Foreman Founds Earth First! Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The radical environmental group Earth First! was established in response to the ineffective efforts by the environmental community to work within the mainstream political system. Earth First!’s founders sought to reclaim wilderness.

Summary of Event

The founding of Earth First! in April, 1980, as a radical environmental organization was a direct result of what a small group of conservationists saw as the ineffectiveness of working within the mainstream political system. In January, 1979, Dave Foreman was working for the Wilderness Society as a conservation lobbyist and issues coordinator in Washington, D.C. On the congressional agenda at that time was the second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II), a Forest Service study undertaken to determine which national forestlands should be protected in their natural condition. Disappointed over the decision to protect only 15 million of the 80 million acres of roadless undeveloped land left in the 190 million acres of national forests, Foreman left his position in Washington and returned to New Mexico as the Wilderness Society’s Southwest representative. Earth First!;founding Environmental organizations Environmental activism;Earth First! [kw]Foreman Founds Earth First! (Apr., 1980) [kw]Founds Earth First!, Foreman (Apr., 1980) [kw]Earth First!, Foreman Founds (Apr., 1980) Earth First!;founding Environmental organizations Environmental activism;Earth First! [g]North America;Apr., 1980: Foreman Founds Earth First![04130] [g]Mexico;Apr., 1980: Foreman Founds Earth First![04130] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr., 1980: Foreman Founds Earth First![04130] [c]Environmental issues;Apr., 1980: Foreman Founds Earth First![04130] Foreman, Dave Wolke, Howie Roselle, Mike Koehler, Bart Kezar, Ron Abbey, Edward Watt, James G. Carson, Rachel Leopold, Aldo

There, too, he found reason for particular concern, as the Bureau of Land Management Bureau of Land Management, U.S. (BLM), acting as the public-lands steward in the West, was doing a decidedly poor job of controlling, or even addressing, the serious livestock overgrazing problem that was causing erosion and destruction of wildlife habitat. Mainstream conservation societies, furthermore, were not calling enough attention to the BLM oversight. Foreman believed that major national organizations were becoming less and less responsive to grassroots demands for more rapid change in public policy, too bureaucratized and centralized, too shallow in ideology, and too quick to compromise, settling for reforms in government policy without seeking changes in society’s basic anthropocentric culture. Foreman saw this culture as lethal to the ecology that it depended on, and the radical environmental movement was essentially a response to this precarious existential condition.

Foreman had spent his early career working for conservation through compromise with the government, ranching communities, and industry. A pivotal event in 1980 made it clear to Foreman that compromise tactics were not doing an effective job of protecting the land. In Moab, Utah, a local county commission sent a bulldozer into an area the BLM had identified as a possible wilderness designation site. The bulldozer incident helped to set off what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, Sagebrush Rebellion incited and encouraged by Interior Secretary James G. Watt, in which ranchers and various chambers of commerce set out to claim public lands for the states and for eventual transfer to private hands. The BLM did nothing to stop this incursion, which resulted in the loss of many more acres of undeveloped wilderness.

Disgruntled but not defeated, Dave Foreman and a group of conservationist friends, including Howie Wolke, Bart Koehler, Ron Kezar, and Mike Roselle, made a wilderness trek to Pinacate Desert in northern Mexico. There, around a campfire, the new radical conservation movement was born. The movement was dubbed Earth First! by Foreman and was given its slogan “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth” and its clenched-fist logo by Roselle. In May, 1980, Foreman resigned his position with the Wilderness Society.

A key to understanding the goals of Earth First! lies in recognizing what the group believed were the real problems facing the planet. These problems included world population growth; destruction of tropical forests; oil pollution of the oceans; acid rain; carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere; destruction of indigenous peoples, species, and natural habitats; unchecked industrialization; nuclear proliferation; and toxic wastes. To narrow the scope, Earth First! founders focused primarily on the United States and wilderness preservation. They delineated fifteen specific activities, carried out chiefly by ranchers, big industry, and consequently the government, against which the organization would battle in order to return as much land as possible to the wild. These activities were road building, logging, grazing, mining, energy extraction, damming and other water developments, power-line and pipeline-corridor construction, irresponsible hunting, eradication of native species, introduction of exotic species, suppression of naturally occurring wildfire, the use of off-road vehicles, industrial tourism, wilderness recreation, and poor wildlife management. Earth First! believed that, either individually or in concert, these activities destroyed ecosystems by dividing them into small fragments of land unable to sustain indigenous wildlife.

Foreman and the other founding members of Earth First! set out to reinhabit this misused land and reclaim it for the wilderness. They were guided by a comprehensive set of principles: The group placed the planet first in all decisions, even ahead of human welfare if necessary; it refused to use humans as the measure by which to value other species; it embraced the philosophy of deep ecology Deep ecology —that is, that Earth itself is a living organism possessing intrinsic value worthy of protection; it recognized that wilderness, rather than civilization, is the real world; it recognized that the world is overpopulated; it maintained skepticism toward progress and technology; it refused to accept rationality as the only way of thinking; it expressed indifference to gaining credibility with those in power; it made an effort to transcend the typical political classifications of left wing, right wing, and moderate; it refused to exempt any individual or group from blame for the destruction of Earth; it asserted a willingness to permit a member’s actions to set the finer points of that member’s philosophy; it admitted that Earth First! members, too, must change their lifestyles in order to live in harmony with natural diversity; it made a commitment to maintaining a sense of humor; it acknowledged that humans are animals; it accepted monkeywrenching Monkeywrenching Ecological sabotage (sabotage) as a legitimate tool for the preservation of natural diversity; and it acknowledged that Earth First! is a warrior society.

Acting within this framework, the Earth First! platform was to preserve one major wilderness area in every ecosystem in the United States. It was not enough to stop development; Earth First! wanted to roll development back by identifying key areas within which to work, closing roads and removing developments from the chosen areas, and then reintroducing wildlife.


