Earth First! (EF) was founded near Tuscon, Arizona in 1979 as an alternative to what EF terms the “namby-pamby environmental groups” that had failed to adequately protect the natural world against the predations of corporate and commercial interests. Rejecting the “lethargic” and “compromising” approach of such environmental “moderates,” EF emphasizes “the need for action” that makes use of “all the tools in the tool box, ranging from grassroots organizing and involvement in the legal process to civil disobedience and monkeywrenching”—a term connoting random acts of destruction aimed at any symbol (such as billboards, houses, roads, etc.) of human encroachment on the wilderness.
EF describes itself as “not an organization,” but “an international movement.” Thus it has “no members,” only allies. Its structure consists of “small, bioregionally-based groups” that “become intimately familiar” with the ecological problems of their own respective locales and “apply 'direct pressure'”—by way of “education, litigation, and creative civil disobedience”—to “stop the bleeding.”
EF's ideological roots sprouted from militant ad hoc eco-organizations, such as the Black Mesa Defense Fund, that had lurked in the Arizona wilds in the 1970s. The most prominent of EF's five founding members was veteran activist Dave Foreman, a Wilderness Society lobbyist who would later (1995-1997) become a board-of-directors member with the Sierra Club. In part, Foreman drew his inspiration for forming EF from Edward Abbey's 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which was about a group of environmental activists with a penchant for violence.
But another factor was in play as well. According to defectors from the environmental movement, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society in 1979 together asked Foreman to establish EF as a new extremist point group for the movement, for the purpose of making their own demands appear more moderate by comparison; these two organizations promised Foreman that if he agreed to launch such an entity and serve as its leader for a decade, they would fund it generously throughout that period.
While some have characterized the foregoing account as apocryphal, there is strong evidence of its veracity. For one thing, Foreman did indeed stay with EF for ten years before stepping down. In addition, Smithsonian magazine once quoted Foreman as saying: “We thought it would have been useful to have a group to take a tougher position than the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. It could be sort of secretly controlled by the mainstream and trotted out at hearings to make the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society look moderate.” Further, in his own 1991 book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Foreman wrote: “A major accomplishment of Earth First! … has been to expand the environmental spectrum to where the Sierra Club and other groups are perceived as moderates.”
On the premise that industrial civilization is an unmitigated evil as well as an agent of environmental destruction, EF seeks to inflict severe economic hardship on what it perceives to be polluters and despoilers of the natural world. Toward that end, Earth Firsters have commonly engaged in “ecotage,” the commission of illegal and anonymous acts of sabotage for environmental purposes. Noting EF's "antipathy to 'progress' and 'technology'," founder Dave Foreman once said: “We can accept the pejoratives of 'Luddite' and 'Neanderthal' with pride.” By Foreman's reckoning, “There is no hope for reform of industrial empire”; i.e., the only worthy solution is to do away with industrialization entirely.
EF's core value is “biocentrism,” the belief that the “life of the Earth comes first,” not the life of people. “Our actions are tied to Deep Ecology,” says EF, “the spiritual and visceral recognition of the intrinsic, sacred value of every living thing.” Indeed, the notion that human beings possess no more inherent worth than any other living creatures has been a constant theme of EF. John Davis, the former editor of EF's in-house publication, the Earth First! Journal, once said: “Human beings, as a species, have no more value than slugs.” Dave Foreman put it this way: “An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than does an individual Grizzly Bear life. Human suffering resulting from drought and famine in Ethiopia is tragic, yes, but the destruction there of other creatures and habitat is even more tragic.” Added Foreman: “Ours is an ecological perspective that views Earth as a community and recognizes such apparent enemies as 'disease' (e.g., malaria) and 'pests' (e.g., mosquitoes) not as manifestations of evil to be overcome, but rather as vital and necessary components of a complex and vibrant biosphere.”
Sometimes EF rhetoric has moved beyond merely drawing a moral equivalence between human beings and other species, and has expressed outright contempt for the human race. Said Dave Foreman in 1991: “We humans have become a disease—the Humanpox.” In 1992 the Earth First! Journal published an article that endorsed “dressing up as a hunter and going out to shoot other hunters.” EF theorist Christopher Manes wrote in the May 1987 issue of that same publication that “if radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human population back to ecological sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS.” And a speaker at one of EF's annual “Rendezvous” meetings said that the “optimal human population” is zero.
