Monkey wrenchers keep on keeping on

Ed Abbey's spirit lives in today's eco-activists

  • Peter Shelton

  • Activist Katie Lee in Glen Canyon.


When the news spread last year about Tim DeChristopher’s impromptu act of civil disobedience in Utah, I thought: Somebody is finally reviving the lost art of environmental monkey-wrenching.

So I made certain to attend one of DeChristopher’s talks at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival in May. Appearing on a breakfast panel billed "Three Generations of Monkey Wrenchers," he was by far the youngest at 28. Sitting in the middle was Dave Foreman, 63, the gray-bearded, achy-backed co-founder in the 1980s of Earth First!, the anarchist eco-saboteurs’ group. Next to Foreman sat the 90-year-old protest singer Katie Lee, who fought with all she had against the early-‘60s damming of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River.

DeChristopher said he’d gone to Moab to protest the auctioning of gas leases on the border of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. "I had thought of yelling something or throwing a shoe," he said. He ended up bidding on leases and winning some of them.

Eventually, the agency in charge, the Bureau of Land Management, realized what was happening and spirited DeChristopher out of the room, but not before he had sufficiently jiggered the proceedings so that the entire lease sale had to be tossed out.

The charges against DeChristopher are not insubstantial; if convicted, he could get 10 years in jail and a fine of $750,000. But his sudden inspiration kicked off a re-examination, from The New York Times op-ed page on down, of the role radical gumption can or should play in an environmental movement gone milquetoast. When was the last time tree-spiking made the news?

The injustice in this case is not only the desecration of public lands, DeChristopher said, but the broader issue of global warming and our heedless use of fossil fuels: "My generation will suffer the effect of the decisions we make today. I take the threat personally."

A disclaimer: So do I. I live on a split estate in western Colorado: My wife and I own the surface, but, as is the case with 80 percent of private land in this state, we don’t own the subsurface mineral rights, and those rights were auctioned off a few years ago, without notice to us, by the selfsame BLM. So, yes, I take it personally, too.

DeChristopher went on to say that what pushed him into action was a belief that things were hopeless. "I let go of the expectation of career, old age, etc., the things my parents and grandparents had. Hope stands in the way of action."

Foreman and Lee both expressed a hard-earned misanthropy. "I don’t like the human race," Katie Lee said. "The Glen Canyon dam broke my heart." (A much-reproduced photo of Lee in the buff in the since-drowned canyon failed to convince Congress to stop the dam.) Lee was rolling now: "Mother Nature is going through menopause, hot one day, cold the next. She’s going to take other actions as well (including bring down the Glen Canyon dam). One day she’ll get rid of us. And that’s a good thing, baby!"

What to do in the meantime? "The problem," DeChristopher said, "is believing that you are a powerful agent of change. Once you act, only then do you see the opportunities."

Following his arrest -- trial is set for September of this year -- DeChristopher participated in several actions, including the symbolic renaming of the Snowbird ski resort; he now calls it "Coalbird." He also organized the Christmastime delivery, and secret videotaping, of gift-wrapped lumps of coal to Snowbird executives after it was learned that resort founder Dick Bass was investing in a giant Alaskan coal mine. "Sentiment without action," DeChristopher said, quoting Ed Abbey, "is the ruin of the soul."

Katie Lee chimed in: "Anger is my ally. Anger is heavy. The heart comes up; tears come up. Channel it or it will tear you to pieces. Channel it and you do what you are supposed to do!"

DeChristopher urged everyone to see the Stanley Nelson film Freedom Riders, about an intrepid group of white and black college students who set out in 1961 to test Jim Crow laws. Attacked by mobs, arrested and jailed, they nevertheless kept going. "The Kennedy administration didn’t want to take up civil rights legislation," DeChristopher said. "They were forced to … by the Freedom Riders. How can we expect Obama to take on the most powerful corporations in the world if we aren’t willing to fill the jails?"

What about joy? It was a question from the audience. Surely there is joy in civil disobedience -- along with the risk and the fear -- in knowing your cause is just. Foreman allowed that he had never been afraid, not "since I got run over by a truck" early in his activist career.

DeChristopher said he’d felt calm at the auction where he kept outbidding representatives of the natural gas industry. "Oh, and by the way," he said in wrapping things up, "you know those solar panels on the gas rigs you see everywhere? Those could probably be easily disconnected. I’m just saying."

