Earth First!

History and impact of Earth First!


Many workmen
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountaintop
Then they went to the valley below,
And turned to behold their work.
“It is grand,” they said;
They loved the thing.
Of a sudden, it moved:
It came upon them swiftly;
It crushed them all to blood.
But some had opportunity to squeal.

Stephen Crane

The founding of Earth First!
is steeped in myth. In the canonical story, five long-term conservationists and an old yippie drove a rickety Volkswagen into Mexico’s Pinacate Desert. Their names were Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, John Davis, Ron Kezar, Bart Koehler, and Mike Roselle, and they were seething with righteous rage over the Forest Service’s recent RARE II legislation.They were determined to fix it.

In 1967 the Forest Service began inventorying the National Forest System to identify which roadless areas were suitable for wilderness designation, as defined by the recently-passed Wilderness Act. They called this project the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, or RARE I. Finally, in 1972, the Forest Service concluded the review by noting that 56 million acres of land were suitable for wilderness designation, but it only recommended 12.3 million of them. Fortunately, the Sierra Club sued, and the courts ruled that the evaluation procedure did not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act’s assessment procedures. Thus, the Forest Service abandoned RARE I and began a new project, RARE II, in 1977, under the Carter administration. This time, it found 62 million acres suitable for designation and only recommended 15 million. Howie Wolke explains that this opened “most of the unprotected roadless wildlands under [the U.S. Forest Service’s] jurisdiction, except for a relatively few high altitude enclaves (wilderness on the rocks) … to road building, logging, mining, and other kinds of mischief incompatible with our vision of how things ought to be on the public’s land.” It was a devastating blow to conservationist morale, which had just been boosted 13 years prior by The Wilderness Act, then again in 1973 by the Endangered Species Act.

Worse, conservation organizations weren’t fighting RARE II effectively. The extractive industrial lobby was strong. In response, Rik Scarce writes, “ … the environmentalists reasoned that the only way to best the behemoths was to become one. But this entailed accepting the lowest common denominator, the weakest positions of the bunch, to keep everyone together.” Conservation thus became professionalized, and the grassroots wilderness advocates who had helped spearhead previous environmental legislation weren’t happy about it. Foreman writes that conservationists became “less part of a cause than members of a profession.” Furthermore, public participation in the debate decreased. An article in the Journal of Forestry reads, “Those sought-after folks, those moms and pops who give their disinterested opinions on wilderness, are as mythical as unicorns.” All this was the topic of conversation in the six-man excursion to the Pinacate. Most of the group were intimately involved in the debate. Bart Koehler and Howie Wolke were representatives for the Wyoming Wilderness Society; Foreman a conservation lobbyist and long-time grassroots conservationist; Kezar an employee for the Bureau of Land Management. They believed that a sufficient response to their situation would have to come outside the mainstream. They spoke of a vast ecological reserve system, recommended the idea of “rewilding” — restoring lost tracts of land to wilderness — and they based their ideas on the budding science of conservation biology, spearheaded by eminent scientists like E. O. Wilson. Wolke writes:

Suddenly, Dave blurted out the words Earth First! I liked it and we had a name. By then, our ranting had roused Roselle from his stupor and he, too, was getting excited. Then an idea for a logo came to mind and I said, How about a clenched green fist in a circle with the words Earth First around the perimeter? Before we could say Ayatolla Khomeni, Roselle had drawn the logo and passed it up front where it met our hearty approval (the exclamation was added later). Earth First! was born.


There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not many the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express
yet cannot all conceal

Lord Byron

Dave Foreman became the prophet and leader of the new movement, and it showed in the character of early Earth First! As Martha Lee writes, “The roots of Earth First! are closely linked to Dave Foreman’s political history and his experience in the environmental movement.” Early in his youth, Foreman was a conservative: he supported the Vietnam War; for a period of his life strongly opposed communism; campaigned for Barry Goldwater; and was the New Mexico state chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom. But after a brief experience at the Marine Corps Officers’ Candidate School, he abandoned Republican politics, describing himself at the time as “a Jeffersonian running head on into the military state.”

In 1969 he visited the Sierra Club office in Albuquerque and shortly after began campaigning for wilderness. Lee continues:

A poster he had produced for the Gila Primitive Area Reclassification Campaign caught the attention of the Wilderness Society, and he began working for them in January 1973, first as their Southwestern issues consultant and later as their Southwestern representative. In 1976, he was New Mexico state chairman of Conservationists for Carter, and late the next year he moved to Washington as the Wilderness Society’s chief Congressional lobbyist.

After RARE II, Foreman left his job as a lobbyist and was hired again as the Wilderness Society’s Southwestern representative, in part working with regionally-focused groups like the eco-anarchist Black Mesa Defense Fund. During this time he came face-to-face with what came to be known in U.S. environmental history as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Although he had previously worked with ranchers to strengthen support for wilderness, ranchers started sending him death threats,
demanding that public lands go first to the states and then entirely to private owners. “For Foreman,” Lee writes, “the Sagebrush Rebellion was a personal and political betrayal. …[It] provided clear evidence that the people who would be his true political allies were those who, like him, held wilderness to be the fundamental good and derived their morality and actions from that principle.”

