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New Range War Flares Between Serenity, Economics in West : Radical Environmentalists Support Sabotage to Preserve the Wilderness

March 01, 1987|LISA LEVITT RYCKMAN | Associated Press

MOAB, Utah — The romantic anarchist in Edward Abbey's soul dreams of flattening Western cities, blowing up Western dams and rolling up Western highways like so many asphalt jellyrolls.

"I'd like to see the whole American West made into a wilderness," said Abbey over tea at his rustic summer retreat south of Moab. "Just make the whole Rocky Mountain West a great wildlife preserve and human playground--for those willing to enter it on its own terms, just walk or ride a horse or row a boat.

"No Hondas, no helicopters in my utopian West," he added. "That's a pretty farfetched dream, of course."

20 Years in the West

Nevertheless, such dreams have inspired a movement of radical environmentalism that eschews compromise and believes in the extreme, from tree-sitting and tree-spiking to slow development on public lands. Founders of Earth First!--the group most often associated with the no-compromise stance--credit Abbey's writings with crystallizing their philosophy, one he has outlined in his essays during 20 years in the West.

A Pennsylvania native, Abbey first came west in 1944. Three years later, after a discharge from the Army, he returned for good, attended the University of New Mexico, worked as seasonal park ranger and firefighter, a writer and a radical.

"You need the dreamers, romantics and idealists--nuts--running around screaming and hollering and making fools of themselves to prevent things from being much worse," he said. "Somebody has to put up some sort of resistance to those who want to reduce the whol1696617838New Jersey or California."

Abbey winters in Arizona and summers in Utah, watching the wilderness disappear and doing what he can to stop the process.

"What we're drifting toward is industrial civilization with less and less nature," he said. "It seems to me it would be a terrible tragedy for all forms of life to let our wilderness be overwhelmed by more industrial expansion, population growth and commercial greed."

In Abbey's book "The Monkeywrench Gang," four environmentalists take drastic measures to try to thwart development in the West. "Monkeywrenching" has come to mean such activities as driving spikes into trees to make them unfit for milling, disabling bulldozers or cutting down barbed wire fences on open ranges.

"I still like to think we can save the American West by political means," he said. "But if political means fail, I would argue that sabotage and destruction of machinery can be justified in certain extreme situations."

Abbey believes that when machines invade a patch of beloved desert or forest, monkeywrenching might become an act of conscience and a matter of personal honor.

"We're all romantic anarchists, but we've been pushed to it," he said. "Many of us feel our backs are against the wall, trying to defend something we love too much."

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