Advocates “Monkeywrenching”

With his book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, Dave Foreman established guidelines for acts of sabotage employed in defense of the environment.

Summary of Event

Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang centers on the real-life damming of the Colorado River at Glen Canyon but is otherwise a fictional account of a group of wilderness lovers turned radicals. Their attempts to preserve the wilderness by any means necessary includes disabling bulldozers, burning billboards, and blowing up Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon Dam Dave Foreman, Mike Roselle, and Howie Wolke, among others, brought the actions of the novel’s characters to life by forming a “monkeywrenching” gang of their own and calling the group Earth First! Earth First!
Ecodefense (Foreman)
Ecological sabotage
Environmental activism
[kw]Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching” (1985)
[kw]Advocates “Monkeywrenching”, Ecodefense (1985)
[kw]”Monkeywrenching”, Ecodefense Advocates (1985)
Ecodefense (Foreman)
Ecological sabotage
Environmental activism
[g]North America;1985: Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”[05640]
[g]United States;1985: Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”[05640]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1985: Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”[05640]
[c]Environmental issues;1985: Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”[05640]
Foreman, Dave
Roselle, Mike
Abbey, Edward
Wolke, Howie
Haywood, Bill

In his foreword to Foreman’s Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, Abbey likens monkeywrenching to a man’s defending his property against invasion, appropriation, and destruction. Both Abbey and Foreman argue that the American wilderness is undergoing a similar assault at the hands of ranchers, loggers, miners, oil drillers, and their supporting industries. Radical environmentalists have undertaken the task of defending the land against such assaults. Ecodefense is Foreman’s attempt to provide efficiency and safety guidelines for those engaging in one particular method of defense, monkeywrenching.

As a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, Foreman had spent his early career working for conservation through compromise with the government, ranching communities, and industry. By 1980, it had become clear to him that such compromise tactics were not effective in protecting the land. The mainstream approach of working within the political system proved to be slow and ineffective, frequently permitting crimes of environmental destruction to occur. The aim of Earth First! in general, and of monkeywrenching in particular, was to prevent or at least forestall such destruction by stopping or hindering the criminal that is, the machine.

As a new radical environmental group, Earth First! was dedicated simply to the principle that, in any decision, consideration for the health of the earth must come first; in living out this principle, the group should make no compromise in the earth’s defense. Earth First! made militance a cardinal part of its tactics, which included guerrilla theater, media stunts, civil disobedience, and, unofficially, “ecotage” acts of sabotage aimed at protecting the environment. Also known as monkeywrenching, ecotage included such activities as destroying bulldozers and road-building equipment on public lands, pulling up surveyors’ stakes, cutting or burning down billboards, destroying animal traps, and, most notoriously, “spiking” trees hammering large nails that can damage saw blades into trees to prevent their being cut and milled. Tree spiking

Earth First! “ecoteurs” embarked on a loosely organized, although strategic, campaign of resistance to stop timber cutting, road building, overgrazing, oil and gas exploration, mining, dam building, construction of power lines, off-road vehicle use, animal trapping, ski area development, and other forms of wilderness destruction. According to Earth First! members, these activities, either individually or in concert, destroy ecosystems by dividing areas of land into small fragments that are unable to sustain indigenous wildlife.

In order to ensure the success of the organization’s mission, Foreman laid out clear principles for monkeywrenching, which included the following: Monkeywrenching is nonviolent and should minimize the possibility of harm to any living thing while destroying machinery and tools. Because of the risk of infiltration of a group and arrest, there can be no central direction or organization to monkeywrenching it is an individual action. Monkeywrenching is deliberate, not erratic and senseless, vandalism; each act has a specific time, place, and purpose. Nonviolent civil disobedience actions and delicate political negotiations are inappropriate arenas for monkeywrenching. Monkeywrenching activities should be diverse and widely dispersed in order to interrupt all types of industrial destruction. Monkeywrenching is not a revolutionary strategy aimed at overthrowing any political system; rather, it is an attempt to keep industry out of natural areas. Monkeywrenching is fun and simple; it avoids the use of elaborate operations, explosives, and firearms. Finally, monkeywrenching is deliberate and ethical, not cavalier, in its attempts to protect life and defend the earth.

