mid-30s who asked not to be identified, dated Fain for eight months, never suspecting a thing. When the arrests came down, Fain vanished. Two days later, the woman called the FBI office in Phoenix. “I left a message and asked him to call me. I just wanted to talk to him,” she says. He never returned her call.

Foreman’s role in all this was a peripheral one. In fact, Davis hardly knew Foreman. He’d heard him speak once but didn’t really have that much affection for Earth First! “There are some good folks in E. F.! There are also a number of people who just like the T-shirts,” he says. Davis says it was Fain’s idea to head to Tucson and ask Foreman for some money to carry out their ecotage projects. Davis, who had a good reputation among friends of Foreman’s because of his environmental work in Prescott, made the necessary calls and they went down. The government alleges that on March 29, 1989, Foreman gave Davis $580, plus $100 later through Zierenberg, to finance Davis’ planned ecotage operations.

TAKING INTO account the time and taxpayers’ money the FBI spent on the case, what was accomplished? The authorities’ case against Davis, Baker and Millett appears clear on one level: They were caught destroying government property and allegedly admitted on tape to having participated in other acts of ecotage.

But if the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office were really after Foreman, the answer is much less certain. The case against Foreman hinges on the FBI’s claim that he gave money to Davis. To obtain a conviction, the U.S. Attorney will have to prove not only that Foreman handed over the money but also that he knew precisely how it was to be used--to sabotage nuclear facilities. However, Foreman’s defense attorney contends that there is no tape-recorded conversation between Fain and Foreman establishing this fact.

If that is so, it must be very disappointing to the U.S. Attorney’s office because there is little doubt that the investigation, at least the latter part of it, centered on implicating Foreman. “He’s the guy they want, no question,” Hoidal says. “He’s the most visible of the defendants, making speeches all around the country. He’s the one they’d get the most mileage out of.”

Consider the fact that Davis, Millett and Baker have each been offered plea-bargain deals to reduce, if not eliminate, their jail time if they testify against Foreman. None has entered a plea yet.

The extensive use of the wiretaps also supports Hoidal’s view. Section 2518 of the U.S. Criminal Code states that wiretaps are to be used only as a last resort, when all other investigative procedures have been exhausted. “They had an FBI agent in an undercover capacity. They had all they needed. It was only toward the end of the investigation that they applied the wiretaps because the evidence against Foreman was so thin,” says another defense attorney working on the case. “They needed the wiretaps to draw Foreman into the conspiracy.”

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the FBI was out to get Foreman comes from Fain himself. The 1,000 hours of secretly recorded conversations were introduced as evidence by the government and, therefore, must be shared with the defense.

One crisp winter day, Foreman and a friend moseyed down to the small listening room in Phoenix’s FBI office, as they had on several occasions, to hear some of the tapes that might involve Foreman. What they heard sent their jaws dropping. They fell upon a conversation Fain was having with fellow FBI agents in Tucson shortly after he had picked up $100 from Zierenberg. Fain had forgotten to turn off the tape recorder:

FAIN: (Counting the bills) Well, we got 20, 40, 60, 80, 90, a hundred.

ANOTHER AGENT: No more?

FAIN: They’re havin’ to dig deep. All they got was $100.

ANOTHER AGENT: (inaudible) . . . some sting in Tucson. Stay with us, Mike. (Laughter) . . .

ANOTHER AGENT: Small-time operation.

FAIN: Yeah. Real small. They use everything that they have for what they print up, what they write. These people live on nothing. I mean, this isn’t much, but for them it’s about everything they got. They’re short on material assets, but they’re long on dedication. . . . (inaudible comments) . . . So, in actuality we probably ought to give them their money back when all this is over because they don’t really say what it’s for. (Laughter) Now, they’re low-budget, and I don’t really look for ‘em to be doin’ a lot of hurtin’ of people--just that they get a few guys like this that’ll . . . like (Mark) Davis.

ANOTHER AGENT: A free-lancer.

