The Radicals: How Extreme Environmentalists Are Made

They chain themselves to trees and sabotage bulldozers. But behind their united front, many eco-warriors have very personal -- and conflicting -- reasons for devoting their lives to the cause.

They chain themselves to trees and sabotage bulldozers. But behind their united front, many eco-warriors have very personal -- and conflicting -- reasons for devoting their lives to the cause.

Two protesters pull up a drawbridge to block loggers from entering Oregon's Willamette National Forest. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

Sitting in the woods one day at the age of 15, Christopher Irwin wasn't thinking about the environment. He was thinking about suicide. For a meticulous teenager with an inclination toward precise planning, the logistics weren't a problem: nearly everyone he knew in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, owned a gun. If that weren't enough, his house was filled with an abundance of prescription pain medications.

The pills belonged to his stepfather who was losing a fight with prostate cancer. Irwin's mother had decided she would home-care her husband, and for two years she served as his nurse. With his condition deteriorating and his pain escalating, medications littered their home.

"He begged my mother to overdose him," Irwin recalls. Irwin's bedroom shared a wall with his parents, and he could hear their arguments -- the constant, desperate pleas of a man dying in severe pain. Irwin did the only thing he could: escape. On weekdays, the boy would grab two slices of toast and down a glass of Tang. Once out the door, he did his best to avoid returning. "I lived in the library, and when Friday came, I'd grab my backpack and head for the woods."

It was on one of his weekend getaways that Irwin found himself sitting in a clearing contemplating suicide. It was difficult to stop thinking about his stepfather. The doctors believed the cancer was the result of his years spent working as a chemical engineer for Union Carbide. Irwin wasn't a doctor, but he knew that when his stepfather came home from work he'd immediately jump in the shower to get the thick layer of chemicals off his skin. And now, when he thought of the cries of pain waiting for him at home, suicide seemed like a good option.

"I heard the trees rustling, and I decided to kill myself. I knew where I was going to go, and what I was going to do."

But something made Irwin pause. "If I'm going to end it, I might as well do something with my life," he told himself. That something became obvious once he looked around him. "I decided that yeah, I liked these trees, and that there were some people who were trying to fuck with them, so that instead of suicide I could try fighting those people. Instead of turning to suicide, I turned to protest."

Irwin's brother Brian recalls seeing a change in Irwin after that. "He was much more reflective, somewhat stormy, he definitely turned inward. I guess he confronted his demons."

Nearly 30 years later, that same conviction is on display in Irwin every Tuesday night when he joins a group of like-minded activists at Barley's Tap Room in the Old Town section of Knoxville, Tennessee. They all believe in some form of radical environmentalism. Most don't have life and death stories of "conversion," but many can point to a moment, a "wilderness experience" as they call it, that convinced them to commit their lives to protecting the environment.

These epiphanies are often reminiscent of spiritual awakenings, according to Dr. Harold Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University who specializes in moral decision-making and affinity with the outdoors. "The similarities between [activists' moments of] commitment and religious conversion is astounding," Herzog observes. "Then there is the evangelism side, trying to convert others." The form this "evangelism" takes can often be traced back to an activist's own wilderness moment. This can cause friction in radical environmentalist movements -- as members argue for their own personal visions, infighting can ensue and leaders are regularly pushed out.

Irwin knows this all too well. Early in his new life as an environmentalist, he was drawn to an activist group called Earth First! Its co-founder Dave Foreman had experienced his own wilderness moment as a boy -- for Foreman, it arrived in the form of the New Mexico wolf. The first books he'd ever read on his own had been his mother's copies of Wildlife Illustrated and Wildlife of the World. He adored those two hardbound red volumes with their gold lettering and endless renderings of animals. Today he still handles them lovingly, always careful to set them down with both hands on a coffee table. They are still in pristine condition, the covers still attached and the pages bearing few marks. Whenever someone else handles these cherished items, Foreman's eyes stay fixed on the books.

Along with animals, Foreman loved the New Mexico wilderness. His father was a member of the military, so the family moved around a great deal, but every Christmas they would return to Albuquerque. "Being able to see the Sandia Mountains, it is sort of this beacon of wilderness. I just loved the mountain and looking at it," Foreman recalls. While his surroundings and friends changed from year to year, the New Mexico wilderness was a constant, an annual dose of stability.

His affinity with the Southwest drew him to the works of Ernest Thompson Seton, a trapper, naturalist and illustrator. It was while reading one of Seton's books that Foreman came to a sudden realization. "When my family moved to New Mexico at the turn of the century there were wolves in Mexico, and when I was born in 1946 they were gone," Seton says. He felt as though he had been cheated out of something and recalls being struck by "a sense of loss."

Years later, after stints working for more mainstream environmental organizations, Foreman co-founded Earth First! His experiences as an activist had thus far been frustrating and disheartening. Compromise was considered a necessary step for success, but after each small victory, the large-scale logging and resource-extraction carried on as always. "You thought well, we can't get more than that," says Foreman. "But with Earth First! We said screw that, we're going to ask for what we really want."

Initially the founders liked to refer to themselves as "Rednecks for Wilderness," a slogan that was quickly picked up by the media and caught the attention of many young people, including Irwin. It was a different breed of environmentalism, one focused on revelry and humor rather than elitist self-righteousness.

Indeed, the group's first successful action of the group had comedy at its core.

On March 21, 1981, a clear crisp early spring day, five people, struggling under the weight of a carefully rolled heap of black plastic, stumbled to the center of the Glen Canyon Dam and cast one side over the edge. The sheet was so long that it nearly reached the bottom of the dam, taking more than 20 seconds to unfurl. From a distance, the gray concrete of the dam now appeared to be "cracked" down the middle by a tapering width of black. The image would become an icon of the radical environmental movement.

But while the tactics of the organization were at first humorous, the group grabbed national attention through a type of industrial sabotage known as monkeywrenching . The term is a reference to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's 1975 book about radical environmentalists in the Southwest.

By the time 1985 rolled around, Earth First! had gained notoriety for pouring sand into the crank cases of bulldozers, spiking trees with nails to ward off loggers, and pulling survey stakes to prevent road building. Adding to the discussion was Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, a 1985 book, edited by Foreman, that detailed various techniques and encouraged their use.

Foreman refused to back down from his radical stance even after George Alexander, a young mill worker from California, hit a tree "spike" as he was sawing through a trunk. A nail in the tree shattered the saw, sending pieces flying at the adjacent workers. Alexander escaped the incident without major injury, but with numerous lacerations and a broken jaw. When he was interviewed in his hospital with his head bandaged and his young wife by his side, he made an excellent victim in the eyes of the public. But Foreman stubbornly continued to support tree spiking and continued to show up in his cowboy boots to interviews, suggesting that the fight for wilderness was a war.

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.