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.
Jacobs left New Mexico an angry man, and stayed that way. He wasn't a crusader for causes then, but he is now. In fact, you could say the ranchers helped Lynn Jacobs, ex-drifter, ex-soldier, ex-dropout, find his true calling.
Jacobs heads the antigrazing movement for Earth First! from his home in Tucson. Like the group's founding spirits, Edward Abbey and Dave Foreman, he wields a mean pen and writes from the gut. He is so relentless, and absolute, in his opposition to grazing on public lands, that he once spent $30,000 of his own money to write and publish a 48-page paper denouncing the practice.
Grazing, for years a sore spot with western environmentalists, is rapidly rising to number one on the environmentalists' national hit list. Ranching, the West's most romantic industry, is under frontal assault from a host of mainstream and radical groups. Of all its critics, the industry says Earth First! is the most extreme, and the scariest.
State livestock authorities agree. They suspect Earth First! adherents are responsible for as many as three dozen incidents of cattle-killing and other vandalism within the past eighteen months, making Arizona ranchers among the hardest-hit since law enforcement authorities throughout the West began keeping track of incidents bearing "signature" evidence of the group's involvement.
Unlike the actions directed at nuclear and logging targets, however, no one associated with Earth First! has ever been charged with vandalizing, or "monkeywrenching," a ranching operation. And sympathetic environmentalists scoff at the state's claims, saying they have yet to be proven. "A lot of us think their efforts to get ranchers to report all this so-called ecotage is aimed at setting up Earth First! for a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation)," says Joni Bosh of Phoenix, a member of the Sierra Club's national board of directors.
Nevertheless, Earth First! is the only group to produce a how-to manual for people who want to engage in politically motivated vandalism, including a chapter on overgrazing. "The livestock industry has probably done more basic ecological damage to the western United States than has any other single agent," Foreman states in his field guide to monkeywrenching. He goes on to say that ranches are vulnerable to ecotage because they usually are remote and because "some of the most damaging livestock operations are on a precarious financial basis where enough losses from ecotage can eliminate the grazing problem."
In January 1989, arsonists later claiming to be Earth First! members set fire to the Dixon, California, Livestock Auction Yard, causing $250,000 in damages. In March, vandals caused extensive damage to a Utah ranch and killed 21 head of cattle, leaving behind signs with Earth First!'s antigrazing slogan, "Cattle Free by '93." (No one has been arrested for those crimes, and Earth First! leaders deny responsibility, saying whoever committed them was "confused" about the group's philosophy.)
The man who tallies suspected Earth First! attacks against Arizona ranches is Ron Young, a former Department of Public Safety intelligence officer now with the state Livestock Board. Young says recent incidents include sabotage of windmills, cutting fences in multiple places, and the shooting of two expensive breeding bulls (usually only one or two members of a herd are bulls, making the odds of accidental shooting small).
Young says he only puts the "Earth First!" label on incidents that conform closely to the directions spelled out in Foreman's book and have other evidence, such as signs or stickers, linking the perpetrators to the group. "There are lots more incidents that we suspect, based on the way they were done, but where someone didn't leave an `Earth First!' sticker on their handiwork," Young says.
Among the incidents considered ambiguous is a death threat against Pamela Neal, former head of the Arizona Cattlegrowers Association. Neal (no relation to Troy and Judy Neal) says last year, shortly after she testified against proposed wilderness legislation, an anonymous caller told her "You are going to get shot." No arrests have been made.
Young sees parallels between Earth First! and groups such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. "The leaders make the disclaimer `We don't actually advocate doing this,' but their whole thrust is that," he says. "They talk about creating warriors; their rhetoric, the entire context is saturated with images of violence. A lot of the people attracted to these kinds of groups don't need that much of a push to get into illegal activities."
In 1973, Young investigated the murder of an Apache County lawman by members of the American Indian Movement. "There are a lot of similarities between AIM leaders and those in Earth First!," he says. "The leaders seem to have their own agendas and seem to me to be very self-serving. Is the motive financial? Is it ego--`This is my chance to be somebody'? I'm not sure.
"I don't think they give a damn about people's reasons for joining as long as they further the agenda of the leaders," Young says. "We are urging ranchers to report incidents and to take these people seriously."
