Outside magazine, October 1996
At the nation's lone training ground for environmental activists, aimless tree huggers are fashioned into media-savvy eco-warriors, ready for the fray. A postcard from this year's oddest summer camp.By Tad Friend
Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen
Deep in the dark woods, a Nuxalk Indian chief appears on the wall of an old lean-to. His body is framed by soaring trees and draped in a scarlet robe, but your eyes naturally fall to his hands. Worn, brown, and implacable, they're bound with plastic handcuffs. Scores of shaggy-headed young environmentalists look on respectfully, huddling around the apparition's source: a slide projector propped incongruously in a clearing in Montana's Bitterroot Range. The image, of an arrest at a logging protest in British Columbia, blazes into the cold night.
Then a sudden cry: "No watch!" It's veteran Greenpeace activist Howard "Twilly" Cannon, who softly, scoldingly repeats to the gathered students, "No watch." The 125 grassroots activists who have come to this offbeat summer Action Camp '96 to learn precisely this--how to paint the world in symbols--suddenly notice the cheap quartz watch sagging from the chief's left wrist. The powerful nature-in-chains semiology blows a fuse, flickers out.
The projector clicks onward: slides from 15 years of demonstrations against Mitsubishi and DuPont, against logging and chlorine, against NAFTA and nukes; activists chained to fences, swaddled in anticontamination suits, skydiving from a cooling tower. This midnight Image Workshop is replaying the greatest hits of ecoprotest, and the students, who are passing around beers and giant trash bags of popcorn, are wide-eyed, gung-ho.
Yet the comments from the camp's counselors are dampening, acerbic. Faced with the most antienvironmental Congress in recent memory, a Democratic president who has apparently turned his back on nature, and the painful realization that 15 years of their ecoprotests haven't been very effective, the teachers here cultivate a charged atmosphere of crisis. They are determined to ground these idealists in professionalism, in the gritty practicalities of reaching--and teaching--both policy-makers and the public about old-growth forests and clear streams before it's too late.
But Mike Roselle, a tall man in a grimy duffle coat who is the school's unofficial dean, keeps the tone from getting too dark. "Tripods are good for blocking roads," Roselle remarks of a slide that shows activists in a
"Always put a big horizontal banner in front of marchers so they can't tell if you've got 20 people or 3,000 behind it, because it's usually 20," he advises. Of a threadbare, unkempt man who's blocking a railroad track with a Save Jobs banner: "Looks like his sign should say, 'I need a job.'" This gets the biggest laugh of all.
Action camp '96 isn't exactly awash in material goods. The students, who have been invited here through such organizations as Greenpeace and Earth First!, don't have to pay for the week-long camp--which is lucky, as most campers are in their early twenties and living lightly off the earth, with little more than a Lab mutt and a Hacky Sack to their name. They have arrived here in rusted-out VWs from across America and Canada, even from Britain and Russia, and settled in tents under the pines and firs that crowd these 60 acres of private land near Darby, Montana.
I've dropped in for a few days to catch up with the environmental movement's far-left edge and meet tomorrow's Robin Hoods. Before long I fall into the rhythms of the place: Rise at 7:30 and plunge into frigid Tin Cup Creek to wash. Throw on yesterday's clothes and hike past the tree-climbing area and a scattering of dogs and babies to the central clearing, where a breakfast of boiled bulgur is dolloped out by a staff whose field kitchen is an old green school bus. Then break into four groups for the day's classes, an intensive curriculum of nonviolence theory, media theory, and such practicalities as how to make a banner that won't rip, lock yourself to a gate, climb trees and buildings with ropes and carabiners, and get arrested (don't struggle). "I've put more people behind bars than most prosecutors," Roselle remarks. He's been arrested 30 times himself, on charges ranging from felony conspiracy to hiking off-trail. (At the time, he was hanging an acid-rain banner across George Washington's face on Mount Rushmore.)
Now a new generation appears ready to do its time. They arrive believing with Archimedes that given a place to stand they can move the earth. As 24-year-old Montanan Jessica Brazier Wyatt says, "My grandfather was with the Army Corps of Engineers, so I'm out to fix everything he messed up. When we leave here we're going to open a serious can of whupass."
