Political Party in the Woods: Earth First! Survives 15 Years
On the first drive by, you see "Earth First!" spray-painted on the blacktop. A closer look, from the parking lot of the cafe-bar next to the sun-dappled South Fork of the Clearwater River, Idaho, reveals the rest of the message: "Earth First! Road Kill" it reads, with a pair of figures painted on the road, looking like chalk outlines of homicide victims.If they had the nerve to stop on the way to their encampment further up the Clearwater, the Earth First!ers gathered here for their annual national rendezvous might have amended the message to read something like "Roads kill."Every summer for the past five years, under the auspices of the Cove-Mallard Coalition, Earth First!ers and their affiliates have come here to fight against logging and road-building on two of the largest timber sales in the region's history. More than 8,000 acres of old-growth forest are slated to be clearcut in 40-acre parcels.Organizers hope to bring national attention to these timber sales, as well as others that threaten the Northwest's remnant roadless wilderness -- much of which lacks any sort of federal protection.Surrounded by three federally designated wilderness areas -- the Selway, Gospel Hump and Frank Church River of No Return -- this is the heart of one of the last intact temperate forest ecosystems on the planet. Taken together, these wildlands cover an area roughly the size of Ohio.Conservationists say this huge logging operation will rob the forest of its evolutionary secrets, and reduce the chances of survival for endangered forest denizens -- including grey wolves, northern goshawks, salmon, bull trout and possibly a few grizzly bears.The activists here are determined that this will not be allowed to happen. To stop the sales, they have filed lawsuits and staged direct action campaigns. Over 200 hundred people have been arrested. Equipment has been vandalized. According to the Forest Service, trees have been spiked.For the activists, this year's Rendezvous performs a dual function: bringing a media spotlight and rallying troops to the front.But the gathering also serves another apparent purpose. Many have come, like most of the tourists who travel this road, for rest and relaxation. And the organizers have made sure to provide plenty of beer.The Rendezvous also provides a glimpse into the changing make-up and style of America's most notorious environmental organization.Starting in 1981, Earth First! achieved renown for acts of industrial sabotage -- "monkeywrenching." In addition to stunts like faking a crack in the Glen Canyon Dam, early EF! tactics included vandalizing bulldozers and spiking trees. But the group has evolved over the past decade.Earth First! has no formal structure. There are no field offices and no official leaders. All decisions are reached by consensus, meaning everyone gets a say. To be an Earth First!er one simply has to adopt the motto: "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth" and then be willing to act.But the legacy of writer Ed Abbey and EF! co-founder Dave Foreman, who disregarded all political concerns except wilderness, has been eroded.As Earth First!'s unofficial membership expanded through the 1980s, new converts saw connections between radical environmentalism and traditional leftist politics. Civil rights and labor, as well as more disparate elements of the modern political scene, were added to the mix.Today's Rendezvous workshops treat such worries as safer sex, non-monogamy, and the role and need of feminism in the movement. Workshops on the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal and how to support Mexico's Zapatista rebels reflect just how far afield the focus has spread.All around, too, there's talk of animal liberation, which has gained widespread tolerance, if not acceptance, among environmentalists who once considered it an anathema.According to Howie Wolke, who along with Foreman, Mike Roselle and Bart Kohler founded Earth First!, the broadening of the group's agenda forced many early members out."It's the major reason Dave and I quit Earth First!," Wolke says. "I don't want it to sound like I'm putting them down. They're doing what they believe in. But the shift in the late-'80s was something I couldn't work with."Wolke says he stays away from the Rendezvous and most other public EF! activities. He applauds the work of the Cove-Mallard Coalition -- in 1993 he spent time at the group's base camp near Dixie, lecturing on the region's ecosystem -- but says he has little interest in "eco-feminism and that sort of stuff."That stuff led to a widely publicized schism at the tail end of the last decade. The old-school Rednecks for Wilderness had no use for the broad social agenda of the counter-culture types who came to embody the radical environmental movement.To the 150-plus activists who gathered in the Nez Perce National Forest It doesn't seem to matter that the late Abbey -- whose spirit lingers still -- probably wouldn't