Earth First! The Next Generation

  • Tom Fullum of Earth First! says group is more lifestyle oriented

    Dan Oko

Note: This article is a sidebar to a feature story.

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.

The cars' 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 leaders.

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 Zapatista rebels.

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 movement.

"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 work with."

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 issues.

"The activists carrying the banner for the movement today are more sophisticated and more careful not to alienate people who should be our allies," he adds.

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 movement.

From hippies to hipsters

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 shit up."

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.

This 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.

At the 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."

Dan Oko and Andrea Barnett write from Missoula, Montana.

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