David Foreman, Hard-Line Environmentalist, Dies at 75

David Foreman, who as the co-founder of the environmental group Earth First! urged his followers to sabotage bulldozers, slash logging-truck tires and topple high-voltage power lines, earning him a reputation as a visionary, a rabble-rouser, a prankster and, even among some fellow activists, a domestic terrorist, died on Sept. 19 at his home in Albuquerque. He was 75.

John Davis, the executive director of the Rewilding Institute, a research and advocacy group that Mr. Foreman founded in 2003, said the cause was interstitial lung disease.

Mr. Foreman was a leading figure among a generation of activists who in the late 1970s grew frustrated with what they saw as the compromises and corporate coziness of many mainstream environmental organizations, including the Wilderness Society, where he worked as a lobbyist.

In 1980, during a hike through the Mexican desert, Mr. Foreman and four friends developed the idea for a grass-roots movement built around the aggressive protection of the environment for its own sake. He came up with the name, Earth First!, and its motto, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.”

The movement borrowed heavily from the civil rights movement, radical labor groups like the Wobblies and the anti-industrial Luddites of 19th-century England. Its logo featured a clenched fist, à la Black Panthers, and like the Wobblies the group advocated sabotage against its enemies, like pouring sand in the gas tanks of construction machinery.

Its members drew inspiration from the writer Edward Abbey, whose 1975 novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” depicts a group of eco-warriors who attack increasingly grandiose targets — including the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona — in the name of the environment. Indeed, in Earth First!’s debut action, in 1981, Mr. Foreman and a group of activists unfurled a 300-foot-long banner, painted to look like an enormous crack, down the side of Glen Canyon Dam.

Earth First! and Mr. Foreman were not just more strident than the mainstream. They advocated a different philosophy, known as deep ecology, which holds that nature has inherent value, not just in its utility to people. Their vision included returning vast swaths of land to nature, ripping out any trace of human intervention.

“We’ve ended up with a wilderness system and national parks system that is really made up of islands of habitat in this sea of human development,” Mr. Foreman told The Baltimore Sun in 1986. “We need to try to reweave the natural fabric of North America.”

In an undated photo, an Earth First! demonstration in front of the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Laconia, N.H. Its clenched-fist logo resembled that of the Black Panthers.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

Other radical groups emerged alongside Earth First!, but it quickly became the most prominent, in large part thanks to Mr. Foreman. Early on, he led colleagues on a nationwide speaking tour, attracting crowds of college students and other young people with his fiery oratory.

“He would get up in front of a roomful of people and just jump in the air and yell at the top of his lungs while talking about extinction and other species and the balance of life on the planet,” Karen Pickett, an early acolyte who continues to work as an environmentalist, said in a phone interview.

Some of the actions he advocated were benign guerrilla theater, like dressing in hazmat suits outside national parks to highlight the risk of pollution. Others were more menacing, like driving metal spikes into trees to damage chain saws — and potentially kill their operators.

Earth First! was always loose-knit and non-hierarchical, driven by local chapters and the message spread by the Earth First! Journal, which Mr. Foreman edited and which continues to be published online. The organization had a small membership — about 5,000 at its peak — but it inspired countless groups to take a similar direct-action approach.

The high profile of Earth First! almost immediately drew government interest: By the end of 1981 the F.B.I. had opened a file on it. Eventually the bureau planted a mole within Mr. Foreman’s circle, and in 1989 federal agents arrested him and four others on charges of conspiring to sabotage power lines in Arizona.

The arrests played into a public image of Earth First! as a group of dangerous ideologues, even terrorists. It was a reputation that Mr. Foreman both courted and disputed.

“It’s not terrorism and it’s not vandalism,” he told The New York Times in 1988. “It’s a form of worship toward the Earth. It’s really a very spiritual thing to go out and do.”

Still, even some in the movement found him beyond the pale. Murray Bookchin, a philosopher and environmental theorist, called him an eco-fascist for statements that appeared to prioritize animals over people, like when he seemed to endorse famine in Ethiopia and immigration restrictions in the United States as means to reduce the human population. (In both cases he had misspoken, he said.)

There was at times a method to his madness: Mr. Foreman argued that his stridency gave room to mainstream groups, or even less-aggressive direct-action organizations like Greenpeace, to negotiate in Washington; they could point to him as the extremist alternative.

“We will not make political compromises,” he wrote in 1980 in the first issue of the Earth First! newsletter, which he expanded into the Earth First! Journal. “Let the other outfits do that. EARTH FIRST will set forth the pure, hard-line, radical position of those who believe in the Earth first.”

It soon emerged that the F.B.I. agent had encouraged the sabotage, essentially trying to entrap Earth First! in a felony, and most of the charges were dropped. Mr. Foreman eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for giving the agent two copies of his book “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching” (1985), an action that prosecutors said constituted conspiracy to commit a crime.

The stress of the legal proceedings nevertheless created fissures in the organization, as did the arrival of a new, younger cohort of activists who wanted to inject social justice issues into Earth First!’s environmentalism. Mr. Foreman, who called himself “a redneck for the environment,” had never shown much interest in left-wing politics, and in 1990 he and his wife, Nancy Morton, publicly split with Earth First!

The group, they wrote in a letter to its members, had become dominated by an “overtly counterculture/anti-establishment style.”

“We feel,” they added, “like we should be sitting at the bar of a seedy honky-tonk, drinking Lone Star, thumbing quarters in the country western jukebox, and writing this letter on a bar napkin.”

An Earth First! activist in 1997 fighting to save ancient redwood trees in California. The group advocated direct action and even sabotage of logging operations to protect trees. Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times

William David Foreman was born on Oct. 18, 1946, in Albuquerque, the son of Benjamin Foreman, an Air Force master sergeant who later worked as an air traffic controller, and Lorane (Crawford) Foreman, a homemaker.

He married Debbie Sease in 1976. They later divorced. He married Ms. Morton in 1986. She died in 2021. He is survived by his sister, Roxanne Pacheco.

David grew up conservative. In high school he founded a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative youth group, and in 1964 campaigned for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the right-wing Republican nominee for president. Attending San Antonio Junior College in Texas, he ran the campus chapter of Students for Victory in Vietnam and (to his later embarrassment) named J. Edgar Hoover as his hero.

After two years he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where he received a degree in history in 1967. In 1968, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, but he lasted just 61 days, a month of that in the brig for insubordination and going absent without leave. He was released with a separation then known as an undesirable discharge.

Mr. Foreman taught on a Zuni reservation in New Mexico and worked as a farrier, or horseshoer, before joining the Wilderness Society as its Southwest regional representative. He then worked as a lobbyist in its Washington office before becoming disillusioned with the organization.

“What’s happened is that environmental groups have become more conservative — instead of a cause, it’s become a career for many people,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986. “They just don’t have the fire in the belly anymore. That leaves people who want to take a hard line with nowhere to go.”

After his decade with Earth First!, Mr. Foreman and several of his colleagues created a new organization, the Wilderness Network, which called on governments and nonprofit organizations to buy up large chunks of land and return it to its natural state. He later created the Rewilding Institute to develop policy ideas to realize that vision.

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