Young isn't the only one who's seen a decidedly antisocial tinge to Earth First!'s philosophy. For instance, when AIDS hit the scene, the Earth First! journal carried on a lively debate about whether it was nature's way of solving overpopulation. A recent, signed letter to the editor urges readers to abort all fetuses. "Conception is murder!" the writer concludes. By Earth First! standards, Lynn Jacobs' views are moderate.
"Earth First! believes we're headed for a catastrophic period where we humans will kill ourselves off, and the best we can do is to save what we can for the animals that will survive," Jacobs explains. "They think it's irresponsible to the planet for people to have children. That's where I differ.
"I think we'll survive, but probably in greatly reduced numbers," he says. "We humans have got to go back to living more naturally and balance that with efforts to save the planet."
"I never saw myself as a leader," Jacobs says. "I just kind of fell into it."
But he figures if more people had seen the side of western ranching he knows, they'd be a lot less enchanted with the romance of the Old West. And a lot more willing to take a hard look at the damage grazing does to the land.
JACOBS SAYS HE WASN'T really on a crusade in those days when he tried to get cattle off his part of the Gila National Forest. He just wanted to homestead in peace, out in the country, like he'd always dreamed of doing.
For Jacobs, who turns forty in a few weeks, homesteading meant living intimately with a natural world that had always been his friend. Nature was his respite during a lonely, and painful, childhood. It was his anchor through years of wandering and drug-soaked self-discovery. His love for the land sustained him when people failed him, as they often did.
"The best thing I can remember about my childhood is the time I spent in nature," he says. "I can't remember anything else good about childhood."
Jacobs grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Redlands. His father was a "very conservative" newspaper reporter who sometimes drank too much; his mother turned to religion for consolation. When he was six, his mother called "the men in white coats" to take away his father, he says.
"After my parents split up, my mom took out her bitterness and frustration towards my dad on me," Jacobs says. "I grew up feeling like the black sheep; my brother and sisters would side with my mom, in order to stay in her good graces, and she likened me more like my dad. I survived, but I was definitely scarred by it. Of course, that was in the Fifties and Sixties so nobody talked about child abuse, emotional or physical; there was no one to talk to.
"In school, I had trouble relating to people, trying to figure out why I was there or what it was all about," he says. "I was very patriotic, but more in a personal than a political way. I think it was a source of self-esteem for me to identify strongly with my country, my town, my school. I didn't have the confidence to join any groups, it was more like `My country's great and the other guys are fucked.' Not real sophisticated.
"I didn't participate in any school activities, didn't have any hobbies," he says.
Instead, he would explore the chaparral-covered canyons behind his home and find peace there. Without realizing it, he was becoming a naturalist in the tradition of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau--self-taught, instinctive, drawn by emotion rather than scholarly interest. "In high school, I was afraid of people; nature seemed more friendly," Jacobs says. "Of course, I know better now, but that's how it seemed to me then."
After high school, he hit the road in search of answers. "I wasn't happy as a person, didn't see much future for myself," he says. "When I smoked my first joint, my mind started really changing. I started doing self-examination through psychedelics, and I came to understand how my childhood had affected my outlook."
As he began to emerge from his past, he returned to the Redlands area to attend college, concentrating on the natural sciences. However, the Vietnam War was at its height, and he got drafted midway through college. Jacobs entered the army, a longhaired kid expecting to be sent to Vietnam like so many young men around him.
Instead, while battle scenes and bloody soldiers filled the television screen every night, Jacobs was assigned to a ceremonial battalion near Washington, D.C. His job was to stand guard, dressed to perfection, next to the red carpet when foreign dignitaries landed. It was the perfect gig for a person with a growing sense of the absurd.
"It was the most bizarre trip for a person on psychedelics," he says. "There were huge antiwar demonstrations going on in the same area, and we'd all go over and join that when we were off duty."
The assignment demanded very little, but he nevertheless rubbed the brass, so to speak, the wrong way. "They didn't like my attitude, so they demoted me and sent me to be a clerk-typist in the internal intelligence division," he says. "I got to see all the colonels busted for sodomy, and all that stuff."