approve of EF! '96. A friend and guru to many early Earth First!ers, Abbey's nearly myopic intolerance has been replaced by a different kind of environmental vision.Now, EF!'s left-wing coterie is being joined by a growing number of twenty-somethings -- many with only vague liberal ideals -- who nonetheless express a strong desire, in their own words, "to fuck shit up."If fact, of the self-proclaimed Earth First!ers who have gathered in the Nez Perce, the majority are in their twenties, manifesting strong ties to the prolific stylings of MTV's grunge nation. These bangled, tattooed, occasionally topless Earth First!ers represent a new amalgamation of interests.This drift has been noted by many who witnessed the group's initial schism in the late-'80s. Having worked with Earth First! and other grassroots groups, Missoula-based activist Tom Fullum, 29, is barely older than many newcomers. He says that Earth First! has become less issue-oriented and more lifestyle-oriented.Many activists, Fullum points out, spend a lot of time on the road; they don't hold steady jobs, they struggle to stay in steady relationships.In one of the multiple campaign newsletters available here, there's a call for activists. "Jerry's dead," it reads -- referring to the Grateful Dead's late guitar player -- "and Phish stinks, so come join us in the woods."Fullum puts it plainly: "Earth First! is becoming a younger organization."Neal Tuttrup, an Austin-based Earth First!er, says he too has noticed the median age of activists dropping. Only 29 himself, Tuttrup says he sees more younger people getting involved today, but doesn't necessarily see a problem.As the older members of EF! move on, he says, there's more room for fresh blood and new ideas. Tuttrup says that following the widely publicized schism between the old timers and their younger, more liberal associates, there has been time for the movement, to grow up.The original Earth First! credo left little room for bridge building. Problems associated with urban living -- pollution, racism, poverty -- didn't mark a blip on Redneck radars. But in recent times, many of the old biases have been shed."The activists carrying the banner for the movement today," Tuttrup says, "are more sophisticated and more careful not to alienate people who should be our allies."Recalling his first Rendezvous, nearly a decade ago, Tuttrup says that listening to Dave Foreman and the other old timers was inspirational, but not without its embarrassing moments."I read old interviews. The things they said make me wince," Tuttrup says. "They had a very narrow focus, and were insensitive to other people's issues."As for those members of Earth First! who don't have a firm grasp of the nature of the struggle, Tuttrup is philosophical: "In any open-door movement you're going to have folks who just show up."In the evenings, around the "drunk-as-fuck rowdy" campfire (there's a quiet fire as well), arguments and joshing and drinking and story-telling ensue. Musicians compete with the din. The stars shine in force. Activists catch up with old friends, and make new ones. Couples sneak off to make it in the bushes. If the EF!ers are tourists, their hosts -- the Cove-Mallard Coalition -- have provided the travelers with some impressive sightseeing. Huge clearcuts aflower with bear grass blooms straddle old logging roads. Campers on the ridge are treated to spectacular sunsets.But the most interesting destination is ten miles away. On the newly-cut Jack Road, which runs about five miles into the woods, a group of eco-saboteurs have set up their own camp. A tour of the road reveals recent efforts of activists to create obstacles for the road-builders.The results are stunning. Working under the cover of night, small-to medium-sized "affinity groups" have appropriated felled trees for barricades; built 30-foot slash piles and laced them with yarn and barbed wire; dug a functional outhouse in the middle of the road overlooking the valley; and constructed a handful of four-foot high log cabins out of notched logs.At the road's entrance, steel culverts stand on end, partially buried, looking like a medieval fortress. Just beyond the gate, two carefully constructed lodgepole tripods have been set up along with a "bipod" steadied by a long wire connected to the gate. Atop each a platform awaits activists, who will sit on high in hopes of holding up road building as long as possible.As the Rendezvous kicked off, government work there stopped. As a dry heat pushed the mercury up into the high-80s, Red River District Ranger Ed Wood was quoted in local papers blaming a "frog strangling rain" for the work let-up. That rain, according to a Forest Service spokesperson, fell during the last week of June, but around camp, EF!ers contend that the Forest Service decided to avoid any unpleasantries during the Rendezvous.The activists in Idaho have borrowed a page from a group working in Oregon's Willamette National Forest. For the past 11 months, a Eugene group known as the