ARIZONA'S NEW RANGE WAREARTH FIRST! DECLARES OPENSEASON ON COWS

The truth in their message stands out so starkly that, even though they sound like extremists, you know they're basically right: The Earth is being destroyed by abuse and corporate greed and somebody has to stop it. And there is something romantic, even heroic, in the stand-alone defense of Mother Earth advocated by this ratty little Arizona-based outfit calling itself Earth First!.

More a state of mind than an organized group, Earth First! seemed at its outset to be a relic of Sixties idealism, somehow fast-forwarded into a collision with Eighties problems. Born during the Reagan years, when prodevelopment appointees were gutting environmental laws under a thin veneer of deregulation, its founders shared a sense of urgency and doom about the future of the planet, as well as a strong sense of street theatre.

Earth First! people made their point with harmless, even adorable, stunts, like dressing up in animal costumes to dramatize the hazards of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon or the plight of the red squirrels that will be displaced with the Mount Graham telescope. They unfurled a black plastic crack down the face of Glen Canyon Dam to demonstrate how technology is destroying the planet.

Their way was lighted by the late Edward Abbey, a writer of unparalleled humor and insight. But the hilarious mayhem Abbey conjured in fiction began to assume concrete form in Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. Compiled by Earth First! founder Dave Foreman of Tucson, it was a bible for would-be saboteurs, and after its 1985 publication things stayed neither harmless nor adorable.

Late last spring, four people--including Foreman--were arrested by the FBI and charged with plotting an attack on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. And on May 24, two prominent leaders of the group, Judy Bari and Darryl Cherney, were injured by a car-bomb explosion in Oakland, California--a bomb police claim belonged to the victims.

Earth First! leaders contend they were set up by the FBI, which infiltrated the group in a yearlong operation prior to the Palo Verde bust. And they are quick to denounce the police finding in the Oakland car-bomb explosion.

"It's pretty obvious to me someone tried to kill Darryl and Judy," says Lynn Jacobs of Tucson, head of the group's antigrazing effort. "My own personal opinion is that some logging company big shot hired a thug to do it, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was the FBI. They've been known to do things like that before."

The explosion is the latest--and most lethal--in a series of incidents that has launched the seven-year-old Earth First! from obscurity to national prominence and, increasingly, notoriety. The group coined the phrase "ecotage" to describe acts of vandalism in the cause of environmental protection. It is now the target of investigation for dozens of illegal and, at times, violent acts in Arizona and other Western states.

People linking themselves to the group have committed acts of arson, vandalism and animal slaughter in several Western states. Earth First! members are also suspected of making anonymous death threats to at least two representatives of hated targets in Arizona, a prominent official in the cattle industry and a university administrator who supports building telescopes on Mount Graham.

The glare of national publicity has succeeded mainly in establishing a personality cult around the charismatic Foreman. He exhorts followers to take direct action to save Mother Earth, and prophesies that self-sacrifice may be the price for her defense: "Some of us are going to spend a lot of time in jail. Some of us are going to die."

But the publicity has revealed little of the people who make up Earth First!. Nor has it explained why a person would embrace Foreman's apocalyptic vision of the future and, perhaps, be willing to step over the line between civil disobedience and violence.

Lynn Jacobs, one of a dwindling number of Earth First! leaders not under indictment, recently spent five hours recounting for New Times the personal experiences that have shaped his view of a world in need of martyrs.

LYNN JACOBS KNEW he didn't like cowboys even before one of them killed his beloved pet dog, skinned it and, in a final contemptuous gesture, threw its body in the road leading to his home. Jacobs admits he can't be certain the killer was a cowboy, but he's sure it wasn't casual vandals. "I was circulating a petition asking the U.S. Forest Service to remove cattle from the part of the [national] forest where people were living," he says.

Jacobs thinks his dog died as a warning to him because he challenged the century-old right of local ranchers to run cattle on public lands near his home at the time, in southern New Mexico. "At the same time, there were death threats against me circulating in rumor form, and all the cowboys in the area started packing guns as a show of force," he says.

And he got no help from the feds. "When I showed the forest supervisor my petition, with signatures from all the people who had summer homes in the area, he acted very amused," Jacobs says.

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