Foreman was also heavily indebted to the works of Edward Abbey, a conservative desert ecoanarchist who thoroughly opposed industrial development of the West. Abbey is best-known for two works: Desert Solitaire, a reflection on his time as a ranger in the National Parks of Utah, and The Monkey Wrench Gang, a fictional account of a cantankerous group of rednecks who sabotaged the businesses and machinery destroying the wild lands of the West. The overall story of the latter book was inspired by a group active in the 1970s and known was the “ecoraiders.” The group, composed of teenage high school students, sabotaged billboards, drainpipes, smokestacks, and other industrial equipment after reading Abbey’s Solitaire and a widely distributed manual entitled Ecotage. For example, on April Fool’s day in 1972, the ecoraiders dumped hundreds of non-returnable bottles and cans at the entry of the Kalil Bottling Company office. Later, a 1973 report by the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association claimed that the group had cost them about $180,000 in damages. It was later revealed that the cost was higher, but the report published a lower number to prevent copycats. One member, 17-year-old John Walker, became known nationally as “The Fox,” and in 1973 allowed the New York Times to published a four-page spread of the group members in ski masks. By that time, the damage caused by the ecoraiders had reached about $2 million, and they were arrested by the end of the year.

Although the ecoraiders were the basis of Abbey’s story, the characters within were based on conservationists he personally knew. The infamous Hayduke, for example, was Abbey’s caricature of the conservationist Doug Peacock, known primarily for his work on grizzly bear protection. And the ex-mormon Seldom Seen Smith was based on Utah native and river guide Ken Sleight. This ragtag group came to be intimately involved in the early Earth First! Movement, solidifying the Earth First! stance on “monkeywrenching,” or eco-sabotage: Don’t officially condone it, but don’t
condemn it either. Wolke explains the effect:

Although in the early 80s Outside Magazine labeled us The Real Monkey Wrench Gang, in the beginning there wasn’t much discussion of monkey wrenching, other than our refusal to condemn it so long as it was non-violent toward life. But that was enough for the media to create a lasting association between EF! and ecological sabotage. Dave Foreman’s 1985 publication of Ecodefense, A Field Guide to Monkey Wrenching and my own arrest and six month incarceration in 85 and 86 for eco-sabotage did little to allay the impression.

Three weeks after the journey to the Pinacate, the group hiked into New Meixco’s Gila Wilderness — the world’s first officially designated wilderness area — to erect a plaque in honor of the Apache warrior Victorio, who had destroyed a mining camp in defense of the mountains. An early member explained to the media, “We think the Sierra Club and other groups have sold out to the system. We further believe that the enemy is not capitalism, communism, or socialism. It is corporate industrialism whether it is in the United States, the Soviet Union, China, or Mexico.”

Over sixty people attended the first official meeting of the group, held in July of 1980 and known as the “Round River Rendezvous.” Such meetings would become an annual event, where members would strengthen their ties with each other, learn monkey wrenching tactics, and otherwise coordinate their efforts for wilderness preservation.

Later that year, Foreman and a former education coordinator for the Wilderness Society, Susan Morgan, put out the first ever newsletter for the movement, originally entitled Nature More, later known as the Earth First! Newsletter, and finally as the Earth First! Journal. In the first few issues, Foreman and others laid the foundations for the movement. For example, as part of the movement platform, the first issue demanded about 40 wilderness reserves — including wilderness designation for the moon — and the end of nukes, mining, power plants, dams, and any roads on public lands. “Not blind opposition to progress, but wide-eyed opposition to progress!”

Among other things, the strategy was to appear so unreasonable that moderate groups, like the Sierra Club, could make stronger, more uncompromising demands. In the proto-issue of the newsletter (“volume 0, issue 0”), which was distributed only to a small cadre of founding members, Foreman listed the goals of the movement:

• Make existing environmental groups and proposals look more reasonable.
• Keep the environmental movement from straying too far from its ideal; in other words, from becoming too conservative.
• Raise the ecological conscience of the American people.
• Instigate a widespread radical environmental movement in the 1980’s that is not afraid to use civil disobedience, demonstrations, etc. as tactics. Earth First will remain quasi legal. There is great potential here in tying into the infantile anti-nuke movement.

