Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement

Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement

by Susan Zakin

From tree-spiking old-growth forests to "cracking" desert dams, Earth First! redefined environmentalism in America. Susan Zakin's fast-paced tale of these scruffy radicals and their suit-and-tie counterparts in Washington, D.C., has been described as an unholy marriage of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. The hipster cowboys who founded Earth First! were


From tree-spiking old-growth forests to "cracking" desert dams, Earth First! redefined environmentalism in America. Susan Zakin's fast-paced tale of these scruffy radicals and their suit-and-tie counterparts in Washington, D.C., has been described as an unholy marriage of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. The hipster cowboys who founded Earth First! were the first people to sound the alarm on globalization, extinction, and other major environmental issues that face us today. Zakin's gonzo yet impeccably researched account of the rocky trail leading to the morning when FBI agents rousted Earth First! founder Dave Foreman from his bed at gunpoint is essential reading for anyone who cares about mountains, deserts, and freedom.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the late '70s through the '80s, the radical environmental group Earth First! achieved notoriety by its flamboyant activism while provoking widespread debate on environmental issues. In this lengthy, rambling account, reporter Zakin profiles the group and its major figures: Dave Foreman, Bart Koehler, Tim Mahoney, Mike Roselle, Howie Wolke, Louisa Willcos and Judi Bari. Zakin also describes other leading environmentalist figures from John Muir to David Brower. Earth First! members were disappointed with the national organizations and dismayed by Reagan policies. Devotees of Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang , they followed the principle of ``act now, think later.'' Zakin describes the group's activities in the West as it confronted loggers, miners and road-builders. She chronicles the rise of anti-environmentalist backlash and violence in northern California, FBI surveillance of Foreman and his companions and their subsequent arrest in 1989 for conspiracy to destroy government property. Foreman, who wrote Confessions of an Eco-Warrior in 1991, was released after agreeing to a plea-bargaining deal. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Zakin, a freelance journalist, has written a lively, fast-paced historical account of the sometimes controversial environmental group Earth! First. Beginning and ending her book with the 1989 arrest and 1991 trial of founding member Dave Foreman ( Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, LJ 3/1/91), Zakin traces Foreman's experiences from his days as a Washington lobbyist to his involvement with several colorful personalities, or ``buckaroos,'' who eventually became the nucleus of Earth! First. Zakin chronicles the group's various environmental activities, including the struggle over Black Mesa in Arizona, the ``cracking'' of Glen Canyon Dam, and tree spiking in the Pacific Northwest. Zakin also provides a good analysis of the environmental movement, both historical and contemporary, and shows the relationship between Earth! First and such groups as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club. This solid work should be purchased where interest warrants.-- Eva Lautemann, DeKalb Coll. Lib., Clarkston, Ga.
Eloise Kinney
If the terms "spotted owl" and "ancient forests" mean something to you, you have mainly the Earth First! gang to thank or curse. Formed (very loosely) in the 1970s because of the responses or lack thereof of such environmental groups as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, Earth First! chose Edward Abbey as their guru (and sometime aide-de-camp) and used confrontational and often illegal tactics to further their agenda. It's not always easy to love this scruffy bunch (or, as author Zakin calls them, "a patched-together, hyped-up conglomeration of rednecks, hippies, and general misfits"), but you have to thank them for what they've accomplished through the years--in part, the encouragement and growth of a multitude of grassroots environmental groups dedicated to saving their own necks of the woods through whatever means it takes. Zakin responds to this rowdy group in kind with her raucous, snappy, freewheeling narrative--a perfect fit with her subject. She knows when to hold back, too; the book is as informative and serious as it is a delight to read. Combining details from the lives of the historical ecologists (Muir and Leopold) and the contemporary (Abbey, Dave Foreman, and others), this ecohistory contains enough speech excerpts, thoughts, facts, and inspiration to call to action the next generation of environmental rowdies.
From the Publisher

“Too many books about the American environmental movement have been dry as dust. But Coyotes and Town Dogs is a juicy account of the early days of Earth First! and the all-hell-busting-loose men and women who answered writer Edward Abbey's call to monkeywrenching. . . . A well-reported, fascinating account of the people and politics that define modern American environmentalism.” —Earth Journal

“Susan Zakin's writing is brilliant and irreverent, tough and funny, opinionated and sometimes outrageous. But this is also a serious work, the most thorough and thoughtful survey of the American environmental movement I have seen. It puts Earth First! and the period of its major battles and internal struggles in the context of the broader American conservation movement. . . . Zakin has done an excellent job of telling the story.” —Christian Science Monitor

