Was also “rewilding” advocate & outspoken opponent of immigration
Dave Foreman, 74, died on September 19, 2022 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Born in 1947, the son of a U.S. Air Force sergeant, Foreman spent most of his life in and around Albuquerque, before, after, and during two decades of fame as the often controversial and ever paradoxical cofounder of the radical environmental advocacy group Earth First!
More bookworm than outdoorsman in his early years, Foreman at age 17 campaigned for 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
U.S. Marine Corps for 61 days
Foreman attended San Antonio Junior College after high school, where he formed a chapter of the conservative political organization Young Americans for Freedom, and then majored in history at the University of New Mexico.
Upon graduation, Foreman joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Foreman briefly attended the Marine Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, but went absent without leave after developing discomfort with his possible participation in the Vietnam War.
Foreman eventually spent a month in the brig before receiving an undesirable discharge. His Marine Corps career spanned just 61 days.
Drifting for a few years, Foreman worked as a farrier’s assistant, helping to shoe horses, then taught at a Native American reservation for Zuni pueblo dwellers.
Developing environmental awareness through hiking and rafting with friends, Foreman became involved with the Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, after longtime Wilderness Society western regional director Clif Merritt (1918-2008) led a grassroots campaign that culminated in 1972 when Congress designated the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness in Montana.
Clif Merritt in 1973 hired Foreman as a Wilderness Society southwest regional representative. Clif Merritt later made Foreman director of wilderness affairs for the entire organization, obliging Foreman to move to Washington D.C.
Opposing the expansion of logging, especially old growth logging in roadless areas, Foreman later recalled that this was the only time he ever received death threats.
The logging issue was perhaps the biggest political battle that the Wilderness Society ever took on, culminating in an organizational meltdown when it was lost. In 1979 the U.S. Forest Service Roadless Area Review & Evaluation II opened thirty-six million acres to logging.
The Wilderness Society western regional office was closed. Clif Merritt resigned to form the organization now known as American Wildlands.
Also resigning, Foreman left Washington D.C. and temporarily abandoned environmental lobbying. Foreman had from 1976 to 1980 been a board member for the New Mexico chapter of The Nature Conservancy, but left that behind, too.
Foreman in his 1991 autobiographical opus Confessions of an Eco-Warrior observed that the growth of national and international environmental and animal advocacy organizations had produced political careerism, which in turn led staff to place organizational and professional objectives ahead of the causes the organizations are supposed to represent.
Foreman lamented that many of the formerly dynamic organizations founded only 15 to 20 years earlier had already become middle-aged and stodgy, even as some of the older organizations appeared to be passing into younger, more aggressive hands.
But those organizations too reverted to institutional stodginess within another few years, much to Foreman’s continuing disappointment.
“In April 1980,” says the Wikipedia entry on Dave Foreman, “Foreman and friends Howie Wolke, Ron Kezar, Bart Koehler and Mike Roselle took a week-long hiking trip in the Pinacate Desert” of Sonora state, Mexico.
“It was during this trip that Foreman is believed to have coined the phrase ‘Earth First!,’ Wikipedia says. “The movement that subsequently bore that name was inspired, in some part, by the writings of Edward Abbey (1927-1989).”
“It was Abbey’s rollicking 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang,” recalled B.J. Bergman in a January/February 1998 Sierra magazine profile of Foreman, “that captured the enormity of the damage from Glen Canyon Dam,” built after then-Sierra Club executive director David Brower agreed to a 1959 compromise that, in Bergman’s words, “saved Utah’s popular Dinosaur National Monument from flooding, but allowed little-known Glen Canyon, on the Arizona-Utah border, to be inundated instead.
Abbey, continued Bergman, “was the patron curmudgeon (for he was no saint) of Earth First! and a soul mate to Foreman.
Testified Foreman himself, “Abbey was a visionary, the greatest inspiration my generation of conservation activists in the West ever had,” yet “was not a working conservationist. He wasn’t politically sophisticated. He didn’t understand the system.”
“Glen Canyon Dam is probably the single most objectionable feature in the West,” Foreman continued, “symbolic of the industrial conquest of the wilderness.”
Earth First! debuted on the public landscape when in midsummer 1981 Foreman, Abbey, and Earth First! members with mountaineering skills hung three 100-by-20-foot rolls of black plastic from the dam, using 1,000 feet of duct tape and 1,000 feet of nylon rope to create what appeared in photographs to be a 300-foot crack in the Glen Canyon Dam.
