By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The arrest of the militant environmentalists of Earth First! on May 30, 1989, included charges of terrorism directed at nuclear power plants in the West. The foundation for the alarming headlines that announced the bust is contained in government files. Those files detail an undercover FBI probe that began in 1988 as radical ecologists took to the road for their version of a convention.
Nancy Morton flew north to Spokane, Washington, from Tucson, Arizona, en route to the annual gathering of the woolly warriors of Earth First! Married to Dave Foreman, co-founder of America's most outrageous environmental group, Morton hoped to cut back on her own involvement in Earth First! so that she might finish her doctorate in nursing. As the airplane sluiced through the summer skies, Morton warned her traveling companion to be cautious of whom she talked to at the impending Round River Rendezvous; there would be undercover cops in attendance.
It was good advice.
The friend making the trip with Morton, Katherine Clark, was an FBI informant.
"Undercover agents would be attempting to persuade Earth First! members to participate in illegal, criminal activities and then arrest them," Morton was quoted as saying in an FBI report filed by the informant.
One of the most provocative eco-terrorists at the rendezvous was a man named Ron Frazier whose specialty was the crippling of diesel equipment.
Another FBI report submitted after the Earth First! rally by the government's informant stated: "Source attended a discussion led by Ron Frazier held during the Round River Rendezvous on July 1, 1988. Source advised that Frazier appeared to be very dangerous." This was not precisely the intelligence the FBI was seeking from its operatives at the Rendezvous; Frazier, after all, had been on the FBI payroll for months.
This sort of awkward overlap must be expected when snitches are stumbling over each other. Still, not everyone at the Earth First! conclave was an FBI informant; some were actually FBI agents.
Special Agent Michael Fain, FBI, posing as radical environmentalist Michael Tait, attended the party and took firsthand notes of the speech given by Dave Foreman. Fain's undercover work would eventually lead to indictments.
In a three-page, single-spaced report on Foreman's speech, FBI agent Fain is hardly able to hold the reader's interest, let alone make the case that the agent was listening to an apocalyptic saboteur. Although Fain recounts Foreman's claim that monkey-wrenching was now an accepted tactic of Earth First!, the FBI report also notes that Foreman pointedly ignored a member of the audience who asked about dynamite.
Foreman went into the government files as a leader who advocates that we should all live as mankind did in earlier times. Not the earlier times of, say, the turn of the century when bicycles were more common than automobiles. Foreman desired an epoch a tad more primitive than that offered by Victorian nostalgia.
"Earth First! should be based on the tribal concept of earlier civilizations. Earth First! should be guided by consensus and the concept that Mother Earth comes first. There will be no law in the Earth First! movement, just tradition and custom. According to Foreman, Earth First! people and the Earth need to be redirected to what the Earth and civilization were 10,000 years ago when people were hunter-gatherers," wrote FBI agent Fain in his report on Foreman's Round River Rendezvous speech.
The suggestion that we should revert to the ways of 8000 B.C. is a common theme in Foreman's speeches and even appears in his most recent book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.
At least one knowledgeable source claims that ecologists who lived 10,000 years ago did not dwell in an entirely bucolic period.
"In the Southwest, we can't really talk about a culture at that time. As far as life expectancy, it wasn't much but we really have no idea. We have no skeletons. All we have are some spear points, some stone butchering tools, remains of camp fires and the evidence of dead elephants," says Dr. Raymond Thompson, an archaeologist and the director of the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona.
"In Asia and Europe, there is evidence that people at that time, the late, upper Paleolithic period, or Stone Age, had some shelter. If you lived to be forty, you were considered to be an elder; the dangers of hunting elephants with spears produced some risks. Painting on cave walls was going on, though not at its highest level. You had very serious problems with osteoporosis and various pathologies. Because we've found needles we know that they had tailored clothing; perhaps not tailored in the sense of a jacket you and I might wear but something more than a hole in the skin that you poked your head through."
Would Dr. Thompson himself like to time-travel back to the late, upper Paleolithic Stone Age period of 8000 B.C.? "Absolutely not!" he replied without prompting.
We must assume that Foreman's audience at Round River was made of sterner stuff than the good doctor who clearly appreciates the comforts of his campus.
Indeed, there is some clue to the sort of gumption Special Agent Fain discovered at Round River in the very nickname of the subject who generated the longest FBI file following the rally.
Margaret "Peg" Millett was known, according to Fain, as "Gristle," a moniker worthy of a character in Clan of the Cave Bear. Fain described Gristle as a marvelous singer and the half-sister of Kate Millett, author of the landmark feminist book Sexual Politics.
Peg Millett would become a critical actor in the drama that was unfolding.
Millett provided Tait with gossipy descriptions of several key players in Earth First! and told the FBI agent that the Earth is alive and we are all animals who need to be reconnected with our natural selves to save it. To that end, she attended a workshop titled "Council of Beings" in which participants took on the identity of endangered creatures who then spoke out to symbolic humans.
Millett went on to tell Tait that she did not trust Frazier, a man she feared was unstable.
Nonetheless, when the Rendezvous was over, Millett left Washington and drove back to Arizona with Frazier and Tait, one an FBI agent, the other a paid FBI operative and both destined to shove a cell door shut on Peg Millett.