“Like many Easterners, I really never understood Earth First! although I had been following environmental issues for many years. . . . Now I do. Reading Susan Zakin's Coyotes and Town Dogs, a sprawling, rollicking and ultimately melancholy history of Earth First!, is like spending a week around a campfire with its hard-core 'buckaroos.' . . . They had a terrific run, and Coyotes and Town Dogs is one terrific read.” —Philip Shabecoff, Los Angeles Times

“It's a fascinating, sometimes hilarious, sometimes appalling tale. Whatever you think about Earth First!, this book may well change your mind.” —Arizona Daily Star

“Zakin, a truly gifted writer, puts the reader right smack into the scene . . . an evocation of as odd a group of people, and as inspiring a collection of landscapes, as could be imagined.” —Wilderness

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Education of
an Environmentalist

The achieved West had given the United States something that no people had ever had before, an internal domestic empire.
—Bernard De Voto

I'm just a hick horseshoer who thinks he's a bronc rider.
—Dave Foreman, 1991

1960 — Texas

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY starts northwest of San Antonio. Dry flat desert gives way to limestone hills engraved with meandering rivers; prickly pear yields pride of place to juniper and oak. From their southern edge, the rounded hillsides run right up through the middle of the state like a rumpled blanket. The towns here have more churches than bars; people are distinctly, but unoriginally, polite. Generally these towns do not hasten to accept strangers. But in Schertz, Texas, just outside Randolph Air Force Base, they welcome them. Military men and their families are favored guests. It is a patriotic town.

    From a small, white-frame building on the corners of Curtis and Pfiel Streets comes the sound of singing. There is a congregation of about 150 inside the double doors. With their own hands, they built the uncomfortable wooden pews they're sitting on. They hammered up the joists, painted the walls a stark white, installed the venetian blinds. This is a frontier church, the Church of Christ. There is no figure of Jesus, no stained glass, no cross. In front of the simple wooden baptistery, there is a sunken tub. It measures about four feet by seven feet, like a mini swimming pool or agiant birdbath. A short, skinny kid named David with deep-dish blue eyes and a Leave It to Beaver haircut is standing in it, looking excited and nervous. The preacher strides into the pool, decked out in big robber waders. In slow motion, intoning words from the Bible, he places his hand on the boy's head and pushes him all the way down into the water. It is a release; you can hear the congregation sigh. When the kid comes up for air, he breaks into a big, innocent thirteen-year-old smile and the congregation revs up into a hymn. Trust and Obey, they sing, for there's no other way to be happy with Jesus.

In 1907, Dave Foreman's great-grandparents drove their wagons across the wide Missouri to Tucumcari, New Mexico, becoming part of one of the great last waves of frontier migration. Later, Foreman would read in the books of Bernard De Voto about the historical currents that drove his family west. Nobody was better suited to unearthing the ironies of the American West than the brilliant and abrasive De Voto, a misfit who fled Mormon Utah for Harvard's intellectual high country in 1915. In De Voto's analysis, the western myth was stillborn, laced with nostalgia from the outset but no less poetic for all that. The West's ultimate irony, De Voto wrote in 1934, lay in the fact that it was the place where frontier culture broke down in the face of aridity. "The pioneer's tradition of brawn and courage, initiative, individualism, and self-help was unavailing here. He had, that is, to ally himself with the force which sentimental critics are sure he wanted to escape from: the Industrial Revolution."

    In the 1880s the Industrial Revolution began a century-long binge of dam building that would ultimately irrigate half a continent. It brought peaches, apricots, and oranges to the desert. It ripped copper from the heart of Arizona and the mountains of Montana, wrapped railroads like iron chains around the basin and range, made and lost fortunes for magnates in Pittsburgh and New York. It rerouted rivers and shaved the tops off mountains to get at the coal that lay beneath them. It built company towns where rugged individualists toiled year in and year out to live in company houses, shop in company stores, and send their kids to company schools.

    But the myth of the frontier persisted. It persisted, not just because it came wrapped in the glamour of celluloid heroes, but because it was deeply embedded in the ethos of a people who sought out the hundredth meridian as if it were a stairway to heaven instead of merely a degree of longitude. From the 1830s until long after the turn of the century, tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish immigrants made their way west, bringing with them a religion founded on the romance of an untouched land. Like many of their fellow travelers, Dave Foreman's maternal grandparents, the Crawfords, were members of the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist frontier sect that split from traditional Presbyterian orthodoxy in the early 1800s. Its premier theologian was a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Campbell. Reviled as a heretic, Campbell wanted to heal divisions within Christianity by restoring the primitive church of the New Testament, to "recover the primordial past that stood behind the historical past." In 1801, another renegade Presbyterian named Barton Stone had the same idea. Like Campbell, Stone believed that each local church should be completely independent, with no creed but the Bible. No bishops, no missionaries, no dogma, just the word of God. Stone, a charismatic preacher who thumped the Bible with reckless abandon, started holding outdoor revival meetings in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. It wasn't long before Cane Ridge looked as if the 82nd Airborne had landed. White tents billowed like abandoned parachutes on the open grass. Ten thousand people at a time came to the meetings; crowds overflowed into the fields. The wealthy brought their own tents, preferring not to mingle with the hoi polloi even at the gates of heaven. By 1811 the Stone movement had churches in twelve states. After a shaky alliance with the Baptists went bad in 1830, Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander linked up with Stone in 1832. The movement experienced its greatest growth over the next two decades, spreading West with covered wagons, domesticated cattle, and smallpox.

