Letters From the West

Earth First! seeks relevance with wolf hunt sabotage guide


Earth First! demonstrators protest at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone in the 1980s (Rocky Barker Photo)

Earth First! demonstrators protest at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone in the 1980s clock to enlarge (Rocky Barker Photo)

Earth First! Media attempts to recreate its literary and cultural past with a press release Monday announcing a new online guide for disrupting wolf hunting.

The press release has all the flavor of Earth First! in the 1980s. It has the tongue in cheek flavor of a Popular Mechanics guide for building an outdoor grill out of a steel barrel.

It claims its “unknown” authors are “hunters and proud of it,” and members of “the Redneck Wolf Lovin’ Brigade,” an homage to Earth First! founders Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke, who really were kind of rednecks.

They would like their readers to think about the merry band of ecological tricksters created by Edward Abbey in his 1975 novel “The Monkeywrench Gang.” Led by Vietnam veteran George Hayduke, this colorful fictional group went around the West destroying equipment and sawing down billboards on their way to their ultimate monkeywrench, the bombing of the Glen Canyon Dam.

Abbey joined Foreman, Wolke and 75 others in Earth First’s best act of guerrilla theater, unfurling 300 feet of black plastic down the side of the dam in 1981 to create the impression of a crack. He told the crowd to oppose the forces of development that had built the dam, “and if opposition is not enough, we must resist. And if resistance is not enough, then subvert.”

Throughout the 80s and into the early 1990s Earth First! grew, a movement that in many ways was the final act of the 1960s. And like the protest movements of the 1960s, it pitched into radicalism its founders really hadn’t envisioned.

Foreman, who edited the Earth First Journal that was widely read throughout the environmental movement of the time, had become its most powerful voice. His speeches were a powerful performance that would by the end have a room full of weekend activists howling at the moon, ready to take action against deficit timber sales into roadless areas, new developments inside Yellowstone National Park for turning places like the Owyhee Canyonlands into wilderness.

He published “Ecodefense, The Field Guide to Monkeywrenching,” along with satirically named co-author Bill Haywood, the mining union official who was accused of bombing former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg. It matter-of-factly explained how to “spike” old-growth trees by driving big nails in so timber companies would avoid them because of the danger it would present to sawyers in a mill.

Idaho Sen. James McClure sponsored a law that made such an act a federal crime as it became popular in Idaho’s roadless lands. Foreman was always careful not to advocate any of the monkeywrenching the book described.

But as Earth First! grew a new generation — more radical, more ready to subvert — took his words seriously. He and his boomer compatriots’ effort to provide a radical left, to make the rest of the movement look moderate, careened beyond control.

Meanwhile, the FBI also had taken them seriously and had infiltrated Earth First! with an agent encouraging them to sabotage a power line. Foreman was charged with conspiracy but ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor thanks to the defense of Gerry Spence.

I’ve known Foreman since the 1980s and covered his exploits. I went to Africa with him in 1998 as a part of a Thoreau Institute trip that looked at village-based conservation programs. He continues to speak and write.

After that, Earth First! struggled to stay relevant as former members including Foreman returned to traditional environmental activism or left. Today a new generation, that glorifies the ecoterrorism of groups like the Animal Liberation Front and has a worldwide footprint, operates in the shell of the 1979 model.

The Earth First! Wolf Hunting Sabotage Manual tells how to find and destroy wolf traps, handle live-trapped wolves and how to use horns and smoke bombs to disrupt hunts. It is certain to anger many Idaho hunters who already feel under siege from animal rights activists.

But I doubt it will stop anyone from hunting wolves. The guide may even encourage a few rednecks to join the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West