And in a membership brochure, Foreman listed the group’s basic ideological principles:

• Wilderness has a right to exist for its own sake.
• All life forms, from virus to the great whales, have an inherent and equal right to existence.
• Mankind is no greater than any other form of life and has no legitimate claim to dominate Earth.
• Humankind, through overpopulation, anthropocentrism, industrialization, excessive energy consumption/resource extraction, state capitalism, father-figure hierarchies, imperialism, pollution, and natural area destruction, threatens the basic life processes of EARTH
• All human decisions should consider Earth first, humankind second
• The only true test of morality is whether an action, individual, social, or political, benefits Earth
• Humankind will be happier, healthier, more secure, and more comfortable in a society that recognizes humankind’s true biological nature and which is in dynamic harmony with the total biosphere
• Political compromise has no place in the defense of Earth
• Earth is Goddess and the proper object of human worship [later omitted]

Finally, Foreman outlined the organization of the group. Predominantly, its organization was to be loose: “[W]hen you take on the structure of the corporate state, you develop the ideology and the bottom line of the corporate state. So what is the one kind of human organization that’s really worked? The hunter/gatherer tribe, so we tried to model ourselves structurally after that.” But the movement was showing signs of growth, and after the 1980 Round River Rendezvous, it established “two formal governing structures”: the Circle of Darkness and La Manta Mojada.

The Circle of Darkness was to determine Earth First! policies and approve memberships and group chapters. They had to willingly identify with Earth First! and could not be employees of mainstream conservation organizations. La Manta Mojada, on the other hand, was to remain secret, a “group of advisors to the Circle.” It was never again mentioned, although Lee claims that “in interviews …Foreman stated that its existence was short-lived and implied that it was also ineffectual …”


In 1981, seventy-five members of Earth First! stood near the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam. By that time the dam had become a major symbol for the environmental movement. One activist, Mark DuBois, chained himself to a rock as the diverted river water flooded the beautiful Glen Canyon, vowing not to leave until the state agreed to remove the dam. Of course, it wasn’t removed, but the Army Corps of Engineers spent days looking for him, eventually forced to halt the filling of the reservoir for a while. Ken Sleight — Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang — said of the damming, “I knew that the water was gonna come up. But when it did, I wasn’t ready for it. When you actually see that water come up, inch by inch, covering all the beautiful things you ever wanted to see… It hit them runes that the Anasazi had built, came up there and tumbled them over, covered over the pictographs and the petroglyphs… .” Edward Abbey had taken the issue on as his personal crusade, channelling the rage Muir felt over Hetch Hetchy. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, the characters’ main goal was, in fact, to eventually blow the dam up.

Appropriately, then, he gave a speech before the seventy-five:

We are gathered here today to celebrate three important occasions: the rising of the full moon, the arrival of the Spring Equinox, and the imminent removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

I do not say that the third of these events will necessarily take place today—although I should warn you that some of my born-again Christian brothers and sisters have been praying, night and day, for one little pree-cision earthquake in this here immediate vicinity, and I do predict that one of these times their prayers will be answered—in fact, even now, I think I perceive an ominous-looking black fracture down the face of yonder cee-ment plug—and this earth will shake, and that dam will fall, crumble, and go. …

… All very well, you say, but we prefer not to wait. We want immediate results.

The “ominous-looking black fracture” Abbey pointed his audience’s attention to earlier in the speech was a three-hundred foot wedge of plastic, tapered at one end, and rolled down the edge of Glen Canyon to create the illusion of a crack. While the crowd had distracted dam security, five silhouettes snuck up the dam with the plastic to unfurl it.

“The FBI interpreted the event as a harbinger of domestic terrorism,” Lee writes — the bureau even dusted the plastic for fingerprints — “and business interests began to express concern to the bureau’s Washington office soon afterwards.”

In these early years, Earth First! was ideologically unified and sported a “rednecks for wilderness” image. “ …it was to counter the tendency for social change and environmental groups to lose focus and drift into general left wing politics,” Wolke explains. So during the 1981 Rendezvous, which was held on the Fourth of July weekend, the three-hundred in attendance opened their meeting with an Independence Day celebration — flags and songs and all. Foreman and Abbey established a connection between wilderness and the American identity. “Wilderness is America. What can be more patriotic than the love of the land?”

The newsletter directly following that year’s Rendezvous discussed real ecotage for the first time explicitly. Foreman noted that reports had blamed Earth First! on the toppled transmission tower belonging to Utah Power and Light. He compared it to the Reichstag Fire of 1933, when ten Nazi agents committed an arson attack on the Berlin Reichstag and blamed the communists. Later, in 1985, Foreman published guidelines for monkeywrenching, writing it was “not revolutionary,” that “it must be strategic, it must be thoughtful, it must be deliberate in order to succeed.”

In October 1981, Foreman, perhaps paradoxically, published an article in The Progressive, outlining the ideology and purpose of Earth First! He wrote that “for a group more committed to Gila monsters and mountain lions than to people, there will not be a total alliance with other social movements,” but he nevertheless invited activists of various causes to participate so long as they agreed to the mantra that the Earth came first. He then began to tour the U.S. with the Earth First! Road Show. The movement continued to grow.


Over the next few years, several major battles positioned Earth First! as the cutting edge of the environmental movement. It helped lead the charge in RARE II suits, it popularized the challenges facing old growth forests and rainforests, and its vision of ecologically vast, connected wilderness later came to define conservation biology. Through all this, it supported itself economically by selling bumper stickers, posters, and Foreman’s 1985 manual Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. It also established the Earth First! Foundation, a tax-deductible organization that later became the Fund for Wild Nature.

