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Terrorists or Saviors? : Environment: U.S. claims that Earth First! engaged in criminal conspiracy to disrupt nuclear facilities. The defense says the government is out to discredit the organization.

June 16, 1991|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — A prospective juror gazing out of this town's only federal courtroom might have seen, framed in a single fanlight window, the snapshot symbolism of what the Earth First! environmental movement has been about: a live oak tree and an electric pole, almost side by side.

Ten years and barely 170 miles from where Earth First! announced its arrival in 1981, unfurling a 100-yard black plastic streamer down the face of Glen Canyon Dam to look like a deep crack, four Earth First! sympathizers and one of its founders go on trial in federal court here this week, accused of conspiring to cut power lines into three nuclear facilities.

From that moment of political theater atop the Glen Canyon Dam, Earth First! went on to become environmentalism's in-your-face cutting edge, whose allegiance to the tree over the utility pole, and the tactics they used to demonstrate it, entered words such as clear-cutting, tree-hugging and monkey-wrenching into the national glossary and debate.

This trial, say federal authorities, is about a straightforward criminal conspiracy by environmental guerrillas who went way beyond \o7 trompe l'oeil\f7 dam fissures or facing down bulldozers.

These five, they say, conspired to topple simultaneously the power lines to three nuclear sites, one of them the Diablo Canyon plant in California, a plan that could have risked human lives in a nuclear accident. All but David Foreman--an Earth First!'s founder and one of the people who stood atop that dam--are also charged with cutting a ski lift pylon and the electric poles into a uranium mine and a pumping station. Foreman is accused, in effect, of inspiring and backing the alleged plan.

There is a conspiracy, all right, defense adherents counter--government undercover infiltration to create a crime where none existed. "We were sucked in by a government conspiracy," said one defendant, botanist Marc Baker.

Vast federal resources, they believe, were not marshaled for two years just to put some people behind bars for major-league vandalism. Instead, they say, it was to discredit the movement as dangerous in the eyes of the public, to scare other activists out of business, and particularly to shut up Foreman, who had become the glib, outspoken Dr. Ruth of radical environmentalists, the man who literally wrote the book, "Eco-Defense: a Field Guide to Monkeywrenching"--about ecotage, the sabotage of the machinery that alters the landscape.

Foreman's book may become pivotal to his case; the government argues that in giving a copy to an informant, he drew himself into the conspiracy. "Defendant Foreman states 'mere advocacy itself does not constitute a crime'. . . . This statement is flat wrong," one document noted.

"This is the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights," Foreman said last week, "and I think to a certain extent the Bill of Rights is at stake here, whether the FBI is going to defend the Bill of Rights or be the Thought Police."

"There is the whole question of whether environmentalism is a cosmetic thing--Earth Day parades, colorful recycling bins and Band-Aids on scenery--or defending the whole flow of blossoming life on this planet," he said.

Foreman's attorney is an established star--Gerry Spence, the bigger-than-life gentleman cowboy from Wyoming who got Imelda Marcos off. Like two other lawyers here, he is defending his client for free, and like them, the usually forthright Spence cannot comment under a court rule.

The lead federal prosecutor, Roslyn Moore-Silver, also said she cannot comment on the case.

Besides Foreman, a 44-year-old Tucson man, the other defendants, all from Prescott, are Mark Davis, 41, a cabinetmaker; Peg Millett, 37, a singer-songwriter and half-sister of feminist author Kate Millett; Ilse Asplund, 37, a health educator, and Baker, 39, the botanist.

Even before he was arrested, naked and in bed on May 31, 1989, Foreman was parting company with the movement because of philosophical and tactical differences.

Davis and Baker had been arrested in the Arizona desert the night before as they allegedly tried to slice the legs off a power line tower, in the company of a man whose name now brings a bemused look to the defendants' faces--Mike Fain, an undercover FBI agent who spent a year befriending them, and whose testimony is likely to be a fulcrum for both sides.

Millett managed to give the slip to the helicopters, the agents on horseback, the infrared sensors and dogs. The next morning she was arrested. She remembers one agent telling her: "You must be really good at what you do."

That night was a dry run, the government believed, for conspiracy. It says it has about 1,000 hours of tapes from Fain, wiretaps and informants--including two of Asplund's friends--to back that up.

To take it all in, the jurors, nine lawyers and five defendants will be issued earphones, and authorities fretted about how the courthouse's aging electrical system will stand up to the demand.

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