With Frazier running interference, agent Tait milked his relationship with Peg Millett to penetrate the circle of radical environmentalists in Prescott following the July 4 gathering in Washington. And it was Millett whom Tait used to get inside Earth First!'s most significant protest in Arizona, the ongoing opposition to the astronomy project atop Mount Graham. A joint venture that envisioned as many as seven telescopes on the peaks of the Pinaleno mountain range in southeastern Arizona, the project pitted several American universities, the Smithsonian Institution, the Italian government and the Vatican--all of whom had plans for their own telescopes atop Emerald Peak--against a wide range of environmental organizations. The center of the controversy swirled around a rare red squirrel whose habitat was threatened by the proponents of advanced astronomy.
One month after returning from Washington, Tait made plans with Millett to attend the Earth First! Labor Day protest at Mount Graham. Gristle informed the FBI agent that Earth First! intended to plant trees and erect speed bumps on the roads the bulldozers would use to push up Mount Graham.
If this sort of activity appears to pose little threat to national security, it is nonetheless important to understand that between this demonstration and the eventual arrest of the Earth First! group, the FBI would devote considerable energy to infiltrating the activities aimed at stopping the Mount Graham development. Fain's end of this operation began with the FBI agent agreeing to ferry Millett and her friend Ilse Asplund to the Earth First! Regional Rendezvous over the Labor Day weekend.
At the rally, FBI agent Fain made many new acquaintances. He seems to have been most impressed by a gentleman who identified himself as "Rain."
As Fain listened, Rain explained that he worked in a pottery shop where he consumed ten to twenty peyote buttons a day. Fain's new friend also described marijuana cultivation conducted by various members of the Rainbow People, an anachronistic tribe found throughout the United States, including southern Arizona.
In a report devoted entirely to Rain, the FBI agent observed that: "It should be noted that Rain was using marijuana and liquor often during his presence at the Earth First! Regional Rendezvous on Mount Graham. Consequently, Rain was not very coherent and not always precise in his chain of thought."
The same cannot be said of Special Agent Fain, who succeeded in recording a precise and coherent description of Rain that concluded: "Generally wears Western garb with a floppy hat; Marine K-Bar knife on his right side and has a leather case containing a flute on his left side."
When it came time to discuss Nancy Morton and Dave Foreman, Special Agent Fain reported his impressions after she "facilitated" the group's decision-making process. Fain noted that Earth First! members sat in a circle and arrived at consensus on the latest stage of their protest.
It was agreed that after Earth First! volunteers identified the damage already created by the telescope project, Foreman would give a speech for the benefit of the media. Then he and others would pledge their lives to stop the bulldozers huddled at the base of the mountain. All in all, the plans of Foreman, Morton and the others in Earth First! were run-of-the-mill, ecological civil disobedience.
As you read through the FBI's records, as you watch the agents and the infiltrators at the Rendezvous at Round River and Mount Graham, it is difficult to understand why they are spying upon the members of Earth First! And then with no warning or context, a document appears in the FBI file that is as troubling as it is mysterious.
Dated August 30, 1988, the one-page report begins: "Owen C. Shackleton Jr., Investigator, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), provided the following information."
Shackleton commented upon an incident of sabotage that occurred at Arizona Public Service Company's Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) on May 15, 1986.
"Shackleton stated that this action was one of two successful acts perpetrated by individuals against United States nuclear plants. Shackleton further advised that if the fourth incoming power line to the PVNGS had been incapacitated, it would have been the responsibility of two diesel generators to maintain the cooling process required by the heated radioactive fuel rods. Shackleton stated that as the PVNGS had recently come `on-line,' the auxiliary power generated by two diesel generators would not have been required to cool the fuel rods. Shackleton cautioned that had the PVNGS been `down' and had the two auxiliary diesel generators been sabotaged or unable to fulfill their auxiliary power requirements, then a `meltdown' would have potentially occurred."
There is nothing in this particular document to link Earth First! with the 1986 incident. And the FBI surveillance at the Rendezvous by Fain would not begin until two years after the Palo Verde vandalism. Nor is there any tie-in between Shackleton's comments and the Prescott contingent of Earth First! But clearly the FBI thinks there is some connection. For God's sake, Shackleton claims that if the moon had been in Aquarius, if just one or two happenstance events had coincided, there would have been a holocaust.
And we are left to wonder: Is it possible that a leader who espouses the benefits of the Stone Age, that his wife who arrives at decisions within the circle of consensus favored by communes in the Sixties, that their followers, some of whom favor floppy Western regalia and flutes sheathed in leather and a diet rich in peyote, that this particular type of dissident could, somehow, trigger a nuclear meltdown that would kill all of us who live in Phoenix?
And if that's true, what the hell happens if a Cessna prop falls out of the sky--they do that once in a while, you know--and strikes one of the Palo Verde transmission lines? Are we all toast?
And if Dave Foreman, Peg Millett, Ilse Asplund, Marc Baker, and Mark Davis were on the path to creating a nuclear meltdown, you can understand why Special Agent Michael Fain of the FBI wanted to send a message to the members of Earth First! to back off.
Yet it remains unclear whether Arizona's radical environmentalists understood the message contained in the headlines that announced the Earth First! bust.
On Memorial Day weekend, a controversial off-road race chewed through the Prescott National Forest over the objections of local environmentalists. As the dirt bikes progressed, they discovered nails and logs had been strewn along their path while signs marking the course had been changed. The family event was monkey-wrenched.
This eco-tage occurred in the very community where the Earth First! trial is scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. Someone isn't getting the FBI's message.
Did the government really expect Stone Age saboteurs to be able to read the headlines?
To be continued
Not everyone at the Earth First! conclave was an FBI informant; some were actually FBI agents.