The Radicals: How Extreme Environmentalists Are Made

Foreman's vision soon came into conflict with that of another Earth First! co-founder, Mike Roselle, for whom the George Alexander incident was the last straw. More than a decade after the split, Roselle still gets visibly irritated when discussing Foreman's departure from Earth First! Roselle is a man of extremes, more likely to down a string of beers than a single pint, stroking his plentiful beard as he stays up late into the wee hours of the morning enjoying the company of friends. He still spends time in the field organizing and fundraising passionately.

Unlike Irwin and Foreman, Roselle started his activism long before he had his wilderness experience. But it was a drug-induced romp through the mountains that would shape his life's passion.

Roselle grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, an aging city blighted by racial tension and joblessness. When his family moved to Los Angeles in 1968, Roselle didn't quite fit in with his new environment. "I came out from Kentucky, I was all for George Wallace, I was all for John Wayne, I was all for killing gooks. That's the way I was. When I went to school in California, my best friends were like 'What are you talking about Mike?'"

Slowly, California began to change Roselle. "I started going down to Bond Street in L.A. That's where all the hippies hung out. My parents didn't have any idea I was going. And I was exposed to the underground press. I was into the Grateful Dead and all that stuff. So I was moving toward the left." Roselle quickly became interested in social justice, politics, and, above all, rebellion. For Roselle, the act of rebellion was nearly as important as the cause, and his thirst for female attention led him to many groups and causes.

It wasn't until a friend suggested that he explore the wilderness that he focused on the wild. "I made my life backpacking. I took to that just as radically as I take to anything. I made it my life. And so I hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked."

During a hiking trip through the White Mountains in New Mexico, Roselle had an epiphany as he sat down next to a river. "I was high on LSD, and I was sitting looking at this trout in the water, and I was like, whoa! -- because I'd never really looked at a trout before. It was the first time I looked at a fish and didn't see it as food." Roselle wasn't sure precisely what had happened, but he now felt connected to a world he had never known as a city slicker.

It was later that he received an explanation for the change. "I was talking to somebody when I got to the Grand Canyon later, and he was saying, 'Yeah, you just had a wilderness experience.' And I said, 'What?"

Roselle now had a singular mission, a cause to champion. He'd already been an activist, sure, but that activism wasn't particularly personal. It was an outlet for his rebellion. Now he was fighting for the life of a dear friend: wilderness.

But the notion of social justice that had begun his activism would never leave him, and during the late 1980s, his notion of inclusiveness and anti-violence came into conflict with Foreman's advocacy for monkeywrenching. Not only did that message deter potential supporters, it also made it much harder for Roselle to negotiate with government officials. The rift that would divide Earth First! had come to the forefront.

Unlike Foreman and Roselle, Irwin has managed to bring about change without the complications that can come with a leadership role. He attended the Earth First! Round River Rendezvous in 1989, a time when the organization was clearly in the process of splintering. A new generation of West Coast hippies and black-clad anarchists had swelled the group's numbers, but their attitude was markedly different. They were angry and vocal teenagers who hadn't spent much time outside of cities.

At the beginning of an early session, Irwin recalls, an older member made a welcome speech that included praise for the state of Colorado. "Some of the black clads were horrified," says Irwin, "and started bitching at him about how pride in a state was ridiculous and was the source of all our problems. I watched the good old boy sit down, shaking his head, and I knew he would never come to another Earth First! Rendezvous because he wasn't welcome anymore."

For Roselle, the assistance the new members offered outweighed any concern over their differences. In fact, it was Roselle who had recruited many of them when he was working Northern California and the Pacific Northwest on various Earth First! actions. "We worked with the whole fruit salad of leftie groups. That's where I think some of these people got confused, because we had a lot of allies who we couldn't have won the battle without." But Foreman was already on his way out the door, largely because of these new members and the way their sensibilities clashed with his own cowboy creed. (He was also under investigation by the FBI and facing mounting legal troubles.)

Irwin, who fancies himself "a good old southern boy," also was turned off by what he found at the Rendezvous. Early on during the event, he plopped himself down next to a group of young "black clads" who were having a lively debate about what made a "true" anarchist. Irwin could see how force outweighed substance. 

Finally, he decided to try an experiment. "I asked what would happen if ants infested vegan food and the vegans ate the food with the ants. Would it still be vegetarian? They then argued about that for ages, and I realized I was out of my league."

Today, Irwin continues to use the Earth First! name in some of his work, but his ties to the organization are gone. He got his law degree when he realized that legal action was the most effective tool available against mining companies. After getting arrested so many times with Earth First!, he figured he already had a head start on other would-be lawyers. He now spends most of his time in and out of courtrooms. He argues cases in a spotless new federal court building, but he doesn't fint the mold of a high-powered attorney. His shoes, well worn and probably never polished, betray him. Even his undergarments are slightly out of place. "It always feels weird wearing long underwear under this suit," he says.

While most of his cases involve local drug offenses, he finds a way to do as much legal work as he can to support the fight against wilderness destruction. Being an attorney is a good fit for his personality, allowing him to work on filings in peace, enjoying a functional isolation that still allows for activism.

And he always finds time to meet with other activists at Barley's to arrange protests and fundraisers, even if he does seem withdrawn. Where logging was once the major enemy, coal mining now is. He fights mountain top removal, a particularly destructive form of coal mining, with an ever-changing cast of characters that includes students from the University of Tennessee -- students who rarely self-identify as Earth Firsters, but who use the banner for campaigns nonetheless. There is no longer a central figure for Earth First!, no longer a clash between strong personalities commanding attention. Instead, there is a collection of rather disparate chapters championing separate local causes.

Because Irwin has learned that strong voices don't last, he keeps his quiet. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, while waiting for the meeting to get started, he ordered a pint of Guinness. "You realize that's not vegetarian!" a young female student from the University of Tennessee exclaimed as he put the glass to his lips. He put the glass down and, in a measured voice, said, "I'm pretty sure that it is." 

The student, with a shaved head and long dangling earrings, didn't concede the point. "No, it's not vegetarian -- because of the yeast." Irwin paused as if experiencing déjà vu and said, with a slight roll of his eyes, "I disagree, but we can talk about this later." He's managed to calmly brush conflict aside, which might be why he still can fight for Earth First! He's one of the good old boys, but he has endured.

Presented by

Zachary Fryer-Biggs & Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell

Zachary Fryer-Biggs is a staff writer at Defense News. Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell, author of Objective Ecology, is a graduate student in forestry at the University of Toronto.

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