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Dave Foreman, American


You know, when I went back to Washington, D.C., to be a lobbyist in the mid-seventies, a U.S. senator put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, Dave, we can work with you. You’re reasonable. You know how to compromise and consider other interest groups.” I was told to put my heart in a safe deposit box and replace my brain with a pocket calculator, to not get emotional. That would harm my argument. I’d ruin my credibility….


But, goddammit, I am emotional! I am passionate. I’m angry. I feel something. I’m not some New Age automaton, some goddamn computer, a pocket calculator. I don’t have silicon chips up here. I’m flesh and blood. The winds fill my lungs, the mountains make my bones, the oceans run through my veins. I’m an animal and I’ll never be anything but an animal. When a chain saw rips into a two-thousand-year-old redwood tree, it’s ripping into my guts. When a bulldozer plows through a virgin hillside, it’s plowing through my side, and when a bullet knocks down a grizzly bear or a wolf, it’s going through my heart….

Susan Zakin

The last time I saw Dave Foreman it was in the Algonquin Hotel. If that seems an odd venue for a man who described himself as “a hick horseshoer who thinks he’s a bronc rider” it wasn’t half as odd as the the Beaux Arts pile where he and I and Rick Bass were sleeping that night: the New York Yacht Club, an upper crust enclave so steeped in what passes for aristocracy in the U.S. that its members balked at including a photograph of Ted Turner on the wall after the bad boy from Atlanta sailed to victory in the 1977 America's Cup.

Turner wasn’t their sort. Neither were we, but Ted Roosevelt IV, an investment banker trying to stop the depredations of latter-day Republicans had invited us to speak at a roundtable there. Hell, it was a free trip to New York. The invitation was also a mark of just how far a New Mexico military brat had traveled, and despite his protestations, how comfortably he fit in with his generation’s significant political figures.

Foreman, who died September 20, was cast in the same mold as Turner: brilliant, charismatic, and above all, just crazy enough to believe he was right even when more conventional people told him he couldn’t be. It is not too much to say that the self-proclaimed hick horseshoer was the environmental movement’s Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Bob Dylan rolled into one. His critics would note a touch of Elmer Gantry.

I have always believed that the environmental movement is a phenomenon of the American West, and Foreman’s roots in the West ran deep. A fourth-generation New Mexican, his family had crossed the frontier in Conestoga wagons. He had the Westerner’s gift for flouting convention, or perhaps just being oblivious to it. For him, that meant leaving his job as The Wilderness Society's top Washington, D.C. lobbyist and, along with the other members of the environmental Round Table, latter-day knights errant in cowboy boots Bart Koehler, Mike Roselle (less cowboy than yippie), Louisa Willcox, Susan Morgan, Ron Kezar, and Howie Wolke, embarking on a guerrilla theater cum revolution-for-the-hell-of-it road show called Earth First!

Like the Algonquin's Round Table, which started when his fellow writers suckered Wolcott into a lunch where they proceeded to roast him for his braggodocio, Earth First! began with a stunt. In 1981, the founders unfurled a 300-foot strip of black plastic, a "crack" down the face of Glen Canyon Dam in Utah, the symbol of the worst excesses of industrializing the frontier.

The guerrilla theater had a lighthearted tone but the ideas behind Earth First! were serious. Foreman and the other Earth First! founders - the best and brightest of their generation of environmentalists - understood the magnitude of the extinction crisis before their Washington, D.C. counterparts. They realized that efforts to preserve nature in the U.S., although well-intentioned for their time, weren’t based on science, and our parks, forests and wildlife refuges couldn’t keep alive the millions of species threatened with extinction.

Steeped in the new science of conservation biology pioneered by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and others, Foreman and the renegades who called themselves Earth First! realized that the world was undergoing its sixth major extinction event and the only one caused by humans. By 1980, scientists were predicting the loss of 15-20 percent of all species by 2000. Thomas Lovejoy wrote in 2013 that these numbers had been close to what actually happened. Now the United Nations estimates that 1 million of the world’s plants and animals are in danger of extinction.

Outdoorspeople saw animals and plants disappearing before their eyes. For these people,  frustrated by the environmental movement's increasing reliance on lawyers rather than visionaries, Earth First!’s message was a resounding one. By 1990, the anarchist group had attracted thousands of followers, from hippied-out misfits to college professors.

All of the founders deserved credit for the group's popularity, but it wouldn’t have happened without Foreman’s rhetorical skills. When you heard him talk, you experienced birth, life, and death in one long impassioned exhortation, and you were changed. Even if you were a skeptical reporter.

Like many Americans, I grew up with a romantic idea of the American landscape before the closing of the frontier. Foreman offered a vision of rolling back that line, expunging the ugliness of industrialization, and its inhumanness. The idea of a lost Eden is out of style now but the vision remains moving for many of us, even if only as an aesthetic, and it is profoundly American.

In the late 1980s, I was looking for a way to write a history of the environmental movement, and I had a penchant for rebelliousness myself. With the help of David Stanford, an editor at Viking, I approached Foreman with the idea of a book that would combine the history of the conservation movement with the gonzo tales of Earth First! Against the advice of his wife, Nancy Morton, who wanted him to concentrate on finishing his own account (later published as Confessions of a Barbarian) Dave agreed to work with me. I immersed myself in the facts of his life, traveling to the places he had lived, from Zuni, New Mexico, where he had worked in a Head Start program and steeped himself in Zuni ritual, to Blythe, California where I unearthed a high school yearbook with the obligatory dorky head shot. I interviewed his mother and sister, and hit the library, looking up his influences, including the frontier church that had formed his galvanizing speaking style. In turn, he educated me on the history of the conservation movement, which I began to see as a window to what our current president calls “the soul of America.” We were, and continue to be, a culture shaped by the frontier. For good or ill. If anyone doubts this, they have only to look at the self-styled “patriots” who have displaced environmentalists as the radicals of our time.

