NEZ PERCE NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho - Environmentalists aren't usually judged by the cars they drive, but in the case of this summer's Earth First! Rendezvous in Idaho, a roadside survey quickly underscores the fact that one of the nation's most notorious environmental groups is changing. Just below the campsite where 100 to 200 Earth First!ers have been camping all week, brand-new Range Rovers are parked end to end with Volkswagen vans, mud-caked pickups and sporty imports.
owners are equally varied: Some are seasoned activists; others are
hippies who likely sacrificed an annual trip to the Rainbow
Gathering to be here. Earnest young environmentalists caravaned in
their parents' cars to check out the action; still others seem to
have arrived from nowhere and have little more objective than
camping out and getting drunk.
That was the
scene at this year's Round River Rendezvous, an annual 10-day
gathering of Earth First!ers held this past July at Cove-Mallard, a
long-standing protest site on the Nez Perce National Forest. In
some ways things haven't changed much since Earth First! initially
gained attention in 1981 for faking a crack in Glen Canyon Dam.
Protests remain a cornerstone of the movement and the group still
has no formal structure, no field offices and no official
But the legacy of writer Edward Abbey
and Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, both of whom cared for
wilderness above all other issues, has slowly been eroded. Although
some say it's a sign the movement has matured, many old-timers
worry that the group is simply confused and has drifted too far
from its original focus.
Such schisms are
nothing new to Earth First! The first widely publicized split
happened at the tail end of the 1980s. As the group's unofficial
membership swelled throughout that decade, new converts saw
connections between radical environmentalism and traditional
leftist politics. Civil rights and labor, among other things, were
added to the mix. This year's rendezvous workshops treated issues
as diverse as safer sex, alternatives to monogamy and Mexico's
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. These "rednecks for wilderness," he says, had no use
for the broad social agenda of the counterculture types who came to
embody the radical environmental
"It's the major
reason Dave and I quit Earth First!," says Wolke. "I don't want to
make it 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
Wolke says he now stays away from
the Rendezvous and most other public EF! activities. He applauds
the work of the Cove-Mallard Coalition, some of whom are Earth
First!ers, but he says he has little interest in "eco-feminism and
that sort of stuff."
Those changes were
necessary, contends Neal Tuttrup, a 29-year-old Earth First!
activist from Austin, Texas. That first schism marked a move away
from the political incorrectness characteristic of Earth First!'s
founders and gurus. Abbey expressed a nearly myopic intolerance in
his writing toward foreigners, urban dwellers and feminists. "The
things they said make me wince," says Tuttrup. "They had a very
narrow focus, and were insensitive to other people's
carrying the banner for the movement today are more sophisticated
and more careful not to alienate people who should be our allies,"
Along with those changes has been a
corresponding movement away from monkey-wrenching and toward
old-fashioned civil disobedience and public education. At
Cove-Mallard, for instance, there's been only one confirmed
incident of vandalized equipment since the campaign began in 1992.
The risk of lengthy jail sentences is no longer worth the benefit
of shutting down a sale for a few hours, says Truttup.
Even the old-timers like Mike Roselle, who
never left Earth First!, tend to agree with the younger members on
this point. Roselle admitted to the first known act of tree-spiking
in 1985, but says such actions no longer have a place in the
From hippies to
As was apparent at this year's
Cove-Mallard gathering, Earth First! is undergoing another
generational shift. The left-wing coterie formed in the late 1980s
has been joined by a growing number of bangled and tattooed
20-somethings with strong ties to MTV's grunge nation. While some
say the influx marks yet another needed transfusion of new blood,
others worry that many of these youths have only vague liberal
ideals and express a strong desire, in their own words, "to fuck
Tom Fullum, an Earth First!er from
Missoula, Mont., says the group has become less issue-oriented and
more lifestyle-oriented. Many activists, he says, spend a lot of
time on the road, don't hold steady jobs and struggle to stay in
steady relationships. For some, this Rendezvous is as much about
recreation as it is about political action.
"Jerry's dead," reads one
newsletter passed around at the rendezvous, referring to the
Grateful Dead's late guitar player, Jerry Garcia, "and (the band)
Phish stinks, so come join us in the woods."
"Earth First! is becoming a
younger organization," concludes Fullum.
latest change is creating new challenges for seasoned members like
Fullum, who at 29 is almost considered an elder statesman. While
some of the first-timers here this summer are sure to have
experiences that will convert them to lifetime activism, many of
them don't actually understand that much about Earth First! Few
have attended training seminars that the group routinely sponsors
in cities far from the forest protests.
Rendezvous, outside the gate on Jack Road, two unidentified
activists complain about the empty beer cans and other litter
strewn around the encampment. Though it's a scene that hearkens
back to one of Abbey's fictional characters - George Hayduke, who
had a penchant for tossing beer cans out his car window - they say
that behavior is out of place with Earth First! today.
Graffiti - such as "USFS: United Servants for
Satan' - has also been scrawled on many of the metal culverts left
lying on Jack Road. And behind one slash pile, someone constructed
a pentagram out of sticks, with a deer skull in the center. "This
is what they tell you not to do in the media workshop," says
Fullum. "It confuses the message."
A warmer welcome
Philosophical debates aside, locals in nearby Elk City have reacted
favorably to the new mix of people who attended the Rendezvous this
July. The "Earth First! Go Home" signs - common in store windows in
years past - are gone. Even the waitresses seem friendly.
Law enforcement has also relaxed. The
appearance of a sheriff's deputy in the parking area near the
campsite causes a flurry of rumors spread by walkie-talkie through
the encampment - perhaps he came to enforce the so-called Rainbow
Law, which prohibits gatherings of more than 75 people on public
land without a permit. As it turns out, he's simply there to file a
routine road report.
And as far as the
activist-constructed blockade on Jack Road is concerned, the
Sheriff's Department prefers to think of it as a First Amendment or
public-lands issue. "Until I have a victim, I'm out of place to
deal with it," says Deputy Scott Paulsen. "If you listen to all 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," he adds, "I'd
be concerned too."
and Andrea Barnett write from Missoula, Montana.