Claims Wikipedia, “In contrast with the cautious lobbying efforts of the established environmental organizations, ‘monkeywrenching’—industrial sabotage traditionally associated with labor struggles—would become the chief tactic of the Earth First! movement in the 1980s. The Earth First! Journal, which Foreman edited from 1982 to 1988, featured lively debates on the ethics and effectiveness of this controversial tactic.”
Tree-spiking to discourage loggers and pulling up survey stakes to otherwise inhibit development were reputedly the signature tactics of “Earth First!ers,” but were actually much less used than relatively conventional civil disobedience, especially “sit-ins” conducted amid treetops.
Foreman in particular made clear that he did not view “monkeywrenching” as an effective approach to stopping loss of wilderness by itself.
Rather, Foreman favored “monkeywrenching” as a way to cause mass media and the general public to take note of decisions made far away, long before environmentally destructive projects started, and become politically involved in response.
Explained Foreman to Bergman, “The people who started Earth First!, we’d all been in the mainstream groups, we were solid conservationists. But we were frustrated at making too many compromises. Earth First! was started by a lot of people within the conservation movement who’d been talking about the need for taking a stronger stand. It wasn’t a bunch of radicals from outside.”
Observed Bergmen, “Those demographics didn’t hold: as the decade unfolded, the group took on a more countercultural, overtly leftist coloration than Foreman was uncomfortable with.”
“I’d pick the Sierra Club”
Affirmed Foreman, “I offended a bunch of the new, radical-type Earth First!ers in the mid-eighties when I said that if I had to choose between the Sierra Club and Earth First!, there would be no choice at all––I’d pick the Sierra Club without thinking twice. Because Earth First! only has meaning as part of the larger conservation movement. And that’s what the Sierra Club is.”
Foreman acknowledged to Bergman, eighteen years after the fact, that a secondary reason for his departure from Washington D.C. and his central role in founding Earth First! was that, “I was clinically depressed. Earth First! was a way for me to deal with depression by being a workaholic and starting something wild and crazy, when I’d been submerging my personality in the Wilderness Society for the sake of getting the job done. You probably shouldn’t psychoanalyze yourself, but I think that’s a legitimate part of it.”
“Grizzly Adams” persona
Added Foreman, “I’d say that what I’m best known for––Earth First!––was the biggest aberration; that what I’m doing now,” almost entirely quietly, behind the scenes, “is more the real me. I was playing a role in Earth First!,” visibly based on the film and screen character Grizzly Adams.
“I’m basically a shy, private person,” Foreman said. “I’m a lot happier doing what I’m doing today. I was a lot happier doing what I was doing in the Wilderness Society days, than I was rabble-rousing. I don’t apologize for any of the Earth First! stuff. I think it was absolutely necessary. But it’s something I was never fully at home with.”
Earth First! work meanwhile introduced Foreman to Nancy Morton (1952-2021), a longtime intensive care nurse who later taught for 22 years at the University of New Mexico School of Nursing.
“Nancy met Dave back when she was a volunteer for the Northstate Wilderness Committee in northern California, and Dave was on the road giving hellfire & brimstone speeches for Earth First!,” recalled longtime friend John Davis.
“Nancy and Dave’s wedding at the Earth First! Round River Rendezvous in the Boulder/White Cloud mountains of central Idaho in July 1986 was an earthy celebration none of us lucky enough to be present ever forgot,” Davis continued.
“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”
“Nancy preferred to keep a low profile, although she always stood out. Nancy and Dave were a dynamic duo of wild creativity and advocacy, and Nancy was Dave’s equal,” including as lead organizer of Earth First!’s annual Round River Rendezvous, early visionary with Sky Islands Alliance, co-founder of the Earth First! Foundation, chief organizer and meal planner on countless river trips with fellow wilderness leaders––we called her Admiral of the Western Fleet in recognition of her unparalleled organizational ability––and co-founder and until near her death, chair of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.”
“During Nancy’s last 20 years,” Davis added, “she paddled well over 1,000 miles of river above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range of Alaska and the Barren Grounds of Arctic Canada. She also took up scuba diving and did trips from the Caribbean to the Banda Sea in Indonesia,” before falling ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2020.
“Dave returned many loving favors by caring round the clock for Nancy as she rapidly declined,” Davis finished. “Nancy,” who committed suicide on January 16, 2021, “was also survived by her and Dave’s beloved cats Misty and Yampa.”
Wilderness and wildlife advocates, the environmental movement as a whole, and practically everyone else who knew Foreman were shocked when, as Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair recounted in a remembrance published three days after Foreman’s death, Foreman “awoke at five in the morning on May 30, 1989, to the sound of three FBI agents shouting his name in his Tucson, Arizona home.