Absurdism squared. Jacobs ended his army days at a remote outpost in America's heartland, where he'd been sent with other grunts caught toking up. "I guess they figured there'd be no bad influences in the middle of Kansas," he says.
After his short army career, Jacobs returned to college in California. But the burgeoning counterculture seemed to hold more answers than his books, and he spent increasing amounts of time hitchhiking around the West and doing drugs, he says. He also acquired a dog, a quiet little basenji that grew to be his best friend until its violent death years later in New Mexico.
Somewhere in all of that, he married an older woman with two children and moved to Tucson, but the marriage lasted barely six months and was an embittering experience. "She tried to take me for everything I had," Jacobs says.
Jacobs and his dog drifted back to California where he embarked on a new relationship, this time with a woman who shared his alienation from the mainstream. "She grew up in Redlands, too, and was also kind of rootless," he says. Both felt they had glimpsed corruption at the heart of the American dream and wanted nothing more to do with it. They saw nature as not just an alternative but a means to salvation.
The couple decided to try homesteading and bought some pristine land in northern California with money Jacobs says he inherited. They built a one-room adobe house, planted a garden and used a hand pump to draw well water. Their first son, Sky, was born there. "It was wonderful," Jacobs says. "I wish I lived that way now."
But the dream soured quickly. "The county health department started harassing us because we had no electricity, and they started raising taxes, doubling them, every year," Jacobs says. "We decided it wouldn't be long before the place was overdeveloped, so we got out the maps again."
They chose southwestern New Mexico and bought a small parcel of private land surrounded by national forest land near Silver City. They built another little adobe house, planted a garden and fruit trees, and installed a well with a windmill. Their second son, Dusty, was born.
But the ranching going on around them made their way of life impossible, Jacobs says. "I had run-ins with the cowboys as soon as we got there because I didn't appreciate what they were doing to the land," he says. "My awareness of grazing, and what it does to the land, had been growing slowly through all the years I spent traveling and getting out on the land.
"Over time, everywhere I'd go, it was the same story," Jacobs says. "Seventy percent of the land is in ranching. It's like a medieval situation where you have these land-controlling aristocracies and everybody else is just a peasant, a servant. Most people don't really realize that when they drive out in the country and see a few cows and, of course, the ever-present fences lining both sides of the road.
"You're born into this situation where the rancher is on top of the social pyramid," he says. "There's a lot of pressure on people in rural areas to accept the ranchers and cowboys as paragons. Generally, they're quite bigoted in their attitudes, not just towards minorities, but towards anyone with new ideas."
Once he became surrounded by ranchers, Jacobs says he quickly concluded that the law is arranged to benefit them. "It was up to me, not the rancher, to build a fence if I didn't want his cattle on my land," Jacobs says. "The cattle came in and ate all our garden, our fruit trees. When I tried to talk to the rancher about it, his attitude was `If you don't like it, move back to the city.'"
Jacobs talked to other private landowners inside the forest, people who had tiny parcels with summer vacation homes on them and found they were fed up, too. So Jacobs, the skeptical dropout, decided to try solving the problem by democratic means. He thought if he could prove a majority of landowners supported him, the forest service would grant his request to ban cattle from the grazing allotment surrounding the private "in-holdings."
Instead, he says he became the target in a campaign of intimidation by the ranchers that ended in the killing of his dog. Jacobs had no trouble collecting signatures from the summer residents, but the national forest officials refused to act.
Most veteran activists, no matter what the issue, say they fail more than 50 percent of the time. That's the democratic way. But Jacobs wasn't a Thirties-style social reformer; he was a man who'd grown up cynical and survived in spite of, not because of, the system. Frustrated and infuriated, Jacobs admits now that he turned to monkeywrenching--vandalism with a message.
And was immediately beset by the collective power of local and state law enforcement agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service. "When the rancher's cows broke through my fence and ate up all the food we were growing, it wasn't his responsibility because my fence didn't meet forest service regulations," Jacobs recalled. "But when one of his cows gets shot, the county sheriff, highway patrol, forest service and everybody else are all over the place investigating it."
One final incident illuminated how local authorities felt about the counterculture newcomers. One night not long after the death of the dog, Jacobs' closest friend, a "burned-out Hollywood hippie" fighting a losing battle with alcohol, reached the end of the line and turned a gun on himself.
