Terrorists or Saviors? : Environment: U.S. claims that Earth First! engaged in criminal conspiracy to disrupt nuclear facilities. The defense says the government is out to discredit the organization.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A prospective juror gazing out of this town's only federal courtroom might have seen, framed in a single fanlight window, the snapshot symbolism of what the Earth First! environmental movement has been about: a live oak tree and an electric pole, almost side by side.

Ten years and barely 170 miles from where Earth First! announced its arrival in 1981, unfurling a 100-yard black plastic streamer down the face of Glen Canyon Dam to look like a deep crack, four Earth First! sympathizers and one of its founders go on trial in federal court here this week, accused of conspiring to cut power lines into three nuclear facilities.

From that moment of political theater atop the Glen Canyon Dam, Earth First! went on to become environmentalism's in-your-face cutting edge, whose allegiance to the tree over the utility pole, and the tactics they used to demonstrate it, entered words such as clear-cutting, tree-hugging and monkey-wrenching into the national glossary and debate.

This trial, say federal authorities, is about a straightforward criminal conspiracy by environmental guerrillas who went way beyond trompe l'oeil dam fissures or facing down bulldozers.

These five, they say, conspired to topple simultaneously the power lines to three nuclear sites, one of them the Diablo Canyon plant in California, a plan that could have risked human lives in a nuclear accident. All but David Foreman--an Earth First!'s founder and one of the people who stood atop that dam--are also charged with cutting a ski lift pylon and the electric poles into a uranium mine and a pumping station. Foreman is accused, in effect, of inspiring and backing the alleged plan.

There is a conspiracy, all right, defense adherents counter--government undercover infiltration to create a crime where none existed. "We were sucked in by a government conspiracy," said one defendant, botanist Marc Baker.

Vast federal resources, they believe, were not marshaled for two years just to put some people behind bars for major-league vandalism. Instead, they say, it was to discredit the movement as dangerous in the eyes of the public, to scare other activists out of business, and particularly to shut up Foreman, who had become the glib, outspoken Dr. Ruth of radical environmentalists, the man who literally wrote the book, "Eco-Defense: a Field Guide to Monkeywrenching"--about ecotage, the sabotage of the machinery that alters the landscape.

Foreman's book may become pivotal to his case; the government argues that in giving a copy to an informant, he drew himself into the conspiracy. "Defendant Foreman states 'mere advocacy itself does not constitute a crime'. . . . This statement is flat wrong," one document noted.

"This is the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights," Foreman said last week, "and I think to a certain extent the Bill of Rights is at stake here, whether the FBI is going to defend the Bill of Rights or be the Thought Police."

"There is the whole question of whether environmentalism is a cosmetic thing--Earth Day parades, colorful recycling bins and Band-Aids on scenery--or defending the whole flow of blossoming life on this planet," he said.

Foreman's attorney is an established star--Gerry Spence, the bigger-than-life gentleman cowboy from Wyoming who got Imelda Marcos off. Like two other lawyers here, he is defending his client for free, and like them, the usually forthright Spence cannot comment under a court rule.

The lead federal prosecutor, Roslyn Moore-Silver, also said she cannot comment on the case.

Besides Foreman, a 44-year-old Tucson man, the other defendants, all from Prescott, are Mark Davis, 41, a cabinetmaker; Peg Millett, 37, a singer-songwriter and half-sister of feminist author Kate Millett; Ilse Asplund, 37, a health educator, and Baker, 39, the botanist.

Even before he was arrested, naked and in bed on May 31, 1989, Foreman was parting company with the movement because of philosophical and tactical differences.

Davis and Baker had been arrested in the Arizona desert the night before as they allegedly tried to slice the legs off a power line tower, in the company of a man whose name now brings a bemused look to the defendants' faces--Mike Fain, an undercover FBI agent who spent a year befriending them, and whose testimony is likely to be a fulcrum for both sides.

Millett managed to give the slip to the helicopters, the agents on horseback, the infrared sensors and dogs. The next morning she was arrested. She remembers one agent telling her: "You must be really good at what you do."

That night was a dry run, the government believed, for conspiracy. It says it has about 1,000 hours of tapes from Fain, wiretaps and informants--including two of Asplund's friends--to back that up.

To take it all in, the jurors, nine lawyers and five defendants will be issued earphones, and authorities fretted about how the courthouse's aging electrical system will stand up to the demand.

Some of the tapes allegedly outline planning and funding. Foreman's part allegedly centered on giving $680 for the ecotage, some of which reportedly went to buy Thermit grenades, but his attorney has said there is no such tape.

In a tape of a January, 1989, conversation, Davis said: "So we're going to hit as many of the nuclear power plants on the West Coast and Palos Verde as we can." Subsequent repairs will cost utilities plenty, he notes. "It takes days to get it cranked up and it costs a million dollars per unit per day."

Another bit of tape likely to be replayed like the Rodney G. King video was recorded by mistake by Fain and another agent after $100 of Foreman's money allegedly changed hands.

"A small-time operation," one agent joked. "Yeah, real small," said Fain. "They're low budget. I don't really look for them to be doing a lot of hurting of people."

And there is Fain on the same tape, referring to Foreman: "This really isn't the guy we need to pop, in terms of actual perpetrator. But 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 sendin' any message he hasn't predicted."

Four defendants turned down plea-bargain offers for their testimony against Foreman. Motions to suppress some of the tapes are unresolved.

With a national media audience tuned in, how defense attorneys will proceed is problematic.

"Do you want to have the best defense, which is probably the most realistic in terms of government misconduct and coercion, or do you want to take the opportunity to use the publicity to make people more aware of what's happening to the planet?" Baker ruminated last week.

Part of that route has been closed off to Davis, who sought to use a "necessity defense," an Earth First! justification that the Earth is in such imminent peril that the group must act, even commit property damage, to save it.

"The only honorable thing to do is fight," Davis said. "There are no other issues. If you lose the ability to sustain complex life on Earth, all other issues are irrelevant."

Asplund finds it ironic that government fears of a possible nuclear accident from the alleged conspiracy mirrors Earth First!'s own. "We're more scared of nuclear meltdown than they are," said the Georgia-born woman. "There is no chance at all that we could or would ever intend or by accident cause such a thing. It's a fabulous political ploy because people are terrified of nuclear, and we're terrified of nuclear."

What is at stake here, some say, is more than prison terms for five people. Bob Lippman is a Flagstaff attorney who has defended Earth Firsters. "I think conviction here would be another quantum leap to the right to stifle legitimate dissent."

Karin Sheldon is general counsel to the Wilderness Society in Washington; Foreman was once its Southwest director. She sums up the standard response of more moderate groups toward Earth First!: "I wouldn't do it but I understand perfectly the frustration that is at work."

The case was moved from Phoenix to Prescott--where the judge has a summer home--in part because four defendants live here.

It has stirred up Prescott. As one trolley tour rounded the town square last week, a guide pointed out the "historic courthouse, where the world-famous Earth First! trial is going on."

On Friday, as jury selection was adjourning for lunch, a bicyclist wearing a gun--which is legal in Arizona--sped past the courthouse and shouted: "Spike Earth First!, not trees!"

During jury selection last week they were asked: What do you think of civil disobedience? Of nuclear power? What bumper stickers do you have? The National Rifle Assn. was the most frequent answer on the bumper sticker query, but one woman admitted that hers reads, "I Love Chocolate."

More had read Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography than had read "The Monkey Wrench Gang," Edward Abbey's seminal novel about ecotage.

One potential juror, an NRA member, admitted that he had been arrested at Shea Stadium for "delaying the national pastime"--insisting on shaking hands with Willie Mays.

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