Peter Shelton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News ( He is a writer in western Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Proceed with monkeywrenching cautiously.
Jul 08, 2010 01:31 PM
Some acts of monkeywrenching are necessary and honorable, others are simply destructive and dishonorable (such as spiking a tree and running the risk that an unwitting lumberjack will be injured or killed). What is most troubling is the underlying mentality that humans must be eliminated from the earth completely. Both this perspective and an anthropocentric perspective are dangerous to making progress in conservation and environmental remediation. Humans are, in fact, just another animal, and we have as much right, not necessarily more right, to exist on the earth as any other animal. The trick is to tread more lightly than we historically have and use our exceptional intelligence to recognize this need and to work on undoing the damage we have done.
john decoville
john decoville
Jul 13, 2010 06:08 PM
I agree with “Proceed with monkeywrenching cautiously. “
Posted by Beth on July 08, 2010. I advise against any action harming other people – any people or the environment.

I read this article with quite a pang in my heart because so much has since my activism of the 60’s and 70’s. Back then, we tested in mass the limits of our First Amendment Constitutional Protections for free speech, protests and redress of grievances.

A lot has changed since then. Practically all meetings, these days, have been organized as “closed” so attending with the intention of disrupting, sabotaging or protesting can, itself, end up in prosecution. Also, protesters are a very lonely lot. My admiration goes out for DeChristopher. He is up against some big forces.

Most of the owners belong to a very entitled group of shakers and movers who often justify their acts as sanctioned by God himself. Read Genesis and you will see that we humans have been given “dominion” over the Earth. They (the corporate owners) will see our opposition as evil and deserving anything they can do to crush us. So we are “entitled” and have divine sovereignty over earth.


Eliminating Humans
Jul 14, 2010 05:12 AM
I may be wrong, but I don't think Katie Lee is suggesting an aggresive campaign to 'eliminate' humans; simply that, through their own greed and avarice, they are eliminating themselves by the wanton destruction of their own habitat. And for the other species that rely on that habitat, yeah; no humans would be a good thing.
On Civil Disobedience
Andy Wakefield
Andy Wakefield
Jul 08, 2010 11:53 PM
I would just like to publicly register a note of support for DeChristopher and the other monkey wrenchers, past and present.

Environmental groups, in my view, are becoming overly accommodating to the corporate-governmental machine that controls our public lands and resources. See, for example, the Grand Canyon Trust and its position on mechanically "treating" over a million acres of ponderosa forests in Arizona. This is heavy-handed position is purportedly to "restore" the forests to a natural condition.

The academic circles focusing on the environment(environmental history, environmental anthropology, etc) are also failing miserably at revealing the power structures that exploit the natural world (and people) to turn profits. See, for example, William Cronon, the leading environmental historian in the county, and his essay on wilderness. Many scholars who take an environmental focus seem to take sides against the natual world.

The result is that the environmental movement, today, is moving backward and not forward. This will remain the case until the movement has leaders as great as Martin Luther King, Jr.--and a grassroots base that is as broad and angry with the status quo as those who fought for civil rights.

I don't know of any BP officials who have been arrested and criminally charged as DeChristopher has been.

When economic and social (and environmental) structures are corrupt, direct action in the form of civil disobedience is required of us, as HD Thoreau taught us over a hundred and fifty years ago.
don't mess with gas
Jul 09, 2010 08:58 AM
the suggestion of messing with the solar panels on gas wells is dangerous. electricity+explosive gas=boom
Jul 13, 2010 09:23 PM
Thanks for giving me some hope that at least three others out there take some offense at the latest US environmental woes. Humans have always and likely will always have the capacity to be kind, thoughtful, considerate and forward thinking creatures. They also will likely always retain the ability to be nasty, evil, selfish, greedy SOB's. Choices with CONSEQUENCES are the key. Corporations are like people in their legal status, only they can simply change their name if anything goes drastically wrong. People cannot so easily escape their misdeeds.
Until the corporate code is re-written there will continue to be endless disasters without consequence, whether it is the killing of villages in India like Bhopal, or the ruin of Alaskan seas and beaches, or those of the Gulf coast.....not to mention the degradation of human rights or the offshore manufacture of goods. The board of directors and every agent of a corporation is as much the property of that corporation as a soldier is of the army - and if those decision makers do ANYthing that results in a drop in the stock value or reduction of profits, etc....they can (and likely will) be sued in a court of law.

THAT is what must change.

By the way an FYI - for natural gas to actually ignite or explode it must be precisely and evenly mixed with oxygen - and in a natural environment within a range of 4-14% gas. Anything under 4 or over 14% gas, or unevenly mixed simply will not explode no matter what you do to it. If this was not the case people would be turning themselves into charcoal every day. When was the last time you actually heard of a house exploding from a gas leak? Better chance being hit my a meteor.
s thorntontaylor
s thorntontaylor
Jul 26, 2011 10:34 AM
I love how Democracy Now just lets him speak for himself. So much has been said about him, but not nearly enough has been said by him. Check it out: http://tinyurl (dot) com/3pbksth