“Nancy was shoved aside by brawny FBI agents as they raced toward the master bedroom where her husband was sound asleep, naked under the sheets, with plugs jammed in his ears to drown out the noise of their neighbor’s barking Doberman pincher,” St. Clair wrote.
“By the time Foreman came to, the agents were surrounding his bed in bulletproof vests wielding .357 Magnums. They jerked the dazed Foreman from his slumber, let him pull on a pair of shorts, and hauled him outside where they threw him in the back of an unmarked vehicle. It took over six hours before Foreman even knew why he had been accosted by federal agents.”
As was soon discovered through the efforts of attorney Gerry Spence, who earlier represented the estate of anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood (1946-1974), flushing out that she was murdered, “Foreman’s arrest was the culmination of three years and two million tax dollars spent in an attempt to frame a few Earth First! activists for conspiring to damage government and private property,” St. Clair summarized.
“The FBI infiltrated Earth First! groups in several states with informants and undercover agent-provocateurs. Over 500 hours of tape recordings of meetings, events, and casual conversations had been amassed. Phones had been tapped and homes were broken into.”
Foreman was arrested one day after biologist Marc Baker and antinuclear activist Mark Davis “were arrested by some 50 agents on horseback and on foot, with a helicopter hovering above, as they stood at the base of a power line tower in the middle of desert country in Wenden, Arizona, 200 miles northwest of Foreman’s home.
“The next day Peg Millet, a self-described ‘redneck woman for wilderness,’ was arrested at a nearby Planned Parenthood where she worked.”
The four were accused of conspiring to sabotage a power line the fed a water pumping station which in turn helped to cool two nuclear reactors.
The FBI never produced any evidence to suggest that Foreman had any direct role in the alleged conspiracy, or even knew about it.
Foreman on August 12, 1991 pleaded guilty to “conspiracy” in the form of having handed to an FBI informant two copies of his 1985 monkeywrenching how-to book Ecodefense.
Introduced by Edward Abbey, Ecodefense collected ideas submitted by Earth First! Journal readers, previously published in a column called “Dear Nedd Ludd.”
The column title referred to the Luddites, who destroyed textile industry machinery in England between 1811 and 1816 to try to preserve their jobs as skilled weavers.
Foreman received a suspended sentence.
His codefendants also received plea-bargained sentences, including jail time, in connection with their alleged sabotage of power lines in the Arizona desert and arson at a ski resort in Colorado.
“Say it ain’t so, Dave!”
Responded disappointed Earth First!ers, “Say it ain’t so, Dave!”
Foreman had been widely expected to charge the apparent FBI effort to frame him head-on, cuffing planted evidence this way and that like an infuriated grizzly bear.
If Foreman could not beat the rap, many thought, he would become the Joe Hill of the wilderness cause, a powerful martyr. Foreman and Joe Hill were linked in at least one folk song.
But Joe Hill, a labor leader executed in 1915 for a murder he probably did not commit, is a lot better remembered than most of what he fought to achieve. And Joe Hill never studied the grizzly bear as carefully as Dave Foreman, then often likened to a grizzly.
As Foreman explained in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, written and published as his trial was pending, the object of the struggle to save wilderness could not be achieved by getting killed, serving prison time, or becoming a symbol better recognized than the value of wilderness itself.
If the price of saving wilderness was to copping a plea and going to work in a white-collar capacity for the Nature Conservancy, Foreman would do it.
Just as a grizzly retreats higher into the mountains, rather than make a fatal last stand, Foreman retreated when that seemed to be strategic.
The founding motto of Earth First! was “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!,” not “Fight the establishment on every front at all times!”
Confessions of an EcoWarrior
EarthFirst!ers familiar with the image of Foreman as invective-roaring, self-proclaimed neo-Neanderthal tended to be much surprised by Confessions of an EcoWarrior, most of which consisted of the quietly reflective observations of a lifelong conservationist who was able to learn from both history and his own mistakes.
Foreman in Confessions of an EcoWarrior acknowledged that he was a meat-eating hunter, and that for many years he imagined that he wanted to become a beef rancher.
Yet Foreman proceeded to blast hunting as it is almost always practiced; the influence of hunting on the conservation cause; livestock ranching and hunting in national parks, forests. and wildlife refuges; and the influence of the livestock lobby.
Along the way Foreman made plain his utter disgust with trapping, for reasons including cruelty to the animal victims.
“I am a conservationist”
While Foreman eschewed, then and always, all labels other than “conservationist” for himself, including “environmentalist,” he considered animal rights activists to be important and useful allies.
