A Radical Group's Approach To Preserving the Earth

THE 1980s were rough years for environmentalists. Ronald Reagan and his appointees seemed to want to dismantle the landmark resource-protecting and pollution-fighting legislation passed in the 1970s after the first Earth Day. To many in ``the movement,'' working the political system of pressure and compromise was getting them nowhere.

Many of those who had fought the good fight during the antiwar years of the '60s (or who were sure they would have if they'd been a little older) became increasingly frustrated with what they saw as the inability of mainstream environmental groups to make a difference.

Out of this perceived void of leadership and unwillingness to confront ``the enemy'' vigorously, came a radical group that flamed brightly for a time, reflecting the deep philosophical differences within the environmental movement as well as leaving a lasting mark on that movement.

Earth First! and its controversial founder, Dave Foreman, are best known for ``monkey-wrenching,'' the practise of sabotaging bulldozers and other equipment associated with logging, power generation, and other things despised by hard-core environmentalists. The most dangerous form of monkey-wrenching (a term coined by the late Edward Abbey, author of ``Desert Solitaire'' and ``The Monkey Wrench Gang'') was the driving of metal spikes into trees selected for cutting. In the end, FBI informants caught Earth First! members in a conspiracy to monkey wrench several power plants, which resulted in plea-bargained prison terms for several of them.

``Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement'' is a fast-paced, fact-filled, and thorough history of that period. Like the self-styled ``buckaroos'' of Earth First!, Susan Zakin's writing is brilliant and irreverent, tough and funny, opinionated and sometimes outrageous.

But this is also a serious work, the most thorough and thoughtful survey of the American environmental movement I have seen. It puts Earth First! and the period of its major battles and internal struggles in the context of the broader American conservation movement.

An environmental writer whose articles have appeared in a range of publications from the New York Times to Mother Jones magazine, Zakin has gotten close enough to the major figures in the movement to paint detailed and fascinating pictures. Most of the well-known environmentalists (and a lot who aren't so well known) are here, warts and all.

Their opponents like to cast them as a powerful, well-organized bunch of ``preservationist'' zealots. There are zealots among them, but as Zakin shows, they are far from monolithic. There have been philosophical squabbles over relative influence for years. Only occasionally - as with the recent split among major groups over the North American Free Trade Agreement - does it burst into view.

The men and women of Earth First! liked to play up their ``redneck hippie'' image. They worked to distinguish themselves from their more elite (and in some cases effete) brethren in the movement. Zakin accurately portrays this, the genuine side of it as well as the calculated effort to show that the loggers and miners and cowboys they went up against didn't have a corner on machismo.

She also shows how the group led the way in emphasizing the importance of ``ecosystems'' and ``bioregions,'' concepts that have since entered the mainstream of environmental thinking and activism.

Zakin finds Foreman a fascinating character, which he is. As an Earth First! founder (and today as executive editor of an environmental journal called ``Wild Earth'') he sees himself ``involved in the most sacred crusade ever waged on earth.'' Zakin sometimes joins this hyperbole, as when she writes: ``Foreman's words gave purpose to a whole generation of college students.'' But with only a few such lapses she is clear-eyed enough to observe that Foreman ``also milked his hick horseshoer image for all it was worth.''

Some would say that with its willingness to engage in civil disobedience and sometimes sabotage, Earth First! did the environmental movement more harm than good. But a more accurate view may be that the group (which still operates in Foreman's absence) gave a needed kick in the pants to a worthy cause.

In either case, it's an important element in an important part of American history, and Susan Zakin has done an excellent job of telling the story.

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