Cascadia Forest Defenders have occupied Warner Creek; an old growth timber sale planned after a 1991 arson fire.The Oregon activists have been living in tipis on that land, digging up roads and sitting in tripods like the ones on Jack Road. They've built a drawbridge and a moat, and plan to keep it up till the Forest Service withdraws the sale.And while the Cove-Mallard Coalition is hoping that the Idaho scene will entice activists to stick around at least through the summer, rumors that law enforcement is on its way to Warner Creek have sparked a small exodus of folks headed for the more glamorous and well-publicized battle in the Cascades.In the meantime, what the Cove-Mallard Coalition intends to be a permanent encampment may last only as long as the Forest Service feels like waiting. Forest closures -- in which parts of the land are closed off to the public and violators arrested -- have been used liberally in summers past to minimize interference with logging and road building here. They are likely imminent on the Jack Road.For the time being, though, the Forest Service does not seem preoccupied with the action in the woods. Acting District Ranger Kara Stockwell, taking the place of Ed Wood, says that her agency has been monitoring the Rendezvous and Jack Road encampment from afar.Stockwell says the Forest Service has no interest in getting into a confrontation with the activists."We have kept an eye on things," she says, "but it's been hands-off. We're planning on taking a closer look, but it's hard to get back there, and we don't want to create a situation."Even if the Jack Road causes little delay for the agency, the sales are woefully behind schedule. Originally slated to be completed within six years, only 12 of the 200 cuts planned have been completed, with a year left to go. At the average rate of two cuts a summer, it could take 89 years to complete -- a pace that probably pleases environmentalists.But the Forest Service is reluctant to grant the activists the satisfaction of having held up the sales.Elayne Murphy of the Nez Perce says there have been a variety of factors delaying the completion of the operation. But she says demonstrations and other EF! direct actions have only contributed "a few hours" to the holdup.Murphy points out the agency has had to complete several Environmental Impact Statements and -- following a lawsuit which held up logging for nine months in 1994 -- adjust their EIS when the Chinook salmon was added to the Endangered Species list.Once the contractor who was pulled off the Jack Road completes his current project, Murphy says, the Forest Service and local law enforcement will decide what to do.Back at the Rendezvous, activists are getting down to the serious business of polishing off all the beer. For the final Saturday night -- the big night -- organizers have rigged a stage at one end of a clearcut.Throughout the afternoon and evening, practically anyone with a guitar or poem is welcome to step up to the solar-powered mic. Five kegs stay cool in a creek below the site.One incautious activist, talking to anyone within earshot at the beer line, bragged of the hard work he put in, swinging a pickaxe on Jack Road.And a young woman, having let it slip that she and her companion might have been involved in the Jack Road vandalism, challenges the journalists she's riding with: "How do we know you're not infiltrators?"As you enter Jack Road, there's a big sign: "Wild Rockies Earth First! Free State." Not unlike their counterparts on the radical right, the activists have taken to patrolling the area in camouflage, challenging the authority of the federal government, and squabbling with journalists.Ultimately, however, EF!'s popular reputation as eco- terrorists appears empty these days.At Cove-Mallard, for instance, one of the more contentious spots in the country, there's been only one incident of vandalized equipment since the campaign began in 1992. These days, when EF!ers break the law, they're likely to do it as an act of old fashioned civil disobedience, openly, risking certain arrest, rather than stealing back into the night undetected.The reception from many local residents seems to have softened somewhat, too. The "Earth First! Go Home" signs -- ubiquitous in Elk City store windows in years past -- are gone. Waitresses are friendly to the long-haired and unshaven.Even local law enforcement is taking a more relaxed view of the situation. The sheriff's department is taking a hands-off approach to activities on National Forest land as well. Nevertheless, the appearance of a sheriff's deputy from Elk City in the parking area near the campsite causes a small stir. Organizers, communicating via walkie-talkies, speculate that the man is there to enforce the so-called Rainbow Law, prohibiting gatherings of more than 75 people on public land without a permit.Deputy Scott Paulsen, however, says he is just there to give road reports.As far as the mess over on Jack Road is concerned, Paulsen prefers to think