Having resigned from Earth First! shortly after his arrest to cofound a new group, Wild Earth, with John Davis, Foreman in Confessions of an EcoWarrior concluded that the Earth First! movement was heading in the same direction as the Green Party, of West Germany and now of many other nations, through what Foreman called “a concerted effort to transform an ecological group into a leftist group.
“I also see a transformation to a wholeheartedly counterculture/anti-establishment style,” Foreman predicted, “and the abandonment of biocentrism in favor of humanism. l am not an anarchist or a Yippie,” Foreman emphasized. “I am a conservationist. Although I will continue to applaud the courageous actions of those operating with the Earth First! name, it is time for me to build a camp fire elsewhere.”
Wild Earth took up “rewilding,” focused on the idea of restoring lost wild ecologies, including reintroducing endangered species.
Foreman, with Michael Soule, in 1991 also co-founded the Wildlands Network.
Foreman also formed a somewhat unlikely alliance with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, an anti-sport hunting vegan.
Foreman and Watson, however, shared common strategic ideas. Both were also heavily influenced by the “deep ecology” concept articulated by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009), who essentially restated the central tenets of Teutonic Naturism.
Central to the notion of “deep ecology” is the idea that humans are the ultimate invasive species, whose presence invariably corrupts ecological processes.
Perhaps only through contextually understanding “deep ecology” is it possible to reconcile the many clear contradictions between Foreman’s lifelong work as a conservationist with his also lifelong Republicanism.
“Deep ecology” as religious faith
Though presenting itself as science-based, “deep ecology” has in common with Christian fundamentalist creationism that it supposes technologically capable humans somehow came to exist independent of normal evolution, and did not co-evolve with the whole suite of species sharing our world in an intertwined and inseparable manner.
We are, in short, guilty of Original Sin just by existing.
Planet Earth, Deep Ecologists tend to believe, would be healthier without us.
This sounds more like a set of medieval theological constructs than a post-Darwnian viewpoint because it is. The intellectual history of Deep Ecology traces back to Teutonic Naturism, which originated several generations before Charles Darwin wrote On The Origin of Species.
Teutonic Naturism was initially the horrified response of the educated members of the northern European landed gentry to the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
The coming of industrialization jeopardized the political and economic pre-eminence of the hereditary nobility, threatened their hunting preserves, and surrounded any stream that could be dammed to build a mill with squalid shantytowns of day laborers, recruited from near and far.
The landed gentry responded by enclosing the former “commons,” as the fields and forests formerly open to anyone’s use were called.
This was often rationalized as necessary to prevent overgrazing and deforestation, which were indeed occurring. Enclosure, however, drove much of the peasantry off the land and into the factory workforce, accelerating the pace of development.
Protecting hunting preserves
The conservation movement of today arose more than two centuries ago as a forthrightly conservative effort to protect the holdings of the landed gentry, especially hunting preserves, even as many of the gentry lost their wealth, sold their land, and moved into the rapidly expanding cities.
The alliance of consumptive wildlife use with preservationism eventually morphed into the dominant habitat protection strategies of today.
“Class of his own in my pantheon of heroes”
Foreman emphasized strategy rather than philosophy in his foreword to Watson’s 1993 book Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide To Strategy.
“There is one person who is in a class of his own in my pantheon of heroes,” Forewan wrote. “Paul Watson has perhaps thought more deeply about strategy than has any other conservationist.
“One thousand years from now,” Foreman predicted, “sagas will be sung about Captain Paul Watson, defender of the oceans, and people will praise his name because there will still be whales, walruses, dolphins, and sea birds. Paul Watson is the hero of our time, the strategic genius of nonviolent ecological defense.”
Foreman and Watson took turns trying to prod the Sierra Club into more aggressive action on behalf of wilderness and endangered species, and in opposition to human population growth, including immigration into the United States.
Both Foreman and Watson won election to the Sierra Club board of directors, essentially on anti-immigration platforms.
Foreman served on the Sierra Club board from 1995 to 1997; Watson from 2003 to 2006. Both eventually resigned in frustration when the remainder of the Sierra Club board balked at endorsing stronger anti-immigration policies
Foreman went on to co-found the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance in 1997, and 2003 spun off the Rewilding Project from the Wildlands Project, dedicated to “the development and promotion of ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America and to combat the extinction crisis.”
Explained Foreman to Anne Minard of the Arizona Daily Star on August 29, 2005, “The first animals to go when a landscape is fragmented are the top-line predators such as cougar, bear, and wolves. These animals generally have large home ranges and need the protection of spacious cores of habitat to retain viable populations and remain safe from humans.
