IRVINE — Standing atop a remote, sage-dotted hill near UC Irvine under a perfect sky, Craig Beneville and Mike Scott explain the importance of protecting the area from devastation by bulldozer. And they're willing to go to great lengths to save it.
Unlike environmentalists who don suits and ties to negotiate compromises with developers such as Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren, these guys are--well, rude.
At a recent meeting of the tollway agency, for example, they wore Bren masks, passed out "Bren bucks" and shouted, "I'm Donald Bren and I own all of you!" At another board meeting, they dumped cow dung in the aisles. Earlier this year, Beneville chained himself to the door of the tollway agency in Costa Mesa.
Beneville and Scott and their compatriots are cheered by environmentalists for having the guts to do things others shy away from. But at the same time the environmentalists are applauding, they are worrying that such provocative tactics may damage the cause.
A strategy of disruption and confrontation, say some public officials and mainstream political consultants, is doomed to failure. The collective critique: You don't want to offend and alienate conservative Orange County, now, do you?
"I just find that their conduct is disgusting and so disrespectful," says Newport Beach Councilman John C. Cox Jr., chairman of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency.
"They won't be effective," adds veteran political consultant Harvey Englander.
"I can't imagine the Laguna Canyon Conservancy going to a tollway board meeting and dumping cow chips," says Mike Phillips, the conservancy's director. "But we certainly understand their level of frustration."
So who are these wild men?
They are among Orange County's 30 or so members of a loose-knit, national radical group called Earth First!
Key tenets: As just one of many species populating the Earth, humans have no special claim to the planet; people may have to be relocated to restore natural habitats damaged by humans; and compromise with developers, ranchers, politicians and others doesn't work.
Earth Firsters are perhaps best known for efforts to prevent logging in forests of the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, the group has been the target of several criminal investigations into whether members may have spiked trees with large nails to prevent logging.
Dozens of members have been jailed in Western states for actions ranging from blocking the paths of bulldozers to sitting in trees slated for cutting. In one case, a member of Earth First! in Wyoming allegedly pulled out more than a mile of survey stakes leading to a Chevron well site. The strategy is known as "monkey wrenching"--sabotage of development projects.
In May, 1990, two of the group's members were injured when their car was bombed in Oakland.
Earth First! founder Dave Foreman pleaded guilty last year to a felony charge of conspiring to sabotage nuclear facilities. Foreman, who lives in Tucson, was given five years' probation with the possibility of the conviction being reduced to a misdemeanor. While Beneville and Scott advocate civil disobedience, they say any acts of violence are the responsibility of individuals, not the organization. "Some people do their own thing," says Beneville. "We certainly don't advocate hurting people."
But tollway agency spokesman Mike Stockstill believes that the national group's use of civil disobedience and sabotage should automatically disqualify Earth First! from having any clout whatsoever. "Earth Firsters aren't much better than thugs," Stockstill says.
Beneville and Scott say, however, that the group's tactics--such as tree-sitting in a Northern California forest--made the fate of that forest so compelling that Gov. Pete Wilson is now in favor of saving it.
In Orange County, members ardently oppose three planned tollways because the roads will cross some of the county's most ecologically sensitive lands. But they also oppose new housing developments. In June, 1990, for example, 18 members picketed the Newport Beach headquarters of the William Lyon Co., one of the nation's biggest home builders. The protesters held signs that said, "Orange County, Not Tract County."
Beneville and Scott are itching for more action.
"We're going to do demonstrations and occupations of offices of people who miss the point," says Beneville.
Earth First! has dubbed this the "Sage Scrub Summer," a period of "direct action" aimed at stopping the tollways and other projects that threaten to wipe out major areas of coastal sage scrub, home to a variety of rare species.
Typically, Orange County's Earth Firsters meet at Cafe Irvana at UCI. Neither man matches Orange County's button-down image of success. They both belong to the embryonic Green Party, which is on the fringe of politics here.
At 25, Beneville--who is single and lives in Irvine--is an unemployed 1992 UCI political science graduate, who is thinking about returning to school. "I'm living off my student loans," he says.