By the end of 1981 the newsletter was converted to a newspaper to account for the influx of articles and letters. By 1982 there were about fifteen hundred official members. Foreman, who originally imagined that the Circle was to have “really solid control” to prevent “anybody selling out on us,” instead encouraged diversity in the movement and loosened his vision of the Circle’s reach. And then, in 1984, Earth First! membership was in the thousands. Foreman made management of the organization his full-time job.

At the year’s Rendezvous, Foreman stressed that Earth First!’s responsibility was to fight industry, always keeping in mind a vision of the people of the Pleistocene, who “knew [their] proper place in the world”:

In just a few generations, we and our forebears have taken the most magnificent and diverse of all the continents on Earth — in essence, the Pleistocene, with its great flowering of large animals, those thundering herds of biomass — and we have turned it into freeways and condominiums and Pac-Man and Pop Tarts. And we call that progress. We call that civilization.

In 1985, Earth First!er Mike Jakubal and Ron Huber conducted the first “tree sit” to protect Millennium Grove from deforestation. The tactic is rather self-explanatory: build a platform a few dozen feet up the tree, sit on it, and refuse to move. This prevented loggers from doing anything until they could get the protestors down, which, when it came to Huber, took over a month. It also succeeded in attracting the media, which prevented logging companies and law enforcement from dealing with the protestors too ruggedly.


As the movement grew, splits and fractures formed, even wider than the one that split Glen Canyon in 1981. Wolke explains:

… with growth and publicity, our ability to steer the ship diminished. Unintentionally, we’d created a vehicle for the counter-culture. EF! had become a vehicle for leftist, anarchist, anarchist-leftist, anti-hunting eco-feminists for gay social justice and new age woo-woo conductors of cosmic energy. To say the least, I began to feel out of place. In 1985’s rendezvous in the shimmering aspens of Colorado’s Uncompagre Plateau, I argued with an Oregon activist, to no avail, that it would be inappropriate for his EF! group to advocate legalizing pot. Not our issue, I insisted, exasperated.

A “Foreman faction” developed. One of its most radical adherents, Christopher Manes, explicated a radical primitivist vision in his articles for the Earth First! Journal. For example, in “Technology and Mortality,” writing under the pseudonym “Miss Ann Thropy,” he insisted that areas with natural human mortality rates should be preserved, that monkeywrenching should be extended to incubators of technical progress, like universities, that monkeywrenching should be extended to all urban
areas, and that Earth First!ers should “spiritually reject” technology. In the same journal issue he proposed, non-pseudonymously this time, “technology-free zones.”

Meanwhile, at the 1982 Rendezvous, Foreman gave a rousing speech on “the inevitable collapse of the industrial state… Mother nature is coming, and she is pissed!” His articles in the journal became more heavy-handed. For example, in his article “Whither Earth First!?” Foreman restated what he believed were the goals of the movement, including putting the needs of the Earth before human welfare, accepting that overpopulation is an issue, antipathy to progress and technology, rejecting humanism, and “an unwillingness to set any ethnic, class, or political group of humans on a pedestal and make them immune from questioning.” He wrote:

… if I am out of the mainstream of Earth First! with these views, then please let me know and I will move on. I have no desire to embarrass good activists for Earth if the above points are not considered crucial or are detrimental to what they are trying to do. If Earth First! is no longer what I envision it to be, then I will accept that and wish the new Earth First! well. But I have no energy to continually debate the above points within my tribe and will seek my campfire elsewhere.

On the other side was the “Roselle Faction.” As has been established, Mike Roselle was not as intimately involved in wilderness conservation as his five cohorts in the Pinacate. He was in many ways the opposite of Foreman, steeped in left-wing counterculture and active in the anti-war demonstrations of the 60s. Thus, unlike Foreman, he perceived environmentalism as one of the many nexuses of social justice, along with gay liberation, women’s liberation, class war, etc. He did, however, make environmentalism his main nexus, and in 1986, Roselle became the national campaign coordinator for Greenpeace USA. Although Foreman wrote that he believed this was more a case of “Earth First! gaining Greenpeace” than “Earth First! losing Mike Roselle,” the event, as Lee put it, “emphasized [Roselle’s] distance from the other founders of Earth First!, individuals who were completely disillusioned with the character and tactics of large Washington lobbying groups”:

Greenpeace prescribed change through education, and its goal was to prevent the apocalypse by making industrial civilization more environmentally sensitive. Those tactics and goals were in direct opposition to Foreman’s vision of Earth First!. While in his more reflective moments Foreman admitted that there was a role for such groups (in their own way, they helped preserve some limited wilderness), admitting Greenpeace’s goals and tactics into Earth First! would fundamentally alter the latter movement. Ultimately, it would allow Roselle and other like-minded individuals to come together as a faction, with the tacit support of Earth First!’s leadership.