The goals of monkeywrenching are to block environmentally destructive projects, to increase the costs of such projects and thereby make them economically unattractive, and to raise public awareness of the devastation of biological diversity occurring throughout the world. Thoughtful ecotage is employed when all other methods are ineffective. When the constitutional political process and nonviolent civil disobedience fail, ecotage becomes necessary as the only remaining option. Monkeywrenchers must carefully weigh the possibility of harm from any ecotage activity and must act to ensure that no human beings are hurt. Warning against a descent into thoughtless vandalism, Foremand included suggestions for safety throughout Ecodefense, such as the need for clear, direct warnings about tree spikings.

Ecodefense gives detailed instructions for destroying almost anything used to ruin wild places. It also discusses jamming locks, making smoke bombs, engaging in sabotage in urban environments, protecting oneself against discovery and capture, and a legal style of monkeywrenching called “paper monkeywrenching,” which entails filing appeals and similar legal maneuvering to forestall or prevent environmental destruction. Foreman’s goal was to provide a methodology and rationale for monkeywrenching, an ethical context within which monkeywrenchers could operate, and a strategy to engage public sympathy for acts widely seen as needlessly destructive, violent, and potentially dangerous.

Ecodefense armed activists with tools and ideas they could use to thwart the injustices committed by federal land-managing agencies and resource-extraction industries against wild nature. The volume is considered to be the definitive manual for ethical monkeywrenching, although Foreman emphasizes throughout that he is neither promoting nor discouraging ecotage and that he is not speaking for Earth First! or the radical environmental movement. The publication of Ecodefense added legitimacy and focus to the activities of ecoteurs, which had previously been reported as mindless vandalism.


Although ecotage was practiced by a small number of environmentalists before 1980, it received limited attention before the emergence of Earth First! Ecodefense found a substantial cult following that quickly spread across the United States (including among various North American Indian tribes) to Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Europe. Acts of monkeywrenching, especially tree spiking, escalated after the manual’s publication, as did media coverage of such actions.

One result of the publication of Ecodefense and the media attention given to Foreman and monkeywrenching was that Earth First! was labeled a terrorist group by many different factions. This labeling led Foreman to fine-tune the monkeywrenching strategies promulgated in his manual and to emphasize the need for monkeywrenchers to keep a low profile, especially by keeping copies of Ecodefense and environmental activist emblems out of sight, and to avoid media attention. As the threat of infiltration by informants or agents provocateurs increased, it became more important than ever to minimize the visibility of those objects and activities that might draw attention to monkeywrenchers or jeopardize their operations. Ecoteurs also had to be more careful not to engage in behaviors and actions that would alienate potential supporters.

Radical environmental activism and monkeywrenching tactics brought about a tremendous backlash from timber cutters, ranchers, oil drillers and developers, the nuclear power industry, and other antienvironmentalist corporations that stood to lose the most as a result of the movement. In addition to legitimate efforts to stem the movement’s influence, environmental activists reported enough specific examples of violence targeted against them offices trashed, cars smashed, homes entered, lives threatened, two Earth First! workers firebombed in California to leave no doubt that some kind of collective campaign was being waged against the movement. Speculation about the possible involvement of government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in this backlash abounded. The average ecotage incident costs approximately $60,000 in equipment loss and downtime, and law-enforcement and insurance costs drive that figure higher.

U.S. Forest Service supervisor Michael Kerrick Kerrick, Michael denounced Ecodefense at a congressional hearing and threatened to close the entire national forest logging area to unauthorized entry if the ecotage described in the book continued to take place. Shortly thereafter, Kerrick introduced a controversial and legally dubious policy of closing national forests to the public whenever environmental protests were expected.

As a result of the only known injury from tree spiking (in which a band saw struck an embedded spike and broke, injuring a mill worker), this activity became almost synonymous with Earth First! and became symbolic of its terroristic activities. Even some Earth First! activists denounced monkeywrenching and called on environmentalists to work within the system. Although the incident was later determined to have resulted in part from problems with the mill’s safety policy, it led Foreman to reconsider the safety, ethicality, and efficacy of tree spiking. Ecodefense deals with spiking in detail and emphasizes its use only as a last resort.