    It was a uniquely American religion, a Huck-Finn-on-the-river church where the individual confronted God and his conscience mano a mano. Without an established creed, the Bible was not only the Word, but the Last Word. The lack of a central organization made the Church of Christ anarchistic in the purest sense. It was not chaotic, but organic, with each congregation growing out of a local community and culture. The "Christians in the West" were criticized for being "disorganizers, having no form of government, and aiming a destructive blow at all church government," explained their leader Barton Stone. Only if we're lucky, was the gist of Stone's response to his critics. Members of the Church of Christ "... simply did not concern themselves with organizations, new or old, or with systematic theological construction. Their concern, instead, was for freedom."

    Freedom had its limits, of course. Christians were not allowed to drink or dance. Musical instruments were barred from church. Instead, the human voice became an instrument—in song, debate, and most of all, fiery preaching. These voices rang with a compelling vision. In a raw land that seemed to stand outside time, people dreamed of recovering their primal purity through strict self-abnegation and good works. Legends appeared suggesting that the Church of Christ sprang from an unbroken succession of Christian primitivist outcasts dating back to the time of Jesus. It was as if the church was calling back a sense of rightness, a primeval norm that had disappeared in the clouds of exhaust generated by the combustion engine. "Human time ... embodied the disastrous aftermath of the fall" to the frontier Christians. They embraced "the idea of building anew in the American wilderness on the true and ancient foundations."

    Baptism by total immersion was a rite to be taken seriously. When Dave Foreman took the plunge at age thirteen, he took it even more seriously than most. He had already decided that he would be a preacher when he grew up, just like Asa Lipscomb, the minister in Schertz. Lipscomb was a distinguished-looking man who had known David since he was in kindergarten. Not many outside the family had; the Foremans had already moved eleven times since David was born in 1946. His father, Benjamin "Skip" Foreman, was an Air Force pilot. Each time Skip was reassigned, his wife, Lorane, would pack up David, his younger brother, Steve, born in 1953, and their baby sister, Roxanne, who was born in 1955, and move them all to another town or maybe to another country. By the time the Foremans arrived in Schertz, they had lived in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, California, Bermuda, and the Philippines. Yet David's childhood had been spent in a single neocolonial milieu. Wherever they moved, the Foremans remained part of the military establishment, with its rows of whitewashed houses and PX privileges. Only the scenery changed, from the tropics, where loneliness mingled with exoticism, to culturally barren American towns where the only aesthetic was the magnificent, sculptured desert sky. It was really just a lucky coincidence that brought Asa Lipscomb into David's life again; as churchpeople, the Lipscombs were part of another gypsy work force and likely to disappear at a moment's notice. The Foremans and the Lipscombs had become friends while they all lived in Reno, Nevada, in 1951 and Asa Lipscomb had taken a liking to David. David wasn't a hard kid to like: intelligent, well behaved, and very gentle, especially with animals. With Skip away so much, David attached himself to the older man. Like many Church of Christ preachers, Lipscomb was a rafter-shaking orator. David wanted to be just like him when he grew up.

    It wasn't that David didn't get enough attention. Lorane read to him all the time and indulged his fascination with animals. Each night they pored over American Wildlife, Illustrated, with its big, stylized color plates showing jaguars, mountain lions, and bison. David even got upset when Lorane vacuumed up spiderwebs. He was no less tough on himself, praying for weeks that it had been a stick, not a worm, that he accidentally trampled on the way to school. Having grown up on a farm in eastern New Mexico, Lorane shared David's interest in nature. But she had her limits. When they lived on Randolph Air Force Base, he captured a bull snake. Lorane let him keep it as a pet, but he was allowed to let it out of its cage only while she was out shopping or at church. Mother and son had a code: Lorane would honk her horn as she came up the driveway so that David could return the snake to captivity before she walked in the door.

    Foreman may have been a bit of a mama's boy, but his shyness and sensitivity were tempered by a streak of rowdy self-confidence. He had become an Eagle Scout about the same time he was baptized and excelled at virtually all his Boy Scout activities. He liked to entertain his classmates by dancing on the top of his desk and was a good speaker in church. "He was shy among strangers but not before a crowd," recalled Lorane. His confidence was tested, though, by a sadistic fluke of the adolescent endocrine system. In fifth grade, he reached the unimpressive height of four feet ten and stayed there. And stayed there and stayed there.