FAIN: Yeah. ‘Cause this (Dave Foreman) isn’t the guy we need to pop, I mean, in terms of actual perpetrator. This is the guy we need to pop to send a message. And that’s all we’re really doin’, and if we don’t nail this guy and we only get Davis, we’re not sending any message he hasn’t predicted, ‘cause in the Rendezvous last year, he says somebody oughta be prepared to give his life this year and somebody oughta be prepared to do hard time.

(A few minutes later, Fain realizes that his body mike is still on. He interrupts himself.)

FAIN: We don’t need that on tape. Hoo boy.

This conversation is not going to help the prosecution when the case goes to trial. It seems to establish that the FBI’s investigation was not so much a boffo blow against terrorism as it was a campaign to get Foreman. Juries tend not to like FBI campaigns of that sort. They are all too easily compared with past FBI transgressions, such as, most famously, J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when the FBI bugged every hotel room and telephone line the civil-rights leader used during the last years of his life. All this certainly has not escaped Gerry Spence.

IN JACKSON, WYO., at the base of the majestic Grand Teton Mountains, Gerry Spence’s home is a sprawling, multi-domed, rock-and-stone structure that suits all too well the man who’s been known to send his opponents a silver bullet just before trial. I walked up the stairs to his office, a long room with wooden ceilings and a three-sided view of the surrounding aspen trees and Tetons behind them, and I sat down on the buffalo skin that covers the leather couch. On the bookshelf before me, within arm’s reach of Spence, was a horn-handled six-shooter.

Spence is a big man with big hands and long silver hair. Dressed in a Patagonia warm-up vest and jeans tucked into ankle-high leather slippers, he was at his computer, working on his fifth book and first novel.

Spence, who has taken on Foreman’s case pro bono, became involved when his good friend Doug Peacock called to ask for help. Peacock happens to be the man Edward Abbey modeled his rabble-rousing character Hayduke after in “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Foreman recalls his first conversation with Spence. “He asked me if what was happening would in any way slow me down or quiet me up. I said no, and he said, ‘Good, I’ll take the case.’ ”

“There are certain kinds of cases lawyers ought to pay their clients to take. This is one of ‘em,” Spence says. “If you’re a lawyer, getting the opportunity to take a case as rich as this one is, let us call it, the payoff.”

Spence likes to hear himself talk. He is likely to try to separate Foreman’s case from the others; his battle will be to open it to the broader environmental issues, where he is certain to hit some resonant chords with the jury. This is precisely what he is trying to do with me. “What is happening here is that we are on the edge of a revolution--a revolution because we have a government unresponsive to the people, a government oblivious to the survival of the Earth,” Spence says. “Foreman articulates a perfectly reasonable and logical position--an active position--to try to save our Mother Earth.” I struggle to reel in Spence and focus him on the specifics. Spence’s efforts to open it up will be countered vigorously by the government, which wants to keep the focus narrow. The government’s contention is that what Davis, Millett, Baker and Foreman were allegedly planning--to cut the power lines leading to the nuclear power plants--might have caused a meltdown. The U.S. Attorney has gone to considerable lengths, in fact, to prove just that. Doing so would not only brand Foreman and the others as irresponsible lunatics but also would accomplish the larger goal of besmirching the entire Earth First! movement. At the July 24 detention hearings, Steven Mitchell called to the witness stand Terrance Chan, senior project manager of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The exchange was like something out of “Dr. Strangelove.”

In his direct examination of Chan, Mitchell established that if all the power lines leading to the nuclear plants were to be cut, the backup generators necessary to keep the reactors cool might not kick in. In a worst-case scenario, a meltdown might occur. That Mitchell was also, to a certain extent, vindicating the defendants by establishing the inherent danger of nuclear power was apparently lost to the more pressing goal of discrediting them. What if a tornado were to hit, ripping up the electrical towers? What if a low-flying plane crashed into one of the towers? Does that mean we are all living in constant danger of a meltdown?

Laurie Bailey of the FBI bluntly summarized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s position at Foreman’s June 2 detention hearing. Asked what the NRC deputy regional administrator, Robert Faulkenberry, had told her regarding the backup generators, she said: “He told me they have been known on occasion to fail and have been unreliable.” And what would happen then? “He indicated that there would be a release of radioactivity or possibly a meltdown.”