Their ire has a keen focus. What's brought three times more people here than attended last summer's inaugural camp in Oregon, shortly after which 29 students did their duty and got themselves arrested, is the notorious "timber salvage rider." An amendment to 1995's Interior Appropriation Rescisions Act, the rider essentially authorizes logging of any trees on federal land that are dead or dying from disease, insects, or fire.
Environmentalists hate it, fearing that it circumvents such hard-won barricades as the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts to allow reckless cutting. President Clinton has said he regrets having signed the Act, but 2.3 billion board feet of timber have already been sold under the rider, and 2.2 billion more are scheduled for the blade.
The conundrum of the environmental movement has always been that it waxes as resources wane. As Roselle says wryly, "We're some kind of fungus that grows on a rotten society." So, paradoxically, Roselle believes the rider augurs well. "I'm predicting that we're going to kick the Forest Service's ass--they're running out of excuses to log. You will see zero-cut [on federal land] in a few years." But always frank, he adds, "It doesn't do any good if we save the Pacific Northwest old-growth and the Rockies if meanwhile they're clear-cutting the Amazon Basin. We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if we do our job we'll save the planet. If hope was a requirement, I'd stay home and smoke pot all day."
"No compromise in defense of mother Earth." That was the motto Mike Roselle and Dave Foreman came up with when they and a few others founded Earth First! in a bar near the Mexican border in 1979. They believed that mainstream environmentalism was too wimpy, but they also believed that Earth First! would change society and save the world through an emerging philosophy known as deep ecology. As conceived by philosophers such as Arne Naess, Bill DeVall, and George Sessions, deep ecology was a worldview in which all things, animate or inanimate, are created equal, the ecosystem matters more than human needs, and man's biggest mistake was coming down from the trees.
Earth First!'s chief persuasive tool was "monkeywrenching," that is, chainsawing the billboards and blowing up the bulldozers of encroaching civilization. Foreman, the most famous Earth First!er, a rowdy, quotable, combat-fatigue-wearing malcontent, called them "a warrior society ris[ing] up out of the earth...to be antibodies against the human pox that's ravaging this precious beautiful planet."
They drew a lot of attention, especially after they staged their first theatrical direct action in 1981 by unrolling a 300-foot, black plastic replica of a cement fracture over Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam. But Earth First! really caught the public's eye in 1984 with a dramatic new weapon: Mike Roselle and others spiked Oregon's Pyramid Creek Grove to prevent it from being logged--the 11-inch nails they hid under the bark made the trees too dangerous to cut and mill. "This is jihad, pal," Roselle wrote. "There are no innocent bystanders, because in these desperate hours, bystanders are not innocent.... And more spiking is needed to convey the urgency of the situation!"
The Earth First!ers saw themselves as warriors of conscience, wild men who whooped it up at their annual Round River Rendezvous in a frenzy of drumming, nudity, and ecstatic smearing of Cool Whip. For five years they kicked ass, they hid out, they inspired laudatory books and articles, including one in this magazine in 1982. But many environmentalists argue that they didn't accomplish a thing. They had no legislative strategy and only a fuzzy idea of how to create change--the by-default notion of making groups like the Sierra Club look comparatively reasonable so that those groups could get something done. Worst of all, they alarmed and angered the very people they hoped to convert. Foreman, who was fond of saying things like "phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth," even welcomed AIDS because it reduced human overpopulation.
Since Earth First! began, about 20 percent of old-growth American forest has been preserved, while another 20 percent has been cut. But the preserved forest was saved not by Earth First!, but by mainstream environmental organizations suing the federal government in the name of the northern spotted owl, that much-reviled symbol of biocentric excess whose wings have sheltered eight million acres of old growth in 17 national forests. Roselle argues that "it took us people in the woods to get the guys in ties at the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation interested in the spotted owl issue." On the contrary, says Andy Stahl, who is usually credited with coming up with the idea of spotted owl litigation for the National Wildlife Federation, "One might argue that the old growth has been protected in spite of Earth First!'s efforts. They're incredibly sincere, but they made all of us who were trying to protect old growth seem marginalized, not a cross section of middle America. To rehabilitate themselves in the public's eye will take another 20 years."