Paradoxically, I found that Foreman, whose onstage rhetorical skills rivaled Jesse Jackson’s, was rather shy in private. A few weeks into my research, I called him. Knowing he was rabidly atheistic, I hesitantly asked about the Church of Christ, the Protestant denomination whose preachers espoused a rugged individualism that brought Westerners into direct relation with God, never mind about the church bureaucracy. The Church of Christ flourished on the frontier, attracting throngs to billowing tents with its quasi-libertarian ethos.

Fearing that I was about to blow the prospect of the book, along with any liking he might have for me, I asked him if the anarchistic makeup of Earth First! mirrored that of the church.

He burst out laughing. “I’ve been waiting ten years for someone to ask me that question,” he said. We were off and running. For the next year, I traveled around, talking to Earth First!ers around the country, groups of people whose causes and tactics mirrored their region of the U.S., and who operated fairly independently - anarchists, right? - but whose values had been articulated by Foreman and the others.

The people of Earth First! had the misfortune to be Cassandras. As far back as 1981, they proposed setting aside 44 wilderness areas of 1 million acres each, carefully chosen ecosystems that would serve as biological preserves. It sounded crazy then, 44 million acres out of the 1.9 billion that make up the United States. As it turns out, the Earth First! proposal was moderate, if you were talking scientific reality. In 2016, Harvard's E.O. Wilson, whose work had inspired them at the outset, proposed setting aside half the earth as biological preserves.

The men and women of Earth First! were too far ahead of their time to be taken seriously by politicians, especially with an anti-environmental backlash in full swing. And Earth First!’s leaders were too easily seduced by the media attention they received for their most controversial behavior. Inspired by Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Earth First! went beyond respectable tactics of non-violent passive resistance. While some Earth First!ers chained themselves to fences, stood in front of bulldozers, and blockaded logging roads, others hammered large nails into trees slated for logging, then called the media to say they’d done it, slowing and sometimes stopping timber sales. Still others poured sand in bulldozer gas tanks, clipped powerlines with cutting torches, and burned billboards. No doubt there were other incidents of what Abbey had called ecosabotage or nachtwerk, inspired by the 19th century Luddites who broke into textile factories to destroy looms that were putting them out of jobs. These extra-legal activities not only got the attention of the media; eventually, they attracted the FBI’s notice.

Dave Foreman had once been a skinny, sensitive 98-pound weakling kid who devoured books about animals. “He wouldn’t step on a spider,” his mother Lorane told me. By 1991, Outside magazine was referring to him as “arguably the most dangerous environmentalist in America.”

Was Foreman dangerous because of his actions or his ideas? I’d venture to say that it was Foreman’s ideas, combined with the power of his speaking style, that landed him to a Prescott, Arizona courtroom with four co-defendants after an FBI sting. The case was eventually plea bargained, and the prodigal Foreman returned to the tribe from which he had distanced himself, serving on the board of the Sierra Club until a disagreement over immigration resulted in his ouster, starting The Wildlands Project, an organization dedicated to creating biological reserves minus the monkey wrenching, and co-founding the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance with his wife Nancy.

The later years were more peaceful. He spent time with scientists like Michael Soulé, the founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, and self-made men like himself: Doug Tompkins, the co-founder of Esprit clothing, who had devoted his fortune to protecting the Alerce forest in Chile, and Yvon Chouinard, the climber, outdoorsman, and founder of Patagonia, who recently gave his billion-dollar company to a conservation trust.

Serious people, all of them. Major players. I imagine Dave asked himself at the end of his life whether he had made a difference. No single individual can stop population growth, and that remains the inexorable killer of species. Foreman, like Ed Abbey before him, hit a wall intellectually on this question.

But I know that Dave Foreman, directly and indirectly, saved the beauty of the world. Some of it, at least. And I know, too, that as befits a man with larger-than-life rhetorical gifts, he changed the conversation. Extinction still doesn’t get the attention that climate change does, even though the two operate synergistically and scientists say they are equal threats to the survival of the planet. But the death of all that lives around us, and in some fundamental sense, makes our lives worth living, is no longer ignored.

The politics have changed, too, albeit slowly. Without Earth First!, it’s unlikely that there would be the Center for Biological Diversity. Starting with $5,000 and two guys in a New Mexico ranch house using government documents for toilet paper, the Center now has staff lawyers, a $14 million a year budget and an 80 percent courtroom win rate. It seems equally unlikely that the international civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion would exist if it hadn't been for Earth First!

There will be no headstone for Dave Foreman. Like Edward Abbey, he preferred to have his corporeal self left in nature, food for the living things he fought so hard to keep with us. If he had one, the inscription, perhaps, could simply read: Dave Foreman, American.

Dave Foreman changed the way we thought about our country and about nature. It’s not turning back the frontier and restoring Eden, but it's still the best we have.

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Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. She is an editor of Journal of the Plague Years.

Photo credits. Background top photo by Len Irish. Dave Foreman brandishing monkey wrench by Terrence Moore.