Published Sunday, November 1, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News
Evolution of a movement
Environmental terrorism contrasts with maturing radicals
BY JULIA PRODIS SULEK
Mercury News Staff Writer
Climbing to the top of a redwood in the far reaches of Northern California
last year, Julia ``Butterfly'' Hill defied the lumber company intent upon
sawing the tree down. Today, nearly 11 months later, she still hasn't
The tranquil 24-year-old woman and the 200-foot tree she named ``Luna''
have become symbols of a new generation of Earth First!, the radical
environmental group once best known for pounding railroad spikes into trees
to break logging saws and pouring sand into bulldozer gas tanks, also known
And while Earth First! has claimed in recent years to be shifting its
tactics away from sabotage to civil disobedience such as tree-sitting --
perhaps as a move toward the mainstream -- there are obviously people on
the fringes of environmental activism who have been unwilling to change
Two weeks ago arsonists billing themselves as the Earth Liberation Front
ignited seven fires at the renowned Vail ski resort in Colorado. The
daring, middle-of-the-night fires, set along the 11,220-foot mountaintop,
caused $12 million in damage, including the destruction of the landmark Two
As tactics go, it stands to reason that the move from sabotage to arson is
not that distant. But the evolution of the radical environmental movement
-- and whether or not the fringes are linked to a moving center -- is
shrouded, as if by North Coast fog. With the Vail culprits still on the
loose, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer quickly branded the fires environmental
Maybe so, said Earth First!, but it wasn't them.
However, Ron Arnold, director of the Center for the Defense of Free
Enterprise, a property rights activist group in Bellevue, Wash., claims
Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front are one and the same.
``The `innocent' mainstreamers very likely are the same people going out
and doing the crime,'' Arnold said in an interview.
Earth First! dismissed Arnold's view as ``delusional.''
Over the past two decades, Earth First! has transformed itself, said Lacey
Phillabaum, a 23-year-old editor of the Earth First! Journal in Eugene,
``In the '80s, a lot of Earth Firsters were engaged in sabotage as a sort
of last resort,'' she said. ``In the 1990s, the trend has been much more
to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Monkeywrenching was the
tactic that people thought worked then, and this is the tactic that people
see as working now.''
Even so, the current decade has witnessed plenty of destruction in the name
of the environment, including some spectacular examples in this region.
On Earth Day, 1990, an organization calling itself the Earth Night Action
Group toppled high-voltage transmission lines coming from the Pacific Gas &
Electric plant at Moss Landing and knocked out power to most of Santa Cruz
County for two days.
Two years ago, a hotel under construction that blocked ocean views near
Half Moon Bay was torched. Neighbors cheered, sipped champagne and watched
Neither attack was blamed on Earth First!.
But since the earliest days of Earth First!, the group has been divided
over the value of sabotage, Phillabaum said. And while monkeywrenching got
the most publicity, Earth First! has always been engaged in theatrical acts
of civil disobedience.
Peg Millett, who at age 44 is one of the oldest Earth Firsters still
involved in the movement, has done both. It was her act of sabotage on a
summer night in 1989 that caused the first major rift in Earth First! and
brought a forced re-examination by the group.
Her activism started rather mildly in 1987 when she dressed up in a raccoon
suit and blocked a roadway into the north rim of the Grand Canyon. At age
35, she was a disciple of Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, who wrote
``Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.''
Once she got out of the raccoon suit, Millett said in an interview last
week, ``We wanted to do something that went bump in the night.''
By 1989, she was cutting bolts on ski-lift pylons in northern Arizona and
power lines that led to a uranium mine. A new recruit joined her ranks -- a
tall, handsome cowboy named Mike Davis who wore boots and an endearing
Arizona feed cap.
Millett had a thing for cowboys. He took her two-stepping. She took him
And on June 1, 1989, Millett, Davis and two cohorts put on their black knit
caps and drove west of Phoenix to Alamo Lake to cut a power line to a pump
As Millett played lookout, an FBI flare illuminated the night sky.
``Oh my God, there's someone else here,'' she said. She ran 16 miles
through the night and turned herself in the next day.
Mike Davis was no cowboy. He was an undercover FBI agent.
The sting also netted Foreman, who had given Millett's group $200 for gas
and supplies for the Alamo operation. Millett served two years in prison.
Foreman pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and received a
delayed sentence. But it was a turning point for Earth First!
``It became foolhardy to be identified as an Earth Firster,'' said Susan
Zakin, who wrote ``Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the
Under pressure from the FBI, ``Earth First! has splintered into different
grandchildren, different pieces,'' Zakin said. ``Some of them have become
much more radical, some have become much more practical.''
On the practical side, Foreman founded a wilderness conservation group. And
another early member, Peter Galvin, co-founded a public policy group in
Tucson that uses lawsuits to try to stop environmental degradation. And in
the tradition of civil disobedience, Earth Firsters are still linking arms
to block roadways. But these days, they bind themselves together with metal
sleeves or bike locks to make it more difficult for authorities to pull
them apart and haul them away.
However, protesters who were chained together at a protest at Pacific
Lumber Co. headquarters in Scotia last fall were swabbed in the eyes with
pepper spray, and one 24-year-old forest activist was killed in September
when a logger felled a tree that struck him in the head, also in Humboldt
At the extreme is Earth Liberation Front, which took responsibility for
five earlier arsons against federal buildings in Washington State and
Oregon, as well as the Vail fires. Its members have not identified
themselves, but the group has apparently aligned itself with the Animal
Liberation Front, best known for throwing paint on fur coats and freeing
animals from research laboratories.
According to an Animal Liberation Front newsletter, Earth Liberation Front
(ELF) got its start after a 1992 Earth First! meeting in England.
Frustrated that Earth First! was going too mainstream, more radical
activists proposed an underground wing to keep up the sabotage.
``Sadly, this never really happened, as some sections of the movement were
trying to link up with the mainstream and saw the elves (ELF) as an
embarrassment,'' the undated newsletter said. Undeterred, the more radical
group broke off to form Earth Liberation Front as a separate entity, the
newsletter version goes.
Craig Rosebraugh, who is a member of a group called Liberation Collective
in Portland, Ore., said that he doesn't knows a single member of the Earth
Liberation Front. But he is their spokesmen, nonetheless.
He only hears from them through ``anonymous communiques,'' he said. ``They
trust us to put the message out and we do.''
The saboteurs set fire to the lodge, the ski patrol headquarters and four
ski lifts at Vail -- one of the country's premier ski resorts -- after a
federal judge threw out a lawsuit seeking to block Vail's expansion into
885-acres of national forest land that was also seen as potential habitat
for the reintroduction of the lynx.
``What else was there to do?'' Rosebraugh asked. ``People who engage in
these actions feel they're taking up where the law left off. If the law is
not protecting something you believe is important, very near and dear,
there is disillusionment that happens and you find these kinds of things
Millett no longer holds that view. ``My monkeywrenching days are over,''
she said. Now living in a yurt, Millett said her voice is her latest
weapon. ``I sing environmental songs.''
And from a platform in the top of a redwood, Julia ``Butterfly'' Hill
continues her vigil. She said she'll come down when the lumber company
agrees to spare the tree. In the meantime, she spends her days talking by
cellular phone to reporters, writing poetry and -- when the weather permits
-- climbing around on Luna.
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