The students sit cross-legged on the ground under a tarp, many of them taking notes (and two of them borrowing my pens to do so). From the expression on their faces, it appears that Walker's remarks rank with Getting a Summer Job and certain revelations about Santa Claus in the category of unwelcome grown-up truths. He begins by asking how many among the 60 present read the paper every day. Only six hands go up. "How do you hope to influence the media unless you're a student of it?" Walker asks, nettled. He looks stern. Most Ruckus trainers have a mellow, your-point-of-view-is-equally-valid approach, but Walker wants campers to pipe down and learn.
"OK," he says, waving a newspaper, "you're saying don't consume pulp. And that's what they are. And it's more glamorous to climb a tree or hang from a bridge. But this"--he fans the newspaper again--"is important. They're corporate, sure. But you need to adopt the corporate attitude and play to them if you want to get your message across." The Ruckus Society media manual, a photocopied pamphlet given to all students, goes so far as to praise the eco-Satan, Ronald Reagan, because he "never let a real fact get in the way of a good image."
"You must develop message discipline," Walker declares. "If the reporter wants to ask you how you go to the bathroom on top of that tree--and they always do--you politely say, 'Just like everybody else,' and then use bridging to get back on message: 'But the reason I'm up in the tree is to protest the salvage rider, which threatens our public lands.'"
A brisk, peppery woman chimes in from the sidelines. "Eating, drinking, laughing, smoking, and smooching all take you off message," says Deborah Howes, a media trainer who works as a reporter for an alternative radio station in Portland, Oregon. Indeed, the campers were implored to mind their p's and q's around reporters. (To reduce the possibility of actual youthful behavior in my vicinity, I was asked to wear a green MEDIA lanyard, like a leper's bell.) But students keep stepping outside the tarp in midlecture to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, regardless.
"If your hair is too dirty or you have earrings in strange places, it's going to
"In McLuhanesque terms," Walker adds, "tattoos are interference in the channel."
The trainers are meeting resistance. "Why do we have to deal with the media that way?" asks an otherwise sunny woman named Alicia Alfonso. "It's like entering the belly of the beast." A San Francisco-based activist who often wears a winged Fairy for Peace costume at demonstrations, Alfonso is now in leggings and a sweatshirt and--like many present--sports a nose ring. Walker smoothly tries to get back on message, but that night Alfonso will privately tell him, "The way I look is a personal choice that reflects that I don't participate in wearing corporate drag. I'm not ashamed of that."
"With all respect," Walker will respond, "you won't get your point across unless you play by their rules."
It's a central issue: How much should activists truckle to a society whose values they hate? The trainers' consensus answer--"as much as necessary"--rubs against the campers' grain. Many here are self-described loners, even outcasts, seeking their own leafy utopia. "Our nuclear families are long gone," says Jake Kreilick, a 34-year-old campaigner for Native Forests Network who still wears his faded college football jersey, number 68. "These actions create our own family."
Walker ends his class with a role-playing exercise in the sort of vivid ecokabuki that Ruckus hopes to foster all over the country. Needing an issue to work with, he picks camper Laura Kindsvater's: She's been trying to block a salvage-rider logging sale at Dillon Creek in California's Klamath National Forest. Walker asks the group to develop a protest, a slogan, and two sound bites. They quickly brainstorm the notion of having Four Salvage Riders of the Apocalypse (representing Clinton and Gingrich, among others) lock themselves to the doors of the building where the auction will take place. Supporters in mourning clothes will hold up a Death on the Doorstep! banner. The key sound bite is, "The Dillon Creek salvage sale brings death to the doorstep of our public lands."
"In all the polls, 'our public lands' is a really resonant phrase," Walker says. "'Sacred indigenous site' is too precious, and 'old-growth forest' is too techno."
The campers then file into the clearing for their mock demonstration. The line of mourners stands soberly beside the Four Salvage Riders as Walker, playing a CNN reporter, videotapes everyone trying to field his impertinent questions and bridge back on message. (The biggest request from last summer's campers was more time on camera.) "How do you expect Bill Clinton to get this message?" Walker asks one camper, who has just smoothly unspooled the sound bites. He stammers and looks around for help: "Um, through the media?"