of the blockade as a First Amendment or public lands issue."Until I have a victim, I'm out of my place to deal with it," he says. "If you listen to the rhetoric, all Earth First!ers have two heads and carry a bucket of spikes, and they're just not like that."If I had driven all the way from British Columbia and seen all these clearcuts, I'd be concerned," he adds. For many who have chosen to continue working under the Earth First! banner, direct action is just too costly and not effective enough.Even with all the activity on Jack Road, Fullum says, the group more and more has turned to education and outreach as a tool. The risks of jail time are no longer worth the benefit of shutting down a sale for a few hours, he says."The first couple of years especially it was cat-and-mouse -- going in at night, digging roads, building piles. But that didn't stop them," Fullum says. "It's one of the reasons we started working on education: to show this and what's happening to the Northern Rockies."Tuttrup, who also does an eco-news radio show in Austin, says that Northwestern groups aren't the only ones switching from direct action to education. But, he quickly adds, nobody is advocating giving up direct action."We are definitely trying to put more effort in our communities," he says. "We need to get out and do a lot of pro- active activism. But in terms of direct action, we're not giving it up. We're just trying to be smarter in our use of it."One approach to getting smarter has been a series of action camps around the country. And in addition to the Rendezvous, EF!ers travel each year for annual activists conferences.The contrast is obvious. At a 1995 EF! conference, about 40 activists camped out on a chilly February weekend at a ranch in the hill country west of Austin.Each participant had to be vouched for by several other activists in order to sit in on the discussions; an attempt to keep out infiltrators and troublemakers, they explained.The discussions themselves ranged from the mundane to the practical: management of the Earth First! Journal and Direct Action Fund, the closest thing EF! has to a bank account; tips on effective tactics; the status of national environmental legislation.The beer is there. But there's a lot less. The campfire is foregone one night in favor of videos people have made of their efforts across the country. Unlike the Rendezvous, everyone here has a well thought out vision of EF! and its place in the global environmental movement.It's a vision that might benefit some of the youngsters that have joined with the Cove-Mallard Coalition this summer.Outside the gate on Jack Road, two unidentified activists complain that beer cans and other litter has been left strewn around the encampment. It's a habit that harkens back to Abbey's character George Hayduke in his 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang. Hayduke had a penchant for driving around the desert and flinging beer cans this way and that. But whereas Hayduke was a fictional hero, littering on public lands does not seem to jibe with any of the messages the campaign here is trying to send.For years, organizers have decried roads and road building for the sediment such activities cause in nearby creeks and rivers. But here on Jack Road culverts have been plugged with rocks and logs in an attempt to wash the road away. Silt and mud wash down the hillside to the streams the Earth First!ers claim they are trying to protect.Even Fullum, an elder statesman by default, grins as he repeats at several junctures that a good hard rain would probably do irreparable damage to the road. He too seems to have forgotten the spawning beds below.Juvenile graffiti, such as "USFS: United Servants for Satan," and "Ozzy Rules" has been scrawled on many of the metal culverts left in the ground on Jack Road. Behind one slash pile, someone constructed a pagan pentagram out of sticks, with a deer skull stuck in the center.At this point, Fullum steps back into his p.r. role: "This is what they tell you not to do in the media workshop," he says. "It confuses the message."It seems inevitable, however, that EF!'s message will be confused. After all, anyone here can claim to speak for the group, and even as the Cove-Mallard Coalition and others disavow serious vandalism, the romanticism of the guerilla remains.On Saturday night, standing next to a blazing campfire, everyone joins in on a tune by songwriter Dana Lyons: "With a turn of the wrench," they sing, "and a twist of the screw, what was once put together we can easily undo."Twenty days into the occupation of Jack Creek Road, the Forest Service announced that an aerial mission had exposed the vandalism there.A spokesperson for the agency accused the activists involved of "eco-terrorism."According to Forest Service Officer Ihor Mereszczak, "This isn't civil disobedience. Whoever did this committed an act of eco-terrorism.""I find it reprehensible that anyone would resort to damaging the environment to further cause," Mereszczak says.