The more radical side of this faction came from left-wing eco-anarchists, who published a competitor to the Earth First! Journal entitled Live Wild or Die! The journal was organized by Mike Jakubal, who had spearheaded the tree-sitting tactic in 1985. It combined the utter rejection of industrialism that typified the Foreman faction with the social justice reasoning that typified the Roselle faction, and so helped give form to a left-wing primitivist tendency that had previously been developed by the radical left journal Fifth Estate, and that would later come to fruition with the 1999 Seattle Riots.

For historical context, the debate between the Foreman and Roselle factions, what Bron Taylor calls a conflict between the “Wilders” and the “Holies,” was a microcosm of an argument taking place within the larger environmental movement. George Sessions writes:

The schism between the Foreman ecological faction and the Roselle social justice faction that tore Earth First! apart is part of larger anthropocentric/ecocentric conflicts that have existed throughout the history of American environmentalism. During the 1960’s, as Stephen Fox has pointed out, “newer man-centred leaders” arose in the environmental ranks, such as the socialist/biologist Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader, who saw industrial pollution as the essence of the environmental problem, while viewing wildlife and wilderness protection with disdain. By Earthday 1970, the environmental movement had essentially split into an anthropocentric urban pollution wing, led by Commoner, Nader, and Murray Bookchin, and an ecocentric wing concerned primarily with human overpopulation and protection of wilderness and the Earth’s ecological integrity, centred around Brower, Paul Ehrlich, and most professional ecologists …

In other words, environmentalism was in a crucial stage of development at the time, and the greater battle that the Foreman/Roselle conflict typified seemed like it would determine the movement’s final form. The characters involved, then, justifiably took a high-stakes approach, cashing in all their chips and fighting tooth and nail.

And although the Foreman faction later made some significant victories, and may very well win the war, they lost the battle of Earth First! Most observers attribute this to the FBI’s THERMCON operation.

Late in the 1980s, a group calling itself the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC) began several high profile sabotage operations. For example, in 1986, within the span of thirty minutes, EMETIC sabotaged several 500-kilowat power lines in three different locations, each about 10-30 miles from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station. The station had just finished a decade of construction, and the sabotage delayed its tests for its reactor at Palo Verde’s Unit 2 for a day. Later, in 1987, the group again struck, this time downing pylons that supported the
main chair lift at the Fairfield Snowbowl ski resort. The next year, they severed five power lines leading to the Canyon Uranium Mine, fourteen miles south of the Grand Canyon, causing a blackout.

EMETIC signaled a more serious kind of ecotage group, and Earth First! would later birth several more. But at the time, EMETIC was one of the FBI’s top priorities. So they infiltrated the group with undercover agent Mike Fain, who posed as an enthusiastic saboteur and later motivated members of EMETIC to conduct the monkeywrenching operation that got the group arrested. Unfortunately for him, he also forgot to turn off his wires when he said, “I don’t really look for them to be doing a lot of hurting people… [Foreman] isn’t really the guy we need to pop — I mean
in terms of an actual perpetrator. This is the guy we need to pop to send a message. And that’s all we’re really doing… Uh-oh! We don’t need that on tape! Hoo boy!” This later got Foreman a pretty nice plea deal — his case was separated from the greater one, deferred until 1996, and his sentence was reduced to a single misdemeanor with a $250 fine. But the other members were not as lucky. One member got a one-month prison sentence and a $2,000 fine; another got six months and a $5,000 fine; another received a three-year prison sentence and was ordered to pay $19,821 in restitution to Fairfield Snowbowl; and another was sentenced to a restitution of $19,821 to Snowbowl and six years in prison.

This not only shook Foreman; it solidified the schism that had been tearing the group in two for years. Foreman and some of the other founding members left the group, and a member of the Roselle faction, Judi Bari, became the new prophet for Earth First!


While under Bari’s leadership, the schism took a definite form. Earth First! now belonged to the “Holies”; the “Wilders,” on the other hand, went off to form an organization now known as The Wildlands Network. The organizations did not get along. In a review of Foreman’s account of his time with Earth First!, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Bari wrote:

Dave Foreman concludes that we hippie anarchists have steered Earth First! away from its original principles, and it’s time for him to quit. He says we have already accomplished what we set out to do 10 years ago. I certainly disagree with that. Sure, we’ve educated a lot of people, but they’re still butchering the forest, and our country just destroyed Iraq. What I think we’ve been doing is putting the principles of biocentrism into practice in the real world. And the radical implications of the theory, as well as the repression we’ve encountered, have scared Dave Foreman off.

So I’ll return the compliment you gave me last year, Dave. You’re a hero who will be remembered 100 years from now. But the movement has passed you by, and it’s time to step aside. Work elsewhere, where you feel more comfortable. But quit bashing those of us who are still on the front lines.