Then the campers gather under the tarp again to watch themselves on video, soaking up Walker's observations about facing halfway between the reporter and the camera, never wearing yellow, red, or camouflage, and never smiling. The session breaks for lunch, and the campers drift off thoughtfully. Laura Kindsvater, her face alight, says she's going to take the Salvage Riders plan back to California. Suzanne Teachey, a former corporate lawyer, has decided she's willing to put on a suit again and comb her hair to get her message across.
But Rob Kinslow is brooding: On camera he was energetic but incoherent. "I'd never been dragged off before," he says. "My adrenaline was really jumping, and I forgot everything." Kinslow is working to save Ballona, the last patch of unprotected open space in Los Angeles. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG is a partner in a plan to develop the area and build a studio there, but Kinslow is frustrated that the media haven't pursued the story. "Our message is too complex, because it's a complex issue," he says, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. A former aerospace engineer, he acknowledges that at 39 he feels a little old to be getting started, let alone having his ideals tempered.
"Get the message out!" Kinslow reminds himself. "Get the message out! Get the message out! Make it personal! Simplify! Simplify!" He grins suddenly. "Next time I'm arrested I'm going to say, 'Steven Spielberg can stop this!'"
"In five years," says trainer Sarah Willner, who's been watching quietly, "these kids will all sound like Peter Jennings."
A freckled, ingenuous 41-year-old who helped stage the Seabrook, New Hampshire anti-nuke campaign in 1977, severely braking the proliferation of U.S. nuclear power plants, Cannon makes a leveling motion. "Well, the movement plateaued at about 30,000 people," he says. "Our tactics limited the participation. Violence is what is perceived as violence. The public doesn't distinguish between corporations' destruction of life and our destruction of inanimate objects, those corporations' property."
Like all narratives of zealotry--and of the media's fickle needs--the story of Earth First! is instructive, even if the group seemed foredoomed. Monkeywrenching made radical environmentalism famous, but it also made radical environmentalists into outlaws. This was a posture they relished: As Edward Abbey, whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang was the bible of ecotage, always said, "Don't get caught."
But outlaws make enemies--most obviously their victims and those who fear becoming victims. "We made every mistake you could make," Roselle acknowleges after Cannon's session. "Wearing those Earth First! fist-in-your-face T-shirts that just pissed everyone off, doing things that scared people--we'll never get over George Alexander."
George Alexander was a Sonoma County mill worker who in 1987 ran his band saw into a hidden 11-inch spike. The saw exploded, breaking Alexander's jaw in five places and nearly severing his jugular vein. The anti-Earth First! outcry was tremendous, though Roselle--who marked trees he spiked with survey tape and claimed responsibility--convincingly denies the group was involved. "But my own mother thought I'd been arrested for spiking that tree," he says. "She saw footage of Alexander on ABC with a huge bandage and then of me being arrested for protesting logging, and that was the image that stuck."
Public relations wasn't furthered when Dave Foreman said he was "more concerned about old-growth forests" than about Alexander. Foreman often sounded dismayingly nostalgic for the days when the world held only a few thousand yam-chewing, hairy men swinging arm over arm through the trees. Its implication that modern man is a parasite made deep ecology a fat target for the likes of Ron Arnold, founder of the antienvironmental Wise Use movement, who declared that "environmentalism is a new paganism that worships trees and sacrifices people."
The town of Darby's response to Action Camp illustrates radical environmentalism's repute, particularly among loggers and rednecks. Someone dumped two shot squirrels in a camper's car on the first day, and
Earth First!'s monkeywrenching also made a powerful enemy in the federal government. "It wasn't such a good idea to be cutting down ski lifts," Roselle says, referring to the episode that blew Earth First!--and Roselle's friendship with Foreman--apart. In 1989 Foreman and three other activists, known as the Prescott Four, were charged with damaging property at a ski resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, toppling an electrical tower that served an Arizona irrigation project, and planning to destroy power lines leading to three nuclear facilities. The other three activists went to jail for between two and six years. Foreman, amid widespread feeling in Earth First! that he'd cut a deal, got a deferred sentence and spent only one day behind bars.
Foreman left Earth First! in 1990, claiming disappointment at its "abandonment of biocentrism in favor of humanism." Now on the board of the Sierra Club, Foreman says he is "no longer involved in civil disobedience" and professes never to have heard of the Ruckus Society. Astonishingly, the man synonymous with deep ecology now says, "I'm not sure I was ever a deep ecologist."