    By tenth grade, David still hadn't cracked five feet. That year, the family moved once again, this time to Blaine, Washington. When Lorane took him to register for his first day of school, the woman working behind the counter at the administration office took one look at him and said, "You must want the elementary school."

    "Embarrassed David something awful," Lorane said. "He was so small and so smart, when he started school none of the kids would have anything to do with him because they thought he was a child prodigal or something. Oh, gosh. But they found out."

    Foreman was good at turning inauspicious beginnings into triumphs. As a military brat, he had to be. In Blaine, he was helped by the long-awaited capitulation of his recalcitrant gene, which finally let him shoot up eight inches. In eleventh grade, having attained the borderline normal height of five feet six, he was elected class president. But that success was short-lived, because the family moved yet again, this time to Blythe, California, a bland, isolated agricultural community planted smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

    "I think that that move hurt David more than any of the others ever had, because he was really starting to have some fun," said Lorane. "You know, and he had some really good friends and they weren't rough and tough or anything."

    David seemed to bounce back from almost anything, but his younger brother, Steve, wasn't weathering the constant upheavals as well. Dave was shy and serious; Steve was a golden-haired charmer. In Blythe, Steve started hanging out with hoods. His parents worried that things came to him, too easily, that he wasn't developing the right kind of character. But there seemed to be little they could do about it.

    Foreman spent a miserable senior year in claustrophobic Blythe. He hiked a lot in the Mojave Desert. In contrast to the bleak town, the desert seemed surreal and full of life. It was the kind of life he liked best; fat chuckwallas doing push-ups on dry, superheated boulders and cactus wrens singing their ratchety tune from hiding places in the cream-colored leaves of yucca trees. Even in Blythe, he wasn't completely antisocial. His eleventh-grade electoral victory had strengthened his interest in politics. Instead of running for office in a brand-new high school where nobody knew him, he worked for Barry Goldwater in the Republican presidential primary. The family moved back to San Antonio, Texas, that summer. In the fall, David attended junior college there. But after his freshman year he decided to go to the University of New Mexico. New Mexico was where his mother's family lived. What roots he possessed were there. In the summer of 1965, he moved back to Bernalillo and took a dreadful job as an encyclopedia salesman. In the fall he started school.

    In Albuquerque, Foreman thrived intellectually. He also began to rebel. His grades were lousy, but he continued a lifelong habit of reading anything that didn't have its covers hammered shut. At first he signed up as a biology major, but soon switched to anthropology, one of the school's strongest departments. After discovering the British historian Arnold Toynbee, he became a history major. These days Toynbee is regarded in academic circles as little more than a footnote, but his theory about the crash of industrial civilization made sense to Foreman. It resembled the Last Judgment, with machines doing the work of destruction.

    That year, Foreman found another intellectual mentor. Just as some people may be susceptible to a certain virus, a certain number of college students in have a constitutional weakness for the work of novelist Ayn Rand. The 1940s Übermensch architect Howard Roark, Rand's protagonist in The Fountainhead, embodies one of the most extreme cases of a novelist filling in love with her creation. The passion was contagious. In Roark, Rand created not just a character but a cultural phenomenon, the enshrinement of a Nietzschean supercapitalist superman. Her cult of the individual won many converts in the late fifties and early sixties, when it seemed to some that the American capitalist system might hold the promise of utopia.

    Like most viruses, enthusiasm for Rand's work generally struck hard, then disappeared. Foreman's ardor cooled when he discovered Rand's antipathy toward environmentalism. The only permanent effect of his infatuation was the loss of his religious beliefs. Foreman adopted Rand's philosophy of atheistic objectivism, almost too energetically. To put his newfound dogma into practice, Foreman gave his father's watered-down Nixon Republicanism a jolt of 190-proof libertarianism and joined the Young Americans for Freedom. By becoming a libertarian, Foreman stepped outside the traditional political spectrum of liberal and conservative. While conservatives believe in economic freedom and liberals value individual freedom, libertarians believe in maximizing both. In a sense, libertarians have more in common with anarchists than they do with most U.S. politicians. Barry Goldwater was an exception—Goldwater himself had libertarian inclinations and Rand had inspired a whole coven of Goldwater Republicans, including Foreman. In 1966 Foreman became state chair of Young Americans for Freedom, a libertarian youth organization with conservative overtones. Christianity was out. Freedom was in.


Excerpted from Coyotes and Town Dogs by Susan Zakin. Copyright © 1993 by Susan Zakin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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