They called them "silent instigators." The round stickers, sized to a half-dollar, featured a thick fist gripping a wrench. "No Compromise," the logo proclaimed, "in Defense of Mother Earth!"
In the 1980s, in Tucson, these adornments were inescapable. You'd find them stuck to walls in City Hall. They'd appear on trail signs deep within the Coronado National Forest. Or you would find them pasted to bathroom stalls on the UA campus. At the time, environmentalists were engaged in an ugly—and ultimately losing—battle to stop the university from building telescopes atop Mount Graham, in the Pinaleño Mountains east of Tucson.
But the group behind these tough-to-remove instigators was hardly so hushed. Founded in 1979 by a trio of activists, including a top Capitol Hill lobbyist for the Wilderness Society named Dave Foreman, Earth First! was known for its loud theatrics, clever humor and dead seriousness when it came to wilderness protection. At any given time, you'd come across EF! activists protesting in animal outfits, lashing themselves to earth movers, or unfurling a simulated "crack" down the side of Northern Arizona's long-contested Glen Canyon Dam.
Based in Tucson, the group had no formal hierarchy, or even an actual membership beyond subscribers to its newsletter, the Earth First! Journal. But by the late 1980s, it had become quite influential, even as its cagey, loose-limbed approach proved an evasive target for foes.
Or at least for most of them.
Inspired by the late author Edward Abbey, Earth First! also developed a penchant for so-called "monkey-wrenching." This ranged from sabotaging logging trucks and construction equipment to hammering saw-rupturing spikes deep into trees, to ruin them as lumber. By the late 1980s, these methods had put Earth First! on the FBI's radar. Using questionable snitches and borderline entrapment, the agency swept up a swath of Earth First! leaders in May 1989. Among them was Dave Foremen, who was dragged from his home near Pima Community College West in the early morning hours.
According to prosecutors, the activists conspired to monkey-wrench nuclear power plants. The FBI spent a cool $2 million on its undercover operation, which resulted mostly in plea deals and menial sentences. Foreman walked away with five years' probation.
Life for Earth First! became even more dangerous in 1990, when a car bomb exploded beneath the seat of California anti-logging activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. Prosecutors initially accused the pair—both seriously injured—of transporting the bomb themselves, with plans for sabotage. The accusations were later dropped, and the bomber has never been caught.
Following those upheavals, Earth First! began to metamorphose as new, younger members tugged the movement toward broader social issues and urban ecology. But not everybody went along; the shift gradually led to a schism between advocates of this change and older members who adhered to a strict wilderness mandate. Yet what remains of Earth First! lumbers on. As does Earth First! Journal, the long-running public face of this disparate movement.
In fact, the Journal will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Tuesday, Oct. 26, with a panel discussion featuring Center for Biological Diversity cofounder Kieran Suckling, Tohono O'odham activist Ofelia Rivas, and former Earth Liberation Front spokesman Craig Rosebraugh. Titled "On the Front Lines," the forum promises a broad look at today's environmental movement.
But in some ways, Earth First! itself might be a bellwether of how environmentalism has changed in recent decades. David Walls of Northern California's Sonoma State University spent much of his career studying such movements. He says fractures between the old Earth First! and its later incarnation may have less to do with generational issues than bedrock environmental philosophy.
Early Earth First! activists such as Foreman "come out of that wilderness-protection tradition," says Walls, a sociology professor emeritus. "But the new wave of environmentalism is concerned about the human impacts of pesticides and air and water pollution. It's in some ways a public-health movement referred to as an environmental movement."
Still, he says that "radical" factions such as Earth First! continue to play a key role by contrasting with more mainstream groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. "We sociologists like to call that the radical fringe effect. The mainstream groups always benefit by having someone off to the left, so they don't seem as extremist anymore."
Others, such as Roger Featherstone, who joined Earth First! in 1985, believe the group's original vision has blurred beyond recognition. "I have a hard time understanding, at this point in time, exactly what their relevance is to wilderness," says Featherstone, who now heads the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition. "If the new way they're operating has to do with urban issues, then I'm not sure Earth First! is the right name. If they are working on wilderness stuff, I don't see it."
But Sasha Reid Ross, a contributing editor to the Journal, disagrees that the group has lost its focus—even as it struggles to define itself anew. "That's a question we're asking ourselves all the time within the movement," he says. "Why is Earth First! still relevant?
"Groups can just call themselves Earth First! or whatever they want and keep doing what they're doing. And maybe we don't even need the Journal. These questions come up a lot because it's so much work holding a structure like this together."
But to Reid Ross, such questions belie the impact Earth First! continues to have. "The Journal itself is incredibly important," he says. "We publish articles that you won't find anywhere else, about issues that won't be reported for another five years in mainstream media."
For instance, Reid Ross says the Journal was among the first to report about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, and was honored by Project Censored for its work.
He also points to several organizations that have spun out of Earth First! to take on the mining fight. "The three major groups are very deeply tied to Earth First!," he says. "We're organizing within communities, showing up at town meetings and raising questions.
"Even in Tucson, as soon as the (Rosemont) open-pit copper mine was announced, Earth First! held a pretty big protest right in front of (downtown Tucson's) federal building and almost stopped traffic. Earth First! has a really great way of drawing attention to causes and being on the front lines of ecological defense. And it still carries that 'no compromise' line."
According to Reid Ross, a group weaned on prodding the powerful has hardly broken with radical tradition, even as its mission has broadened. "If Earth First! is marginalized now," he says, "it was certainly marginalized in 1980 when it started. That's always been our stance."