"I don't regret Earth First!" he adds, "but for me it was done entirely strategically--the environmental movement was compromising too much, and they needed a radical kick-start. Personally, I was always more comfortable as a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society"--his job before Earth First!. Foreman is breaking frame, acknowledging it was all a role and one that exhausted him.
Roselle continues doggedly in character, still a member of Earth First! though much less involved. But he too has given up on deep ecology--he now even favors controlled burning in old-growth forests to minimize the danger of a catastrophic fire--simply because it doesn't help save trees. "Deep ecology is a waste of time," he admits. "We're never going to go back to the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer state. And we won't create a biocentric world fast enough to solve our environmental problems."
In fact, macho itself is out: More than half the campers are women. "It's no longer just big men with big muscles defending big trees," says nonviolence trainer Sarah Willner. An old Earth First! warrior would blanch at hearing one female camper, who says nonviolence is cool because "it's like when cops freak out because you won't fight back, or like when a top realizes the bottom is really in control."
"The environmental movement has grown up," says 24-year-old Hillary Hosta, who's been teaching the basics of how to climb trees and buildings using ropes. She has pale blue eyes, an ever-present cowboy hat, and a tattoo of the earth on her left forearm. "When you're a kid you don't have to take responsibility for your actions," she says of "fun and run" monkeywrenching, in which the vandals vanish afterward." A lot of those dozers are owned by a local logger, and he's not the problem but part of the solution, which is sustainable logging. I'd rather see one person with a hand up in front of a logging truck than a big, impersonal explosion. What's sexy is integrity."
Actually, stealing distributor caps and sugaring gas tanks remains a popular field tactic, and some here still espouse the expensive pranks. But the media have become bored with wrenching. So its dubious effectiveness--and serious, time-in-prison consequences--helps the next generation to spurn it on philosophical grounds.
Replacing monkeywrenching is the older wisdom of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The camp encourages capacious personal responsibility. "I've always been too vain to be beat up," says Fairy for Peace Alicia Alfonso. "But now, after this week, and learning how strong I really am, I might have to put myself in a place where I could get hit. It's the ultimate consequence of standing for what I believe." As Twilly Cannon tells his morning group, "What sets us apart from military, corporations, even government, is our truthfulness and sincerity and our willingness to suffer."
But the movement has learned that even suffering needs spin control--that if a tree falls in the forest, it won't make a sound unless you give people hearing aids. "All actions are symbolic," Cannon reminds everyone. "Pipe plugs blow out, tree sitters come down, blockades end through bladder action--their effectiveness is symbolic. Reduce the issue to symbols, then manipulate the symbols so the public sees it the way we want." Some campers furrow their brows: Symbols aren't fully truthful, and manipulations are hardly sincere. They're climbing down from the bright green canopy into a gray world where ends justify means.
Or where you do whatever it takes to save the trees. "Traditionally, we've explained about wildlife," says Native Forest Network campaigner Jake Kreilick, "how grizzlies need large, unroaded forests and bull trout need pristine streams. But now it's economics. I tell people that the woods are where we go rafting, hiking, camping, picking morel mushrooms--that the nontimber value of the woods is greater than the onetime lumber value. The spiritual arguments and the arguments about how we need biodiversity to survive as a species are always there," Kreilick concludes, "but economics hits everyone, and humans are selfish."
So the Ruckus Camp teaches. Yet the camp encourages its graduates to forge ahead through their own disillusionment. H.G. Wells was right that civilization is a race between education and disaster, but he neglected to add that true civilization is meeting disaster and carrying on.
"The tree was mentoring me; it was teaching me about the consciousness of trees," he continues. "I felt it was telling me something to tell the world--about the love the trees have for us. It was almost a plea from the tree. It's strange, but the sound when the trees sever from the base is like the scream of a whale dying; these trees are the whales of the land." He stares at the pine needles underfoot, as if wishing someone would start a new subject. But no one does.
"Eventually," Quigley murmurs, "I had to come down. And then they cut the tree down. I gave it only three more weeks of life. I wish it would have had a storybook ending, but it didn't. Most of the time," he says, gazing down the road out of camp, back to civilization, "it doesn't."
Tad Friend is an editor-at-large at New York and writes for a number of national magazines.
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