PIERCY, Calif. — Perched on a small, unsteady plywood platform 130 feet above the earth in the crown of an ancient coastal redwood tree, Greg King saw the light. It was a searchlight. And it was pointed at him.
Crews working for the tree's owner, Pacific Lumber Co., had moved the light deep into the remote, old-growth forest northwest of here to keep tabs on King and another protester, Jane Marie Cope, as they camped in the trees last month to prevent them from being felled.
King and Cope eventually rappelled undetected down the husky conifers for a swift and silent escape, but not until they had turned their own spotlight--the glare of national publicity--onto the practice of clear-cutting virgin timber. The treetop antics also won no small measure of attention for Earth First!, a 7-year-old band of environmental activists and ecological saboteurs who promise "no compromise in defense of Mother Earth"--and back up that promise with everything from costumed theatrics to potentially lethal booby traps.
Indeed, the most notorious tactic associated with Earth First!--spiking trees with nails to inhibit logging and intimidate loggers--occurs regularly in forests from Texas to Washington. Not all spiking is done by members of Earth First!, which insists on the exclamation point in its name, but many blame the group for legitimizing the act as a means of protest. While Earth First! literature describes in detail how to spike trees and get away with it, leaders of the organization say use of the tactic--which can result in severe injuries to loggers--is a matter of individual conscience.
Chilly winter rains have recently coaxed Earth First! protesters out of the woods, but the weather has hardly dampened their intensity--or their rhetoric.
They decry wholesale extinctions, loss of rain forests, wilderness resource exploitation, air and sea pollution and excessive consumption. All of it, they warn, shows that humanity is close to fouling the Earth beyond redemption, and they must gum up the system until people radically alter their life styles.
'The Biggest Crisis'
"Right now, we face the biggest crisis challenging biological diversity since the end of the Mesozoic Era, when all the dinosaurs disappeared," said Dave Foreman of Tucson, Ariz., an Earth First! founder, philosopher and editor of the Earth First! Journal. "More plants and animals will become extinct in my lifetime than in all of the rest of history. We have to do something about that now, and compromise is not the thing."
He called people a "pox upon the planet . . . a disease organism."
If this is unlikely to win him many friends, he does not care.
"I'm not trying to argue with anybody," he said. "I'm not trying to convince anybody; I'm not trying to convert anybody. I'm trying to reach people who already feel pretty much the way we do--wilderness fanatics."
He has not reached those wilderness lovers in the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and other environmental groups. They believe that Earth First! effectively harnesses frustrations people feel toward the Reagan Administration, but acts irresponsibly and offers no practical plans to deal with issues they protest.
"We, too, have a view that there are some incredible environmental crises facing the world--depletion of ozone, increasing numbers of extinctions, famine in Africa," said Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club. "But this means it is time for responsible, serious world strategies to deal with them. Protests have their place, but they are not enough."
Since it has no membership list, little organization and no formal leaders, it is not easy to gauge Earth First!'s size, except to note that Foreman said his newspaper is sent to 10,000 subscribers eight times a year.
The group's decentralized structure and loose agenda also leave room for contradictions and inconsistencies--organizationally and individually.
Some members, for example, say "the system" is beyond hope, while others take pride in the reform legislation they have inspired; they balk at the idea of educating others, but demand fundamental shifts in popular attitudes.
At times, they can appear hypocritical, as when one attacked Styrofoam packaging while sipping from a plastic canteen, or when Foreman criticized human intrusion into the desert while strolling through his tract home at the very edge of Tucson's low-density sprawl. Many criticize cars, but most drive.
Despite this, Earth First! members are bound together by the urgency and simplicity of their cause.
"We say, 'No more nuclear power. No more strip mining. No more logging in wilderness. No more damming rivers. Period. Period. Period.' That makes our positions really very simple," said Mike Roselle, another Earth First! founder.