However weird the government’s position may be, it does raise a fundamental question about Foreman and his tactics: Is monkeywrenching ever justified? Spence’s sleight-of-hand answer to that question reveals why he wins so many cases: “In most circumstances, breaking the law is improper. Now, suppose a tractor is about to run over a child. Is it improper to demolish the tractor? Suppose the tractor was going to run over something inanimate, a painting by Van Gogh that cost $32 million. Now, what about a tractor running down a tree? A 400-year-old original-growth tree? Can we make another one? We can make another tractor. So then, is it ethical for us to destroy a forest? Your question is not relevant.”

How about if someone gets hurt as a result of Earth First! monkeywrenching? The fact is that tree spiking is dangerous business. Several years ago, a mill worker in Northern California was badly injured when his chain saw shattered upon hitting a spike buried in a log. Earth First! was not linked to the accident, and it is the only documented case of its kind. Still, Foreman acknowledges the inherent dangers of the action. He insists that all spikers should paint a giant white S on all spiked trees. But many don’t. “It’s a problem. I know that,” Foreman says. “The closest answer I can come up with is that I’m willing to die for wilderness, but I’m not ready to kill for it.”

If Earth First! poses a murky moral dilemma of ends justifying means, on a practical level the group must be judged by its effectiveness. There seems to be a growing, if still somewhat tacit, consensus in environmental circles that for all the trouble it has caused, Earth First! has had a positive impact. That sentiment seems to be shared even by many in the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and other mainstream environmental groups.

“There are terrible crimes being committed in our national forests, things people cry over--and I’ve cried over them,” says Brock Evans, vice president for national issues at the conservative National Audubon Society. “We keep going like this, and in five years there won’t be any national forests left. I honor Earth First! for having the guts to do the things they do. It’s not for me, but I understand why they do what they do. And, ultimately, we all help each other.”

Even the Forest Service concedes that the organization has changed the terms of the debate. “Because of Earth First! and the more radical fringe, it gives the mainstreamers--who themselves have become more radical--greater legitimacy,” says Hal Salwasser of the Forest Service. Earth First!er Mike Roselle sums up the group’s most basic contribution: “We’ve succeeded in building a large amount of public outrage at what’s happening. We’ve gotten jailed, beat up and sued, but it’s brought the issues into people’s living rooms.”

Howie Wolke, one of Earth First!'s founders and a wilderness guide in Montana, adds: “We talk about saving the Brazilian rain forest, about how the government down there isn’t doing a damn thing. But our criticism would be a lot more legitimate if we weren’t doing the same thing to our own natural ecosystems. We are responsible, right here in America, for an astonishing part of the global environmental crisis.”

I’M HIKING WITH Foreman and his wife in the Saguaro National Monument, just outside Tucson. It is a stunning arid landscape of tall, twisting saguaro, barrel cacti, sagebrush and countless other desert plants that I can’t identify. Foreman knows them all. He talks about the future with a certain sadness. Despite all his lecture-circuit exhortations to “get out there and do something,” Foreman is not optimistic.

We walk up the trail toward a peak overlooking Tucson, and he talks about the pitfalls of activism. “When you begin to create a universe of Us versus Them, it gets very unhealthy. I’ve really come to the conclusion that I’m not a revolutionary, because in nearly every case the revolutionaries become that which they revolt against. In that situation, sooner or later you become the enemy. I’m just not going to hate these people who set me up.”

Toward the end of the standard speech he makes around the country--Foreman does more speaking than spiking these days--he evokes one of the greatest practitioners of civil disobedience, the man who coined the term: “In 1848, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax to support the Mexican war. He was thrown in the Concord jail. The next day, Ralph Waldo Emerson came down to bail him out. He said, ‘Henry, what are you doing in there?’ Thoreau looked at Emerson and said, ‘Well, what are you doing out there?’

“I think there comes a time when it gets so insane out there that the only sane place for those of us who love the Earth is sitting in the road of progress in front of a bulldozer.”


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