EF’s public debut took place on March 21, 1981, when activists unfurled a 300-foot-long sheet of black polyurethane, designed to convey the image of an enormous vertical crack, against the face of the Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam, which the activists wished to see destroyed. Edward Abbey was in attendance that day and reportedly shouted, “Earth First!” and “Free the Colorado [River]!” Soon thereafter, the fledgling group's slogan became “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!”
The animating principles that initially drove EF were fleshed out at annual retreats held in Wyoming. There, as well as in the pages of the Earth First! Journal, the EF faithful announced their mission to set aside for preservation millions of acres of wilderness across the United States.
Over time, EF's tactics and objectives became heavily influenced by Dave Foreman's 1985 book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which provided detailed instructions for such actions as downing power lines, disabling heavy machinery and equipment, destroying roads, making smoke bombs, and otherwise interfering with the work of land developers, ranchers, loggers, and farmers—particularly those who grew genetically modified crops. Other EF tactics included assault, arson, and “tree-spiking”—i.e., driving thick metal rods as deeply as possible into a tree intended for logging, in order to disable any saw that comes in contact with it.
In 1987, tree-spiking claimed its first known casualty: A California mill worker named George Anderson had his jaw shattered when a shard from a spiked tree, splintered by his band saw, ricocheted into his face. In response to the incident, Dave Foreman said: “It’s unfortunate this worker was injured and I wish him the best. But the real destruction and injury is being perpetrated by Louisiana-Pacific and the Forest Service in liquidating old-growth forests.” In 1988, EF member Mitch Friedman stated that “tree-spiking is not terrorism; it is a justifiably extreme and noble deed.” The real terrorism, Friedman said, was being committed by the logging industry. Reasoning from that premise, EF routinely advocated violence against members of the logging industry. As an article in the September 1989 edition of the Earth First! Journal stated: “The blood of timber executives is my natural drink, and the wail of dying forest supervisors is music to my ears.”
Another strategy that EF pioneered in order to impede logging was “tree-sitting,” whereby volunteers would camp out on the branches of trees slated for cutting—sometimes for several days—while fellow Earth Firsters on the ground brought supplies and carried away garbage. EF activist Julia "Butterfly" Hill holds the record for the longest tree-sit to date; between 1997 and 1999, she spent 738 days in the crown of a 180-foot-tall California Redwood in order to save it from the saws of the Pacific Lumber company.
EF justifies its illegal activities, particularly those that involve property destruction, by explaining that violence against inanimate objects (such as logging company equipment) is not nearly as egregious as violence against living beings. Says EF:
“Monkeywrenching is a step beyond civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, aimed only at inanimate objects, and at the pocketbooks of the industrial despoilers. It is the final step in the defense of the wild, the deliberate action taken by the Earth defender when all other measures have failed, the process whereby the wilderness defender becomes the wilderness acting in self-defense.”
Hundreds of Earth Firsters have been incarcerated for their crimes.
In a 1990 memorandum, Earth First activist Judi Bari, reacting to a spate of bad publicity which EF had garnered for its acts of sabotage, stated that “tree-spiking must be renounced … [because] the alienation [it causes], not to mention the danger, be it real or imagined, [is] harming our efforts to save this planet.” Soon thereafter, EF announced that it would thenceforth eschew potentially dangerous practices. Nonetheless, EF continued to sell Ecodefense and to embrace the militant anthem, “Spike a Tree for Jesus.”
The debate which Bari touched off within the radical environmental community prompted a fissure within EF—causing some members to break away and form an even more militant splinter group, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The Earth First! Journal regularly publishes articles by ELF criminals, and shares an ideological kinship with the Animal Liberation Front as well.
In 1991 Dave Foreman pled guilty to conspiring to blow up electrical lines leading to an Arizona nuclear power plant. That same year, Foreman published his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, wherein he happily reported that "ecotage in the National Forests alone in the United States is costing industry and government $20-25 million annually."