Jacobs, his wife and the man's wife were overcome by shock and grief as they waited for the county sheriff's department to answer their call. "When the deputies arrived, they looked around a little and noticed he had a waterbed and proceeded to sit down and bounce on it, commenting to themselves about it as if they had forgotten about my friend laying there on the floor with a bullet in his brain," Jacobs says.
Jacobs moved his family to Arizona and made one more stab at homesteading, on land near Cornville in the Verde Valley, before his marriage began to unravel under the pressure of unresolved emotional and psychological problems.
At the same time, he began to compile a long manuscript, later titled "Save Our Public Lands," from essays he'd written during his years of travel. The essays were sometimes angry, sometimes poignant, often rambling and, at other times, witheringly pointed. He researched facts about the cattle industry to bolster the emotionalism of his arguments against grazing.
Jacobs, after years of searching, finally knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. In 1985, he laid out the manuscript like a newspaper and paid $30,000 to have 100,000 copies of it printed and distributed. He did much of the distribution himself, taking bundles of copies with him wherever he traveled through the Southwest.
Impressed with his passionate commitment, Earth First! leaders in Tucson asked Jacobs to head the group's "Cattle Free by '93" campaign. He also maintains a separate project, called "Save Our Public Lands," aimed at banning all grazing from public lands, and is writing a book. "I think the reason more people are not involved is because they don't realize what is going on," Jacobs says. "I've seen buffalo ranches with the same problems as cattle ranches. It happens because you're trying to manage the land for a monoculture. The only answer is to return it to a natural state."
Jacobs says that is his goal for himself and his two sons, ages twelve and fourteen. "They've always been raised counterculture," he says. "I home-school my kids here so they aren't so strongly exposed to the influences they would be in school. They aren't as sucked in by the mainstream culture; they can watch TV and know half of what they are seeing is bullshit."
Currently, the family lives in a mobile home on the fringes of southwest Tucson, though Jacobs yearns to find a place deeper in the wild. "I want to balance my activism with natural living," he says. "I'm still struggling to find that balance."
Jacobs is beginning to sound as mellow as a Sierra Clubber curled up with this month's issue of Smithsonian magazine until the subject of grazing reform comes up. "Cattle raising is like growing bananas in Minnesota," he says, his voice rising in irritation. "How are you going to justify it when it's not inherently justifiable? Cattle are justifiable where cows normally live, in Eurasia.
"I'm basically into educating people," Jacobs says of his activities now. "I quit monkeywrenching." Yet he steps gingerly around questions about his group's flirtation with violence, saying that "society has got a very narrow definition of violence."
If the antiwar movement demonstrated anything, it is that Americans get much more upset about damaged private property than they do at the sight of a police baton upside a kid's head. But Jacobs is unwilling to concede that ecotage damages his own efforts to sway public opinion.
"What the public thinks of monkeywrenching depends on how much they understand of why it's being done," he says. "How can you get around this powerful establishment and do what needs to be done to protect the Earth when the whole system is structured so you can't be effective?
"What happened to Darryl and Judy should be recognized as a reflection on the violence that's being done to the Earth, but it seems to be rubbing off on Earth First! instead," Jacobs says of the Oakland bombing. "The whole reaction [by police and the media] to it is geared wrong.
"They're just gentle people," he says. "I can't imagine they would have a bomb for any reason. I could see them pouring sand into a bulldozer crankcase, but not a bomb."
Words like "gentle" echo eerily in the aftermath of what happened to Jacobs' two friends; the prospect of their martyrdom recedes before the insistent image of a Greenwich Village townhouse in which a misapplied electrical wire ended the lives of a group of Weathermen, martyrs in another holy war, nearly two decades ago.
The group coined the phrase "ecotage" to describe acts of vandalism in the cause of environmental protection.
Pullquotes for jump pages
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.
"The livestock industry has probably done more basic ecological damage to the western United States than has any other single agent."
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"In high school, I was afraid of people, nature seemed more friendly."
"The cattle came in and ate all our garden, our fruit trees. When I tried to talk to the rancher about it, his attitude was `If you don't like it, move back to the city.'"
"Cattle are justifiable where cows normally live, in Eurasia.