Activist Redux: Carrying the Earth First! Torch

Dear EarthTalk: What ever happened to the radical environmental activist group Earth First!? Are they still around and what other groups are leading the charge when it comes to so-called “radical environmentalism” these days?

—Betty Jones, Irvine, CA
 dot trans Activist Redux: Carrying the Earth First! Torch

Car bomb injuries, prison terms, and death were among the perils protestors with the Earth First! (EF!) movement faced throughout the 1990s. EF! formed in 1979, in response to what they called an increasingly corporate, compromising and ineffective environmental community. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, small EF! groups throughout the U.S. and other countries took part in protests that may have included road blockades, activists locking themselves to heavy equipment, tree-sitting, destruction of machinery and tree-spiking. Tree-spiking, which was advocated by EF! co-founder Dave Foreman in his book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching%name Activist Redux: Carrying the Earth First! Torch, involves hammering a nail into the trunk of a tree to discourage logging as a result of chain saw destruction. In 1987, California mill worker George Alexander was nearly killed when the bandsaw he was operating was shattered by a tree spike most likely planted by an environmental activist. This led many EF! groups to reject this form of “ecotage” entirely.

shepherd sml 400x267 Activist Redux: Carrying the Earth First! Torch

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the groups on the front lines of radical environmental activism these days. Credit: Stephan Ridgway, FlickrCC.

In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated that they consider eco-terrorists, along with animal rights extremists, among the most serious domestic terrorist threats in the United States today. One group the FBI specifically named was the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), who they consider to be a “loosely-organized movement whose adherents engage in crimes like arson, fire bombings, vandalism, intimidation, assaults, stalking, etc.” ELF, which formed in 1992, received national attention in 1998 after they burned down a Vail Ski Resort in Vail, Colorado that resulted in an estimated $26 million in damages.

Activist or Terrorist?

“Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said. “There’s a clear difference between constitutionally protected advocacy – which is the right of all Americans – and violent criminal activity.”

A study published in 2014 revealed that attacks related to eco-terrorism from 1970 to 2012 reached a peak of 163 incidents a year by 2001, but after 2003, the frequency declined, and by 2012, there were next to none. The decline in attacks coincided with stricter post-9/11 law enforcement policies against acts of eco-terrorism.

Today, groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — while not attempting illegal acts that earn them the label of an FBI domestic terrorist threat — still gain widespread publicity for their bold and aggressive tactics to achieve their campaign goals. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, dispels accusations that they are an eco-terrorist organization, however, stating that they have no basis in fact. Watson has said that Sea Shepherd is not a protest organization, but rather an interventionist organization that intervenes against illegal activities, like the poaching of whales from a whale sanctuary.

“I was invited to give a lecture at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia in August 2009 where one agent remarked that Sea Shepherd walked a very fine line with the law,” Watson detailed on the group’s website. “My answer was, and he did not dispute it, is that there is nothing wrong with walking a fine line as long as the laws are not broken.”