Particularly receptive to EF's militant message was a Harvard-educated Montana recluse named Ted Kaczynski (later to be known as the "Unabomber"), who, from 1978-1995, anonymously mailed dozens of letter bombs, killing 3 people and wounding 24 in the process. After apprehending Kaczynski in 1996, FBI agents raided his cabin and discovered several volumes of the Earth First! Journal therein. Also found was a publication called Live Wild or Die, which was financed by EF!'s co-founder Mike Roselle and featured a catalogue of the environmental movement's most hated—the so-called “Eco-F*cker Hit List.” Prominent on this list was the Exxon oil company. After a February 2, 1994 article in the Earth First! Journal erroneously claimed that a firm called Burson-Marsteller was in charge of Exxon's public-relations efforts in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Kaczynski sent a mail bomb that killed Burson-Marsteller executive Thomas Mosser at his New Jersey home on December 10, 1994. By so doing, Kaczynski was essentially carrying out the type of violence that EF had frequently advocated. For several years afterward, in fact, the Earth First! Journal expressed its “support” for Kazcynski, claiming that he was an innocent man who had been framed. (The same publication also tried to rehabilitate the reputation of the convicted cop-killer Leonard Peltier.)
Unchastened by Mr. Mosser's death, EF subsequently published, in the 20th-anniversary issue of the Earth First! Journal, a cartoon with this punch line: “Trees are for hanging. Kill a developer.” In 2001, EF activist John Stephens said that arson attacks were, on balance, “a positive thing” for environmentalist groups to undertake. In 2002, the Earth First! Journal asserted that the planet “is being killed by corporations such as the biotechnology industries, and the people who are killing it have names and addresses”; the article then proceeded to list those names and addresses.
It should be noted that EF occasionally turns a blind eye to certain individuals who engage in activities that it normally condemns as environmentally destructive. One such person is the billionaire media mogul Ted Turner. The Washington Times explains:
While a timber-cutting operation was under way on one of his [Turner's] ranches in 1998, members of the radical environmental group Earth First! instead protested timber cutting on a nearby ranch owned by Zachary Taylor, said private investigator Barry R. Clausen, who spent a year undercover at EarthFirst. He asked a protester why the group did not include take on [sic] Mr. Turner, Mr. Clausen said, and was told: “We cannot. That's where our money comes from.” … “Ted Turner has canned hunts where you can shoot a buffalo ... and drilling ... in New Mexico and clear-cutting trees and he never gets protested. And when you ask why, it's because he is one of the biggest contributors to extremist groups,” Mr. Clausen said.
Promotional literature for a July 2005 Earth First retreat, marking EF's 25th anniversary, lured participants with promises of “rowdy rallies” to be followed by discussion sessions “plotting our escape from the U.S. government.”
While EF has no primary headquarters, there are a number of incorporated Earth First! organizations, each fulfilling a specific function. These include Daily Planet Publishing (which produces the Earth First! Journal), the Trees Foundation, the Earth First! Direct Action Fund (through which EF solicits contributions), and the Fund for Wild Nature (FWN), which was formerly known as the Earth First! Foundation. FWN serves as a tax-exempt pass-through that has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to EF organizations. Moreover, FWN provided seed funding for EF spin-offs like the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society, both of which were established by EF co-founder Mike Roselle.
In addition to the initial funding it received from the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, EF has been supported also by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the Harold K. Hochschild Foundation, the Naturganic Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the Oregon Community Foundation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Rogue Wave Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and the Vanguard Public Foundation.
A key EF spokesman today is Rodney Coronado, a longtime former activist with the Animal Liberation Front. Coronado has committed at least 7 arsons, and for one of them he was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison. According to ActivistCash.com:
Coronado has been associated with criminal animal-rights organizations since at least 1984, when he joined the Sea Shepard Conservation Society. In November 1986, Coronado and David Hewitt sabotaged a whaling station and sunk two whaling ships in Reykjavik, Iceland. Since that time, Coronado has shown a tendency to flee jurisdictions where warrants were issued for his arrest.
EF's top priorities today are: