Eco-Warrior Dave Foreman Will Do Whatever It Takes in His Fight to Save Mother Earth

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 7 A.M. last May 31, Dave Foreman lay sleeping in the bedroom of his suburban brick house on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz. His wife, Nancy, who was already awake, was startled by a loud knocking at the door. As she went to open it, four men barged past her. "FBI!" they shouted, racing toward the bedroom. "I heard a voice I didn't know yelling my name," Foreman recalls. "When I opened my eyes, I saw three guys standing around my bed pointing .357 Magnums at me. The first thing I thought of was Allen Funt and Candid Camera. Then they told me I was under arrest. They jerked off the sheet, and I was stark naked. I never felt so naked in my life," he says, chuckling at the recollection.

The FBI wasn't amused. The night before, 30 agents armed with semiautomatic weapons and wearing night-vision goggles had arrested three of Foreman's friends—fellow members of the radical environmental group Earth First!—as they allegedly blowtorched the legs off a Central Arizona Project power-line tower 200 miles away. Based on more than 1,000 hours of bugged conversations and a yearlong sting operation, the FBI claims Foreman bankrolled the operation, which was a dry run for the planned sabotage of electrical transmission towers at three Western nuclear power plants. "It was a shock, but in the back of my mind I wasn't really surprised," says Foreman, 43. "The FBI never got the message that I retired from a leadership role in Earth First! a year ago. They wanted to make an example of me."

Foreman's trial on charges of conspiring to destroy government property-scheduled to begin Tuesday, April 10—has become a cause célèbre in the environmental world. A self-described "eco-warrior," Foreman has led a ragtag 15,000-member army in a decade-long war against what he calls "the destruction of the wild and the spread of urban cancer." Foreman, who claims he was framed, is pleading innocent and is being represented pro bono by flamboyant attorney Gerry Spence. (Spence, who won a $1.8 million settlement for the family of nuclear plant whistle-blower Karen Silk-wood, is currently defending Imelda Marcos against charges of racketeering, mail fraud and obstruction of justice.)

At issue is Foreman's advocacy of civil disobedience techniques in defense of the environment. Comparing themselves to American patriots who led the Boston Tea Party 200 years ago and civil rights protesters of the 1960s, members of Earth First! have been arrested for trespassing, blocking roads, tree spiking in ancient forests slated for the logging mills, foiling backcountry road building by uprooting survey stakes, and chaining themselves to everything from logging machinery to National Park Visitor Centers. "Grizzly bears and 1,000-year-old redwood trees are seen as things, property, with no standing under our laws," Foreman says. "When we damage a bulldozer, or chain ourselves to one to protest the building of a road through a wilderness area, we feel like the abolitionists who helped slaves escape from the South through the Underground Railroad. We're breaking the law for a higher ethical ideal."

Others, among them many environmentalists, see nothing but anarchy and lawlessness. Jay Hair, President of the National Wildlife Federation, has called Foreman a "terrorist." Former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus accused Foreman of "destroying the environmental movement." There's no question that Foreman and his cohort don't fit the traditional description of liberal Eastern Brie-and-Chablis environmentalists. They drink beer, wear cowboy boots and drive pickup trucks with bumper stickers that read REDNECKS FOR WILDERNESS.

"I consider myself a fairly conservative person, and for me, it's unfortunate to have to take these kinds of steps," says Foreman one afternoon in his living room. The walls are decorated with Earth First! posters and unframed prints of desert birds. Books on ecology, wildlife and rafting spill out of bookshelves. Beneath Foreman's rough exterior lie a quick intelligence and good business sense. Earth First! now operates on an annual budget of $250,000, most of which comes from donations and sales of T-shirts, a quarterly journal and Foreman's 1985 book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.

Foreman's love of the outdoors took root when he was a child. His father was an Air Force sergeant, and the family moved constantly. Foreman found stability in the woods. In high school, Dave campaigned for Barry Goldwater and later joined the conservative Young Americans for Freedom at the University of New Mexico. After college, he took a job as New Mexico representative for a national environmental group, the Wilderness Society. In 1977 Foreman and his first wife, Debbie Sease, moved to Washington, D.C., as full-time lobbyists. Gradually, Foreman grew disenchanted. "Environmentalists were more concerned with lining up a future job with some powerful Senator or Congressman than with the battles that needed to be fought," he says.

Foreman's personal breaking point came after working for 18 months on a U.S. Forest Service survey of America's last wilderness areas. When the Wilderness Society went along with the government's recommendation to open up 65 million of the 80 million remaining acres for logging and mining, Foreman packed his bags. "We had played the game properly—very rational, calm and factual," says Foreman. "We got beat badly. The time for talk was over."

Foreman took a leave from his job and returned to New Mexico. Separated from Debbie, he took off on a camping trip with four friends to Mexico's Pinacate Desert in 1980. Over beers in a bar in San Luis Sonora one night, the men began discussing one of their favorite novels, The Monkey Wrench Gang, by the late Edward Abbey. In it, a group of environmentalists embarks on a romantic rampage through the Southwest, crippling bulldozers, sawing down billboards and cutting down power lines. Foreman and his friends decided to form their own band, which, like their fictional heroes, would "throw a monkey wrench in the works of progress."

Members of Earth First! went on the road—speaking, playing music, passing the hat and recruiting disenchanted environmentalists, former Forest Service rangers—even scientists—to their radical cause. Partly to foil investigators, the group kept no formal membership rolls. There were frequent acts of civil disobedience and sabotage, with Foreman, who has been arrested seven times (but hasn't spent anytime in prison), often in the forefront.

Not even romance distracts the burly eco-warrior. In 1986, while speaking in Chico, Calif., he met Nancy Morton, then 31, a registered nurse and disenchanted Sierra Club member. The couple married that summer at Earth First!'s Round River Rendezvous in Idaho. Instead of a honeymoon, they went to Yellowstone National Park to demonstrate against the park's new Grant Village development, which infringed on prized grizzly habitat. Foreman chained himself to the visitor-center door in protest. He was arrested, and Morton bailed him out of jail. "David's strong," says his mother, Lorane. "I think he would gladly serve a prison term for protecting the Earth he loves." Nancy Morton puts it more succinctly: "Dave will back down when he's lying in the desert with Ed Abbey."

Foreman remains active in Earth First!, speaking out on environmental issues, and he is busy writing his latest book, Confessions of an Eco-Brute. He has stepped back from Earth First!'s leadership because "I had been a dominant presence long enough, and it was time to create room for others."

As his trial nears, Foreman has been trying to keep his aggressive tendencies in check, but it's not always easy. One recent morning he went out for his daily two-mile jog in the desert. He loped by giant saguaro cactuses and listened to the chirps of curved-bill thrashers. Suddenly he stopped. Lying a few feet away was a desert tortoise, a dark intestine oozing from a broken shell, dead in the tire tracks of an off-road vehicle. "You could see from the tracks," says Foreman, "that the guy deliberately veered off the path to run over the tortoise. Even though I'm out of jail on a $50,000 bond, I would not have been able to control myself if I'd found the person who did that."

—Susan Reed, Lorenzo Benet in Tucson

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