Deep Ecology, the philosophy the original Earth First!ers operated under, was eventually supplanted by “social ecology,” a theory devised by the anarchist Murray Bookchin. Again, the relationship between the two philosophies was not amicable. Bookchin, for example, repeatedly called the Deep Ecologists “ecofascists,” and regarded them as enemies of a true ecological philosophy, not simply allies who disagreed.

Perhaps Bari’s biggest achievement as an Earth First! leader was her union of labor and environmental issues. Specifically, she allied Earth First! closely with the anarchist group International Workers of the World (known as the “wobblies”), allowing Earth First!ers to mount a two pronged attack in some of their campaigns: from one side, the radical hippies in the forest, from another, the radical socialists inside the heavy equipment vehicles. Because of this union, she strongly discouraged the previously ubiquitous tactic of “tree spiking” — hammering nails into trees to slow deforestation — because they might be unsafe for the deforesters. Over time this resulted in an overall decrease of monkeywrenching activity.

Nevertheless, monkeywrenching remained an important element of Earth First!’s identity, largely because, in May 1990, a vehicle used by Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney (an Earth First! musician) was blown up by a pipe bomb. Bari was severely injured, Cherney injured only in minor ways. For a while the FBI claimed that Bari and Cherney were transporting the bomb for monkeywrenching activities, but they later discovered that this couldn’t have been the case: an analysis revealed that the pipe bomb, its surface wrapped in nails, was equipped with a trigger that would only activate when the car was driven. It was also revealed that an FBI chief had received the following anonymous tip:

Dear Chief Keplinger:

I joined Earth First to be able to report illegal activities of the organization. Now I want to establish a contact to provide information to the authorities.

The leader and main force of Earth First in Ukiah is Judi Bari. She is facing a trespassing charge in connection with the Earth First sabotage of a logging road in the Cahte Peak area. She did jail time in Sonoma County for blocking the federal building to support the Communist government in Nicaragua.

Bari and the Ukiah Earth First are planning vandalism directed at Congressman Doug Bosco to protest offshore oil drilling.

Earth First recently began automatic weapons training.

Bari sells marijuana to finance Earth First activities. She sometimes receives and sends marijuana by U.S. mail. On December 23 she mailed a box of marijuana at the Ukiah post office.

There is no point in pursuing local charges. But the use of the U.S. mail means serious federal charges. If you would like to receive confidential information on short notice to make possible an arrest on federal charges at a U.S. post office next time she mails dope, do the following:

Place an advertisement in the “Notices” section of the classified ad section of the Ukiah Daily Journal. It should be addressed to “Dear A” and give the name and telephone number(s), preferably 24-hour, of a detective who would be called to receive this information.

When a call is made, I will identify myself as “Argus.”

This created quite the frenzy in Earth First! Everywhere people were trying to figure out who this “Argus” was, and blame touched major people in the organization, including Bari’s ex-husband. Bari herself blamed the FBI, arguing that their speedy arrival at the FBI site was simply them “waiting around the corner with their fingers in their ears.” One of Earth First!’s leaders once again involved in a major FBI case, the organization weakened, even though a suit by Bari and Cherney eventually did result in prosecution of two FBI agents in charge of Bari’s case.

Meanwhile, Foreman and those who left with him, notably Reed Noss and John Davis, attempted to normalize some of the original ideas of Earth First!, particularly its ecological reserve system. They began an organization first known as The Wildlands Project, later The Wildlands Network, and by utilizing conservation science they made a strong scientific argument for the reserves. It is outlined in the project’s seminal text, Continental Conservation, edited by Reed Noss and the geneticist Michael Soule. The latter also wrote one of the founding documents of conservation biology, in which he modeled the new science’s “normative postulates” after Deep Ecology. Other ex-Earth First!ers worked closely on the National Forum on Biological Diversity to help popularize the concept of “biodiversity,” now a crucial concept in conservation biology. Still other ex-Earth First! ers helped establish major conservation organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity.

In recent years, Earth First!’s only notable project was a 2012 direct action campaign against the Marcellus Shale fracking site. Other than that, the organized is in disarray. In an Earth First! Rendezvous I attended in 2014, a significant portion of the event was spent addressing one shouting, crying woman’s frustration with dreadlocked white people in attendance. Foreman and co., on the other hand, have permanently changed the world. Conservation biology is now a leading science and the reason we know so much about climate change, ocean acidification, or the ongoing mass extinction. It is popularly accepted that at least some degree of wilderness conservation is desirable, and almost any scientist today accepts “biodiversity” as a legitimate scientific concept.

Family Reunion

While Bari was still leading Earth First!, the organization found itself implicated in another series of bombings by a group that called itself “F.C.” From 1978-1995, F.C. had sent at least 16 package bombs to various targets in technical fields and published communiques urging that radicals make their primary goal anti-industrial revolution. F.C., it was later revealed, was a former professor and probably genius who had gone to live off the grid in Montana: his name was Ted Kaczynski. I have already explained Kaczynski’s astounding story in Dark Mountain‘sTed Kaczynski and Why He Matters.” But I didn’t quite emphasize just how closely related Kaczynski was to Earth First!.

