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Earth First! Tactics in Fight to Save Planet Anger Some, Tickle Others

August 14, 1988|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

The call went out to newspaper and television assignment editors one day last year: Position photographers at the state Department of Fish and Game office in downtown San Diego for a great picture of cow manure being dumped on a bureaucrat's desk.

The stunt, which necessarily required media cooperation, was meant to protest cattle grazing on public lands--a policy that affronts some conservationists as detrimental to Mother Earth's fragile ecosystem, especially in terms of erosion and related problems caused by cattle near streams.

And so it was that photographers from The Times and the Union-Tribune stationed themselves outside the DFG office at the appointed hour. Suddenly, two men, bandannas covering their faces, appeared out of a stairwell, ran into the lobby of the DFG office, dumped the manure on a desk and scurried off. Each photographer took a few quick pictures as office workers looked on, bewildered.

The newspapers, wary of being manipulated, didn't publish the photographs, and so it was that another publicity stunt by the radical environmental group Earth First! fell short of its mark.

But this group of never-say-die environmentalists has not gone for want of other ideas and protests to promote their battle cry--Earth First!--and its conviction: "No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth."

In San Diego County, local compatriots of the nationwide Earth First! movement (they don't call themselves an organization or group, and there are no leaders in the traditional, bureaucratic sense) have orchestrated any number of stunts--some playful, some illegal, and some costly to their targets--in their fervor to protect the world's ecosystem from what they say is its most insidious threat: man.

Earth First!ers (who insist on the exclamation mark) are perhaps best known nationally for their so-called "monkey-wrenching" tactics to slow or disable man and machine's rape of the earth, as they see it. Indeed, their ploy of spiking trees in virgin, old-growth woods of Northern California and the Northwest has effectively protected entire tracts of land from lumber harvesting, with lumber companies fearful of the damage that could be done should a mill saw rip into a steel spike.

There is no lumbering in San Diego County, so Earth First!ers here have other focuses locally:

- Earth First! protested development along Los Penasquitos Canyon by pouring sand in the crank cases of earth movers and bulldozers. The ploy, for which Earth First! takes credit and was out under cover of darkness, cost the contractor more than $75,000 in repair bills.

- To protest the same North City development, two members chained themselves to a fence at the corporate offices of the developer and were cited and fined for trespassing.

- Earth First!ers rounded up more than 30 head of cattle in the Los Penasquitos Canyon and let them out in an industrial park on the canyon's west side, to protest cattle grazing on city-owned land and possible damage to mesa mint.

- They've cut down billboards along the San Diego County coastline, saying they were not only eyesores but were erected illegally.

- They've disabled the vehicles--and tried to make citizen arrests--of off-road enthusiasts who they say were driving illegally off marked trails in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

- And they've joined their colleagues elsewhere in the state to stalk hunters looking for bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert, dressing themselves in camouflage and sounding air horns to scare off the animals just as hunters raised their rifles.

Forty-two-year-old Claude Mathis, an assistant manager of a backpacking outfitters store in Solana Beach, is the spokesman for the 90 or so people who he says subscribe to Earth First! in San Diego County.

"What sets us apart (from mainstream environmental groups) is our eco-defense, which other groups stop short of," Mathis says. "It does make a difference. We're not just a few guys blowing off steam. We're

calculated, we're efficient."

And they're receiving mixed reviews.

The movement generally is scorned by mainstream environmentalists for being too radical, for putting their convictions ahead of the law, for being unwilling to compromise and for not having brought about changes in law or policy to further their philosophical aims.

And Earth First!ers generally interpret that criticism as praise for their message and their methods.

"We need to protect land for land's sake, and all the species in the world for the species' sake, because they have intrinsic value in and of themselves," says Mathis. No other organization has the grass-roots fervor, energy and dedication--and surely no other group is willing to embrace militant and and sometimes illegal tactics--to protect the earth, now and for the future, he said.

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