Like most of their "actions," the protest Monday by members of Orange County Earth First! was a last-minute effort with no acknowledged leader or organizer.
Individuals who felt pushed to frustration by bulldozers ripping up South County's brush-covered canyons for the San Joaquin Hills tollway came together in the last few days to plot a shared strategy, they said.
These were "people who have had sentiments that 'I want to go in, I want to make a statement,' " said Earth First! participant Mike Richey, 34, of Costa Mesa. "There were people who wanted to go out by themselves and put themselves on a piece of equipment. But it's better if you can do it together."
Richey, one of the longtime participants in Orange County Earth First! protests, said Monday's protest--or "action," as he calls it--developed the way the Earth First! movement espouses throughout North America: with no recognized leader, no designated spokesman.
"Earth First! is a movement, not an organization," Richey said. "There's no P.O. box, no offices. It's not like the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society. Basically, the premise is that the earth comes first, and that's about the only common variable that everyone in the Earth First! movement has."
Richey, an electronics technician who maintains the fiber-optic system at UC Irvine, said most participants in the local chapter of Earth First! are friends who keep in regular contact. Through their everyday conversations and activities, they decide when it is time to make a stand.
The decision to chain themselves to the bulldozers in Laguna Niguel on Monday morning was made at a potluck supper last Thursday night, as the group discussed fading fervor among other environmental groups in opposition to the tollway, Richey said.
"People want to think that for months or weeks we plan these actions," he said. "Most are spontaneous. There aren't many things we do that we plan outside of a week."
Although Earth First! participants may lack, or even revile, organized structure, they do have a doctrine of sorts.
In locking themselves to bulldozers Monday, local Earth Firsters practiced "monkeywrenching" and "ecotage"--the sabotaging of machinery that alters the landscape. It was first espoused by radical environmentalist and Earth First! founder David Foreman in his book, "Eco-Defense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching." Foreman later disavowed it.
Edward Abbey's novel about ecotage, "The Monkey Wrench Gang" is also cited as a movement influence.
Since 1981, when Earth First! announced its arrival on the national scene by unfurling a 100-yard black plastic streamer down the face of Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam--it was designed to look like a deep crack--the movement has hectored and harassed developers, loggers, nuclear-energy proponents and others.
Nationally, Earth Firsters have pounded spikes into tree trunks and sat in the limbs of redwoods to block Pacific Northwest loggers during "Redwood Summer" in 1990. Dozens in Western states have been jailed for blocking bulldozers.
And in 1989, five participants, including Foreman, were charged in Arizona with conspiring to sever power lines to nuclear plants, cut down ski-lift supports and topple electricity poles to a uranium mine. All pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
In Orange County, Earth Firsters dumped cow dung at a board meeting of the Transportation Corridor Agencies in 1992. Last March, they glued door locks, climbed the roof and hung banners from the TCA building in Costa Mesa. And on Sept. 9, one protester locked himself to the gates of the tollway contractor's equipment storage yard in Aliso Viejo.
Richey said the group will be heard from again. He expressed the hoped that Monday's action will draw out more people to protest the tollway's construction.
"Our things are very spontaneous," he said, when asked if another protest might occur. "Today we're not even sure when or if we are going to go out again."
But, he added, "There will probably be more."