By Steven C. Beda / Special to The Washington Post
Several journalists have recently reported that in 1989, Tracy Stone-Manning, President Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), sent a letter to the Forest Service on behalf of the radical environmentalist group Earth First warning that trees that were part of a timber sale in Idaho had been spiked; a practice that involved driving long, metal spikes into trees to damage loggers’ saws, slow operations and increase costs.
The revelation threatens Stone-Manning’s confirmation. The BLM oversees more than 247 million acres of public land. As the bureau’s director, Stone-Manning would be responsible for balancing the competing demands placed on those lands by loggers, miners, ranchers, preservationists and recreationists. The news that she was once involved with radical environmentalists has some wondering whether she possesses the evenhandedness to do the job.
Biden has remained supportive. But critics, like Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, argue that Stone-Manning’s collaboration with “eco-terrorists” should immediately disqualify her for the position.
What was Earth First? Was Earth First, the group Stone-Manning is accused of supporting, an eco-terrorist organization? It’s a tricky question, one that boils down to perspective. For some, Earth First was fighting a morally just and valiant battle to preserve American wilderness. Others saw the group as terrorists who employed fear and destructive forms of activism.
Earth First was founded in 1980 by a cadre of radical environmentalists concerned with what they believed to be the disappearance of wilderness. While environmental laws passed in the 1960s expanded the American wilderness system, resource extraction industries, particularly in the West, had grown more adept at finding legal and political loopholes that allowed them access to protected lands.
The activists who started Earth First blamed resource extraction industries for diminishing the wilderness. But they also blamed mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club. Dave Foreman, a co-founder of Earth First and onetime lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, lamented that as the environmental movement grew in size, the people who worked within it became more concerned with professional achievement than advocacy. The movement was “steadily losing its passion and its soul,” he said: “We were asking for less. We were taking weaker stands.”
Its founders envisioned Earth First as the antidote to that growing weakness and complacency. Their goal was to reinvigorate environmentalism, take strident positions in defense of nature and never compromise. As the group’s main slogan put it: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!”
Throughout the early 1980s, Earth First attracted an eclectic and motley group of activists. Some, like Foreman, were professionals fleeing the ranks of the mainstream environmental movement. Others were aging hippies and countercultural types coming from rural communes. Many involved in the group called themselves “rednecks for wilderness.”
Just how many people joined Earth First is not known. The group did not charge dues or keep membership lists. It had no offices or elected officers. It was more a movement than an organization. When asked about her affiliation with Earth First, Stone-Manning said she had no “formal” role in the group, which is a bit misleading because no activist had a “formal” role in the group.
Members of Earth First believed that industry controlled the political and legal systems, and thus politicians and the courts could never be counted on to protect the environment. Earth First instead engaged in a form of direct action it called “monkey wrenching,” after Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, “The Monkeywrench Gang,” about a ragtag group of activists who plot to blow up the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon Dam. (The letter Stone-Manning sent on behalf of Earth First was signed “George Hayduke,” a character from the novel.)
Monkey wrenching took multiple forms. Earth First activists destroyed dirt roads leading to mining and logging operations, wrecked industrial equipment, vandalized company offices and chained themselves to trees to prevent them from being cut.
Activism or terrorism: But one particular sort of monkey wrenching — tree spiking, what Stone-Manning is now being accused of supporting — made Earth First infamous.
“If enough trees are spiked in roadless areas,” Foreman explained, “eventually the corporate thugs in the timber company boardrooms, along with their corrupt lackeys who wear the uniform of the Forest Service, will realize that timber sales in wild areas are going to be prohibitively expensive.”
In many ways, tree spiking was to Earth First what the sit-in was to the civil rights movement or the strike was to the labor movement: a form of activism central to the group’s identity and culture. Earth First members didn’t just endorse tree spiking, they celebrated it, in posters, in their literature and in their songs.
Part of the attraction in spiking lay in its perceived effectiveness. It also made it easy to evade law enforcement. As one Oregon Earth First activist explained, “tree spiking was something that could be done safely, any time you wanted, under the cover of darkness, and not face any serious repercussions.”
But working-class loggers saw it differently. To them, tree spiking was a brazen act of terrorism.
For example, in 1987, George Alexander was in a Northern California mill when the saw he was working near struck a spike and sent metal shrapnel flying into his face. Alexander was nearly decapitated and spent several weeks in a hospital. (Earth First activists, past and present, maintain the spike was placed by a disgruntled landowner, not radical environmentalists.)
Alexander’s case is the only documented instance of a worker being injured by a spike. Even so, timber workers in the 1980s routinely talked about how spiking made them worried to go to work. For much of the 20th century, logging had the unenviable distinction of being at or near the top of the most dangerous industrial occupations, and spikes only added to that danger.
Just how many forests were spiked is unknown. Earth First regularly claimed forests had been spiked when they hadn’t and, at other times, spiked forests without telling anyone. Congress responded by passing a law in 1988 that made tree spiking a federal felony.
Where Stone-Manning stood: By the late 1980s, at roughly the same time Stone-Manning sent the letter on behalf of Earth First activists warning that the trees in the Idaho timber sale had been spiked, the practice became controversial within the movement. Some activists in the group continued to maintain that it was an effective way to impede timber harvests and, Alexander’s injury aside, claimed it posed only minimal risks to workers. A few extreme members claimed that workers were complicit in the destruction of forests and any loggers injured by spikes deserved it.
But other activists, most notably Judi Bari, denounced tree spiking. Bari argued that tree spiking imperiled workers and unnecessarily alienated them from the environmental movement. Other activists within Bari’s camp contended that spiking also brought unnecessary attention from law enforcement and made Earth First members look like fanatics rather than impassioned activists.
By all accounts, Stone-Manning appears to have been in this second group. She reportedly sent the letter on behalf of Earth First not because she endorsed tree spiking, but rather because she wanted to ensure that no workers were injured.
Whether that should disqualify her from leading the BLM is a question for Congress. Whether her involvement with Earth First, however small and tangential, amounted to support of eco-terrorism is a question for history, and an unsettled one at that. For some historians and activists who have followed in Earth First’s footsteps, the group took a valiant stand in defense of wilderness at a time when the mainstream environmental movement had grown staid. For other historians and for many people in rural working-class communities, Earth First represented terrorists who made them scared to go to their jobs.
As the oft-quoted saying goes, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”
Steven C. Beda, an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, researches and teaches about Pacific Northwest history, environmental history and labor history and is currently at work on a book about Northwest timber workers.