Earth First: Not Dead, Just Resting

Earth First has been declared dead many times. In 1987, it was founder Dave Foreman, whose years of grumbling became enshrined in movement music as "The Twelve Resignations," sung to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." More recently, the somewhat amorphous movement—which doesn’t agree on much, but achieves consensus on not harming people in its work—was hit with the incendiary "ecoterrorism" tag.

The latest herald is Kate Coleman, author of a controversial book on the life of Judi Bari, an Earth First organizer in the California redwoods who made headlines when her car was bombed in 1990. Is Coleman correct in proclaiming the demise of Earth First?

"Earth First is an idea, it’s a philosophy, and you can’t kill an idea," says Darryl Cherney, a musician and activist who was in the car with Bari when it blew up. In 2002, the pair won a lawsuit against the FBI for violating their civil rights in the bombing’s aftermath.

"Earth First didn’t die because of anything Judi Bari did," Cherney says. "Earth First had much of the air let out of its balloon when Dave Foreman resigned. And if Earth First is anything less in the wake of Judi Bari’s activism, it’s because she died [of cancer] and is not here to continue to breathe life into it."

Chaone Mallory, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon who studies and teaches environmental philosophy, sees the youth around her carrying on Earth First work. "Direct action, relentless pressure and the willingness to risk oneself bodily in order to protect and defend something that’s under immediate threat, that definitely has not died," she says. "I only see it as having gotten stronger."

Scott Greacen, an Earth First veteran who is the national forest program coordinator for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Garberville, California, says that the movement is hardier than some people think. "The ideology of Earth First was not so much about direct action or being outsiders for wilderness, it was more about spreading the then-revolutionary ideas of conservation biology and deep ecology. And those ideas are not going away."

Bron Taylor, a professor at the University of Florida who has studied Earth First for 15 years, notes that much of the effort to advance deep ecology and conservation biology continues through groups using different names. "A lot of people don’t operate under that umbrella because they decided it would be bad strategy," he says.

But some activists still fight under the Earth First banner. "Earth First has changed and evolved over the last 25 years, as has the larger environmental movement," says Karen Pickett, a long-time Earth First organizer and director of the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters. "Evolution is good."

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