At the time of the F.C. bombings, many Earth First!ers claimed no relation to Kaczynski’s “anarchist terror group.” Indeed, in the aforementioned 2014 rendezvous, many of the older members present still insisted that Kaczynski had absolutely nothing to do with Earth First!. This could not be more wrong. In fact, several pieces of evidence suggest that Earth First! was one of Kaczynski’s central preoccupations.

The widely-available, explicitly-stated facts are these:

• The FBI found a copy of the Earth First! Journal and Live Wild or Die! in Kaczynski’s cabin.
• Kaczynski misspelled the name of one of his targets, the same way the name was spelled when the target was listed in an “Eco-Fucker’s Hit List,” published by Live Wild or Die!.
• Kaczynski’s tracts against “leftism” reflected the schism that split Earth First!
• Some of Kaczynski’s ideas reflected exactly the radical environmentalist ideas made popular in the Earth First! Journal.
• There is some evidence that Kaczynski attended an Earth First! Rendezvous.

These, however, are all circumstantial. The definite, less well-known evidence comes from the F.C. communiques — which includes a letter to Live Wild or Die! and several letters to Earth First!. In the letter to LWOD, F.C. tries to establish secret contact with the editors by teaching them a code and giving them the following instructions:

Place an ad in the classified section of the Los Angeles Times, classification #1660, “Personal messages.” The ad should preferably appear on May 9, 1995, but in any case leave a few days between the time when the Chronicle ad appears and the time when the LA Times ad appears. This ad should begin, “Dear Stargazer, the mystic numbers that control your fate are…” and it should be signed “Numerologist.” In between there will be a sequences of numbers conveying a coded message.

And in his letters to Earth First!, he asks the journal to publish his manifesto, gives recommendations for monkeywrenching strategy, and, under the pseudonym “Fabius Maximus,” gives his opinions on population growth. Even today Earth First! is within Kaczynski’s view. In his most recent book, for example, he notes the possibility of radicals using entryist tactics employed by the Bolsheviks to take control of the Earth First! Journal, which they could then use for revolutionary ends.

Furthermore, many Earth First!ers have expressed tacit support for Kaczynski. LWOD, for example, published two writings by Kaczynski in the seventh issue, and in 2011 the Earth First! Journal published an article entitled “Re-visiting Uncle Ted & A Few FC Targets,” which reappraised Kaczynski and implied support for some of his actions.

There is no denying it: Earth First! seemed to have found its “crazy uncle.”


The following is heavily based on an article originally written by Leslie James Pickering, former press officer for the Earth Liberation Front.

Then, Earth First! birthed a child.

In 1996, the Oakridge Ranger Station was struck by an arson attack, ironically conducted by Jacob Ferguson, who would later become the FBI’s primary source of information about the perpetrators.Graffiti left at the scene of the arson read, “Earth Liberation Front.” In the following years, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) would grow to become the number one domestic terrorist priority of the United States.

The ELF conducted a far-reaching campaign of destructive acts of ecological sabotage against corporations and government agencies it believed were making a profit at the expense of nature. The group was especially active between 1997 and 2002, propelling itself into the national spotlight through a series of costly and high-profile arson attacks.

For example, on October 1st, 1998, the ELF set seven fires to Vail ski resort in Colorado, resulting in $12 million in damages. In a communiqué, the ELF described its opposition to Vail’s planned expansion. “The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state. Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.”

On December 31st, 1999, the ELF turned the anti-genetic engineering movement up a notch by setting fire to offices at Michigan State University conducting research sponsored by Monsanto and USAID working to “force developing nations in Asia, Latin America and Africa to switch from natural crop plants to genetically engineered sweet potatoes, corn, bananas and pineapples.”

On May 21st, 2001 the ELF struck two locations simultaneously. Devastating fires were set at offices conducting genetic engineering research at the University of Washington and Jefferson Poplar in Oregon. At the scene of the Oregon fire, graffiti was left reading, “You Cannot Control what is Wild.”

On January 26th , 2002 the construction site for the University of Minnesota’s Microbial and Plant Genomics Research Center was struck by an arson claimed by the ELF. “We are fed up,” the communiqué read, “with capitalists like Cargill and major universities like the U of M who have long sought to develop and refine technologies which seek to exploit and control nature to the fullest extent under the guise of progress.”

While the ELF rose in prominence, an aboveground faction of radical environmentalists explicitly supportive of them began conducting less radical activities against the same kind of companies the ELF targeted. Because of the influence of the animal rights movement, especially the animal rights terror group known as SHAC, these above-ground activists often borrowed tactics that had previously been confined to right-wing groups, like publishing scientists’ personal contact information or visiting the homes of corporate executives en masse.