Also as a result of the injury incident, Senator James McClure McClure, James of Idaho attached to the 1988 omnibus drug bill a rider that categorized tree spiking as a felony. The penalties of jail time and the steep fine that the charge carried indicated that the use of ecotage as a tactic and symbol for defense of natural diversity was meeting with increasingly dangerous resistance. In this way, Ecodefense changed the way public lands policy was made; monkeywrenching became a new factor in environmental policy.

In Ecodefense, Foreman draws frequent parallels to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement, radicals of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and Nelson Mandela and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa when countering the argument that monkeywrenching threatens the environmental movement by giving it a bad name. Conservation moderates, radical purists, and the antienvironmentalist lobby argue that rocking the boat by making excessive demands and using confrontational tactics overturns previous advances made and destroys sympathy toward the cause. One major accomplishment of Earth First! and ecotage, however, was the expansion of the spectrum of environmental activism to the point that organizations once perceived as extremist came to be perceived as moderate.

Through ecotage and civil disobedience, Earth First! focused public attention on environmental issues, often denouncing larger, more moderate, organizations for not taking strong stands. These organizations, in turn, denounced the confrontational activities of the radicals but were able to use their financial resources to take environmental issues to Congress or to the courts with the impetus and public support that the radicals generated.

Earth First! activists became the targets of many harassment tactics: obvious surveillance, intimidation, anonymous letters, phony leaflets, telephone threats, police brutality, and unfounded arrests. Primarily because Foreman had written Ecodefense, the FBI targeted Earth First! members as terrorists whose activities threaten national security and finally arrested Foreman and three others on felony conspiracy charges. The prosecution wanted Foreman to recant, to disavow monkeywrenching, and to endorse the FBI’s actions. Foreman pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge, which was to be reduced to a misdemeanor charge after five years. He agreed to stop advocating monkeywrenching, but he refused to disavow the tactic or to endorse the FBI’s actions.

Although Dave Foreman left Earth First! in 1990 and the group itself splintered into several rival factions, radical environmentalists came to exert a growing influence on public-lands decisions and environmental policy, essentially setting the national environmental agenda. By following the guidelines set forth in Ecodefense, radical environmentalists focused public attention on environmental issues, challenged the traditional moral systems of Western and Christian civilization, and raised the stakes for those fighting on both sides of the environmental war. Ecodefense (Foreman)
Ecological sabotage
Environmental activism

Further Reading

  • Abbey, Edward. The Monkey Wrench Gang. 1975. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Riotous fictional adventure is purported to be based on historical fact. Provides a good introduction to Foreman’s monkeywrenching philosophy.
  • Best, Steven, and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2006. Collection of essays by a wide range of contributors addresses various aspects of the radical environmental movement. Coedited by a member of Earth First!
  • Foreman, Dave. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Crown, 1991. Presents Foreman’s insightful reflections on his philosophy, his influences, and his role in Earth First! Includes index.
  • _______. Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the Twenty-First Century. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. Details the impacts of humans on the survival of species around the world and proposes approaches that could avert what Foreman describes as the global extinction crisis. Includes maps and index.
  • _______, ed. Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. 3d ed. Chico, Calif.: Abbzug Press, 1993. Revised edition of Foreman’s original manual continues as the first edition did in attempting to justify environmental sabotage by establishing guidelines within which “eco-warriors” should practice effective, ethical, and safe monkeywrenching.
  • Manes, Christopher. Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Presents a factual account of the origins and activities of radical environmentalism and an unobjective, impassioned interpretation of the movement’s significance.
  • Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Overview of the modern environmental movement is divided into chapters according to changing political currents. Includes a particularly informative time line that shows the founding of environmental organizations, the occurrence of notable events, and the enactment or failure of key pieces of legislation.
  • Scarce, Rik. Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement. Updated ed. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2006. Provides a fairly objective explanation of the eco-warrior philosophy and an account of participants in the movement, their activities, and the movement’s future prospects. Includes extensive discussion of Earth First!
  • Zakin, Susan. Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. 1993. Reprint. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Presents a somewhat biased but thorough account of the rise of Earth First! Many personal details and an informal anecdotal style make this highly entertaining as well as informative.

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