“We’ve learned from the reintroduction of Mexican wolves in Arizona that because the first wolves were released in an area with many dirt roads, within months of their release, five of the wolves were shot alongside dirt roads and two were run over. Wolves in the Southwest don’ t need wilderness ecologically, but they need wilderness from a security standpoint, to be safe from harassment and poaching,” Foreman said.
“When large carnivores disappear”
“When large carnivores disappear from an area,” Foreman continued, “small and mid-sized predators such as foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums and domestic house cats explode in numbers. They, in turn, prey too heavily on songbirds, amphibians, reptiles, and even pollinators, forcing their numbers to dwindle. A dearth of predators also causes herbivores like deer to over-browse many plant species.
“When we eliminate the top predators from an ecosystem,” Foreman emphasized, “the whole ecosystem begins to unravel.
“By creating a network of wildlands large enough to support top-level carnivores,” said Foreman, “we can create an umbrella of protection for most species that exist within a given ecosystem.”
Foreman recommended that the U.S. government should buy out grazing leases from ranchers who claim they cannot share public lands with wolves and other large predators.
“Let nature seek its own balance”
Foreman might have enjoyed more success in promoting rewilding had he not intertwined his ideas about rewilding with his opposition to immigration, which frequently came across as naked racism and indifference to the plight of disadvantaged people trying to make better lives for themselves and their descendants.
Foreman first tripped over this problem in a prominent way when in 1986 he argued against the U.S. sending food aid to Ethiopia, suggesting “let nature seek its own balance.”
Explained Foreman afterward, “I have serious doubts and nagging questions about conventional ‘humanitarian’ foreign aid responses to the increasing problem of famine in the Third World.
“Sloppy off-the-cuff remark”
“Indeed, I implied through my sloppy off-the-cuff remark that famine was purely a biological question of too many people and too few resources, completely unrelated to social organization, economic exploitation, or international relations. I also implied that the best possible social response was for us to do nothing, offer no assistance of any kind, and to just let the hungry starve.
“I very much regret the way I phrased these comments. Standing by themselves, out of context, they sound truly cold hearted.”
But Foreman ran into similar trouble years later, after reportedly saying that “Letting the USA be an overflow valve for problems in Latin America is not solving a thing. It’s just putting more pressure on the resources we have in the USA.”
“I do not support beefing up the Border Patrol”
In a more nuanced subsequent statement, Foreman said that “While I still believe that massive and unlimited immigration into any country is a serious problem, I do not support beefing up the Border Patrol and the other agencies that try to keep Latin Americans out of this country. I do not think that this is a realistic or ethical response to the underlying problem.
“While I agree that the population question can be approached in narrow, racist, and fascistic ways,” Foreman added, “I strenuously reject the idea that any and all ecologically grounded concerns about human overpopulation are racist and fascist.
“Is it racist and fascist, for example,” Foreman asked, “to propose making birth control methods and devices, including the abortion pill and sterilization, freely available to any woman or man in the world who desires them?”
Apply the Brakes
The last of the constellation of organizations that Foreman founded or cofounded, Apply the Brakes, debuted in 2006 to “help fill the gap created by the decades-long retreat of U.S. environmental organizations from addressing domestic population growth as a key issue in both domestic and global sustainability.”
Responded Survival International director Stephen Corry to that premise in a 2017 essay entitled “Killing conservation – the lethal cult of the empty wild,” “Conservation claims to be science-based, but was in fact born from beliefs originating in Protestantism, particularly its Calvinist branch. It’s not generally realized that the environmental movement eventually diverged into two doctrines with opposing views about people. One of them incorporates human beings into its vision, but the other, the oldest and most powerful, doesn’t.
“People are barely tolerated in Eden’s wilderness”
“In the minds of those who follow this dogma,” Corry charged, ‘is that people – apart from themselves – are barely tolerated in Eden’s wilderness. Dave Foreman is far from alone in seeing humanity as ‘a malignancy’ and in thinking that the world population must be reduced to two billion from the current seven.
“Many leading environmentalists – despite being descended from immigrants themselves – still see immigration and population as the world’s biggest problem,” Corry continued. “Foreman routinely blames the Catholic Church, but feminism is also in his cross hairs, for ‘taking over’ family planning ‘to let women do whatever they wanted to.’”
Foreman certainly did not contradict Corry in his final book, Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife (2011).
Said Foreman himself of his impending death, on his personal web site, “When I die I want a weasel to crawl up inside of me and eat my liver. I want buzzards to peck my eyeballs out. I want mountain lions to crunch my bones. Because I want to live forever. I want to be recycled. I want to run around the forest on little weasel feet. I want to go back into the flow, I want to be part of the food chain. When death comes, I want to enjoy it. I want to embrace it.”