During the presidential administrations of Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, a certain amount of U.S. government support for proenvironment policy came to be expected. This support was exemplified by The Global 2000 Report to the President, Global 2000 Report to the President, The (Council on Environmental Quality)[Global Two Thousand Report] a call for environmental action that was presented to Carter by the Council on Environmental Quality in the summer of 1980. However, with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald the following January, the report and its recommendations were all but buried, and most environmental progress and proposed legislation were halted. The failed promise of the Carter years set the stage for the reassertion of the military-industrial complex in the Reagan era.

The stage had also been set for the backlash emergence of grassroots power. Earth First! was greeted with a wellspring of support from the more radical factions of the environmental movement, which viewed the mainstream conservation organizations as essentially useless because of their official policy of cooperation with the government.

With no national staff, bylaws, formal incorporation, or membership, Earth First! engaged in media stunts, civil disobedience, and “ecotage” (environmental sabotage) to draw attention to its cause of reclaiming the wilderness and protecting biological diversity. The national debut of Earth First! occurred on March 21, 1981, at the Glen Canyon Dam, Glen Canyon Dam the 1963 construction of which was seen as the quintessential symbol of both an industrial society gone awry and the destruction of nature. With the support of Edward Abbey, whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang Monkey Wrench Gang, The (Abbey) centered on the damming of the canyon, Earth First! created the illusion of cracking the dam by unfurling a three hundred-foot sheet of black plastic down the side of the dam. This stunt was met with applause and rallying chants from attendant activists, locals, and the media. Earth First! had propelled itself into the public eye.

Earth First!’s radical stance, however, brought about a backlash of its own. A countermovement of antienvironmentalism, Antienvironmentalism Environmental awareness;backlash headed primarily by the timber and agriculture industries, gained momentum quickly. One such group satirically called itself The People First! and focused on exposing the environmental movement as unreasonable, extremist, and based on lies. Watt publicly advocated vigilante-style violence against environmental activists. Earth First! activists were the objects of many harassment tactics: obvious surveillance, intimidation, anonymous letters, phony leaflets, telephone threats, police overreaction and brutality, and unfounded arrests. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation;Earth First! (FBI) had targeted Earth First! as a terrorist group that threatened national security and, in 1989, finally arrested Foreman and three others on felony conspiracy charges. None of these maneuvers, however, managed to derail the environmental movement. In fact, by the next decade, the need for environmental protection was accepted as necessary and urgent by communities and political factions around the globe.

By writing letters, by taking legal action against lawbreaking industries, ranchers, and government agencies, by drafting proposals and presenting them to Congress, by providing a forum for environmental issues in the Earth First! Journal, and by performing media stunts and ecotage, Earth First! accomplished much of what it initially set out to do. Between 1980 and 1990, it succeeded in stopping several potentially damaging projects, such as the construction of the Bald Mountain logging road in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest (a result of the RARE II lawsuit). By 1990, Earth First! had grown to include more than seventy-five chapters in twenty-four states, Mexico, and Canada, with Australia using Earth First! as a model for its own radical movement. Later, its activities spread throughout the world, as Earth First! organizations formed in Australia and various European countries. Earth First! influenced and strengthened the environmental movement by demanding more action more quickly than most mainstream organizations were willing to do. It was the first group to demand a complete halt to the logging of old-growth forests, thereby inspiring public demonstrations, industry-sponsored action, and conservation organizations’ support to slow the destruction of ancient and tropical rain forests. Earth First! shifted the focus of environmental protection from scenery and recreation to an ecological focus on biological diversity. Earth First! mobilized support for the big wilderness and for the defense of biodiversity and challenged the larger organizations to take bolder actions, retaining its passion and humor all the while.

Although Dave Foreman left Earth First! in 1990 and the group itself splintered into several rival factions, radical environmentalists still exert a growing influence on public-lands decisions and environmental policy, essentially setting the national environmental agenda. Earth First! focused public attention on environmental issues and raised the stakes for those fighting on both sides of the debates concerning the environment. Earth First!;founding Environmental organizations Environmental activism;Earth First!

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devall, Bill. “Deep Ecology and Radical Environmentalism.” In American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990, edited by Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1992. An eleven-page essay that defines the principles of and the relationship between deep ecology and radical environmentalism. Also describes the environmental countermovement and the consequent evolution of radical environmentalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foreman, Dave. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991. An insightful reflection on Foreman’s philosophy, his influences, and his role in Earth First!
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manes, Christopher. Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. A factual account of the origins and activities of radical environmentalism, but a biased, impassioned interpretation of the movement’s significance. Not for those readers unsympathetic to radicalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norton, Bryan G. Toward Unity Among Environmentalists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Does not discuss the creation of Earth First! specifically but provides a clear and concise overview of the philosophies and activities of the environmental movement at the end of the twentieth century. Places Foreman’s radical environmental group within a pragmatic context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. An overview of the modern environmental movement, divided into chapters according to changing political currents. The time line is particularly useful, as it collates the founding of environmental organizations, the occurrence of notable events, and the enactment or failure of key pieces of legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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!
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zakin, Susan. Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. 1993. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. A somewhat biased but thorough account of the rise of Earth First! Inclusion of many personal details and an informal anecdotal style make this enjoyable and informative.

Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace

Earthwatch Is Founded

The Monkey Wrench Gang Advocates “Ecotage”

Sagebrush Rebellion Begins

The Global 2000 Report Is Issued

“Deep Ecology” Platform Is Drafted

Ecodefense Advocates “Monkeywrenching”

“An Anti-Environmentalist Manifesto” Signals a Backlash

Earth Liberation Front Resorts to Arson

Categories: History