Mainstream environmental organizations, however, did not regard the ELF highly, fearing that the group’s actions would delegitimize the entire environmental movement. One Sierra Club spokesman said of the group’s actions: “It’s too bad — every time it happens the environmental movement gets a lot of bad press. …Our only thought about them is hoping that law enforcement brings them justice swiftly.”

For many years, the Earth Liberation Front operated entirely beyond the reach of the law. Eventually, some individuals were charged and convicted of ELF actions, but the bulk of the most significant actions went unsolved until a sweep of arrests were initiated on December 7th , 2005. The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” indicted a number of individuals active in the environmental, anarchist and animal liberation movements and many were convicted largely due to information that they gave on each other.

The cooperation of Jacob Ferguson was the key to the government’s case against the Operation Backfire defendants. Ferguson wore a hidden audio recording device for the FBI while initiating incriminating conversations with his former comrades. By the time of their arrests, the individuals indicted were no-longer functioning together as a unit and a number had personal resentments towards each other and/or had undergone significant political conversions. In 2011, filmmaker Michael Curry made an acclaimed documentary about the case, If a Tree Falls. Curry’s film largely ignores the spectacle of the terrorism and focuses mostly on the failing or broken relationship of a formerly close-knit group of eco-terrorists.

Ferguson’s recordings, and subsequent testimony offered by defendants turned state’s witness, made up the vast majority of the evidence in the government’s case. While some Operation Backfire defendants cooperated for plea deals, a handful of ELF members got somewhere between 4-20 years in prison — sentences that were mostly unprecedented in the history of radical environmentalism. Many of these members, it was revealed, were dedicated Earth First! activists. Some even worked for mainstream organizations like Greenpeace.

One member of the ELF known as “Avalon,” considered by the FBI to be the mastermind of the ELF and the author of texts detailing the construction of powerful incendiary devices, committed suicide in his prison cell rather than face the government’s charges. “Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia,” Rodgers wrote in a suicide note. “I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild. I am just
the most recent casualty in that war. But tonight I have made a jail break — I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins.”

The ELF is no longer a powerful force, and almost all of its members are now out of the legal system, but occasionally a new generation of saboteurs attach the initials to their communiques. Many ELF actions, including a number of very significant actions, remain unsolved and at least some strategic evolutions have apparently taken place to better prevent a repeat of Operation Backfire. It is unclear if the group will ever rise to its former glory, but at the very least it has left a permanent mark on radical environmentalism.

Final Thoughts

In the following decades several other groups sprouted from the radical environmentalism that Earth First! spearheaded. Notably, in 1999 during the World Trade Organization meeting, groups of green anarchists successfully turned the demonstrations into a riot that disrupted economic negotiations and shocked the American public, who before were mostly unfamiliar with that particular brand of protesting.

In the late 2000s three activists — Eric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen — published a book outlining radical political tactics a militant environmentalist group might use. The book advocated a direct and immediate dismantling of industrial technological systems like dams, mines, and the electric grid, something it called “decisive ecological warfare.” The authors later founded an organization with the same name as the book, Deep Green Resistance. Although initially receiving wide support from eco-radicals, the organization, like Earth First!, was eventually beset by issues tangential to environmentalism, trangender politics in particular.

Groups continue to proliferate. Attacks on industrial infrastructure continue to be accompanied by communiques signed by the Earth Liberation Front, and new eco-terror groups like Individualists Tending Toward Savagery have formed. Less radical groups in conservation are progressively uniting themselves under a platform advocating wilderness preservation and restoration, and are beginning to offer bold, previously unthinkable proposals like setting aside half of the earth for protection from industrial development. And a schlew of what Foreman once called “passionate amateurs” are spearheading little known but impressive projects, like the United Green Alliance.

These groups are becoming more connected, setting aside minuscule differences for the sake of the larger goal: protect the land, and rewild what has been lost. Unfortunately, many suffer from funding issues and are often beset by schisms like those suffered by Earth First! and DGR. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of schisms also haunted the activism of the 60s as part of the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO program, which hoped to use dividing lines between activists of various stripes to prevent anything approaching a “united front.” But it appears as though those kinds of tactics are losing their power as the critique of civilization is becoming the standard critique for all kinds of political action, left and right. More and more people are beginning to see wild nature as a path to freedom and meaning, and are beginning to question the dominance of invasive and controlling technologies. And eco-terrorism is still the top domestic terror threat in the United States. Earth First!, or something like it, is due for a revival.

When, however, the now scattered groups begin to join forces — and as I’ve mentioned, this process is underway already — the new movement will have to learn from the problems outlined in this history. It will, for example, have to learn how to deal with divisive issues without devolving into harmful schisms; and when necessary schisms occur, it cannot let them sap the grassroots of its energy. It will have to keep its focus on land preservation and restoration, and avoid tricks that relate words like “wild” to mere acting out, or that transform strategic ecosabotage into an outlet for
hostility and criminality. Most importantly, it will have to be diligent in breeding a new generation capable of keeping on the tradition, something that early Earth First! did well, and the reason why a revival is now a possibility.

Leave a Reply