Dave Foreman has hung up his monkey wrench, but the veteran wilderness warrior stubbornly keeps on putting Earth first.
by B. J. Bergman
Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism.
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
We're afloat, finally, easing into a delirious languor, still upstream
from Navajo Bridge and barely 20 miles below the concrete monolith called
Glen Canyon Dam. Hour One on the Colorado: immensity is general, all is a
blur of rock and water, sun and sky and anticipation. There's no sign yet
of the fabled rapids; we're just drifting, descending lazily past the
bright Vermilion Cliffs on our way to the depths of the Grand Canyon.
Creatures of wristwatches and leather shoes, we are molting, reinventing
ourselves, crossing over to river time. This is by definition a private
process. Chatter seems vaguely profane.
It's Dave Foreman who spots the great blue heron on river left. We watch as
it trolls the shoreline for fish, then launches itself abruptly and effortlessly,
skimming the water's surface and gaining altitude, gliding along the contour of the
sandstone wall until it vanishes from our view. Foreman keeps staring, as at an after-image.
"They're so wonderfully prehistoric," he announces to no one in particular.
"You look at a great blue heron and you just see how they're linked to dinosaurs."
I do see it, sort of. Back in civilization in two weeks I'll see it
more clearly, aided by picture-book photos of the Jurassic fossil
Archaeopteryx, a feathered dinosaur thought to be the genetic bridge
from reptiles to birds. For the moment, though, I'm more interested
in the birder. This is, after all, the rowdy outlaw who in 1980 begat
Earth First!, the radical band of monkeywrenchers for whom tree-spiking,
'dozer-disabling, and other forms of "ecological sabotage" were all in a
night's work. Foreman and friends made their mark with a glorious
forgery, an illusory crack in the dam that corralled the Colorado and
turned Glen Canyon-eulogized by David Brower as "the
place no one knew"-into Lake Powell, a splashy 160,000-acre playground
for 3 million visitors a year. If Brower is the archdruid, Foreman
throughout the 1980s was the archetypal eco-warrior: burly, bellicose,
and, as Earth First!'s slogan had it, willing to brook "no compromise in
defense of Mother Earth."
The cerebral, genial man in our rubber raft bears only a passing
resemblance to the Dave Foreman of legend. At 50 he appears fit but
surprisingly slight, pallid below and bald on top (he is usually
pictured in hats), and today sports the kind of fish-pattern print shirt
favored by package-tour travelers to Key West. More substantively,
Foreman long ago broke with Earth First!, has ceased his advocacy of
monkeywrenching, and in 1995 won election to a three-year term as a
Sierra Club director. Attacks from the left on his politics and character
have become as reflexive as those from the right used to be. Alexander
Cockburn, writing in The Nation, branded him "a tabby cat, lapping heartily
from the boardroom saucers of the Sierra Club."
Even many mainstream conservationists, while less dyspeptic, find Foreman's
conversion baffling. He spent over a decade sniping at the national green
groups, claiming they'd been co-opted by their access to the powerful, their
tidy "professionalism," their appetite for expansion. So why did this khaki-
clad wilderness guerrilla come out of the mountains to dance with the Sierra
Club, the very model of environmental respectability and good citizenship?
Had he finally outgrown the all-or-nothing idealism of a protracted and
misspent youth? Has Foreman, like the mean and muddy Colorado, been tamed?
The water is up near 28,000 cubic feet per second today, high by post-dam
standards but a trickle compared to the torrent Major John Wesley Powell and
his men found in 1869. There are five of us in our boat. At the oars is Larry
Stevens, a droll, unflappable research biologist and Grand Canyon authority
who notched 220 trips down the gorge before he stopped counting. It's a bit of
a shock to learn this is Foreman's maiden voyage: the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation scotched a planned expedition some 25 summers ago by shutting off
the river to raise the level of the reservoir it named, perversely, after the
one-armed explorer Powell. Lunch and a few modest rapids loosen our tongues,
and soon the raft takes on the feel of a floating cracker barrel. Foreman and
Stevens talk shop, schmoozing about dam-builders and bureaucrats, swapping
insights on taxonomy and geology. A dragonfly buzzes the boat; Stevens tells
us its kind has been around for 350 million years.
"As we go downstream, we're going back in time," he says. Then we're punching
through House Rock rapid, leaving no doubt that there's life in the old Colorado yet.
As befits a Sierra Club outing, our first full day in the wild begins with a
hike. We pause in the cozy North Canyon-21 Club members, including Foreman
and his wife, Nancy Morton, plus six guides-while Stevens holds forth on the
local flora and fauna. A raven flies by overhead.
"Ed Abbey," someone jokes. In fact, it was the cantankerous author's stated
wish to return as a turkey vulture, not a raven. But Foreman can tell from its
behavior that this particular bird is not the reincarnation of Cactus Ed.
"If it'd been Ed Abbey," he declares, "he'd have shit on us."
Still, the ghost of Abbey, who died in 1989, is very much with us. It was
Abbey's rollicking 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, that captured the
enormity of the damage from Glen Canyon Dam-ecological, emotional, and
spiritual-and the profound animus it provoked in people who shared his love
of wilderness, especially desert. He was also the patron curmudgeon (for he
was no saint) of Earth First! and a soul mate to Foreman, who's brought along
a copy of Desert Solitaire, the eccentric, elegiac mash note to southwestern
canyonlands that Abbey published in 1968. "No death's ever affected me that
much," Foreman tells me later. "I think I'm just now back to being able to
read Ed again."
Abbey, he says, was "a visionary, the greatest inspiration my generation of
conservation activists in the West ever had." But vision and inspiration alone
don't stop dams or save wilderness. "Ed was not a working conservationist," he
adds, a bit ruefully. "He wasn't politically sophisticated. He didn't
understand the system."
Foreman's esteem for "working conservationists" is clear once we're back on
the river. Most of us are in different boats today; I've landed a spot in the lone paddle
boat, part of a crew that includes Morton, who went for an involuntary swim at House Rock
but has hung on through the string of rapids known as the Roaring Twenties. As we near
Mile 39 we tie our five vessels together, forming one ungainly, multi-chambered organism.
Foreman takes up a position at the creature's head.
This was supposed to be a reservoir. In 1964 the Bureau of Reclamation was
preparing to build Marble Canyon Dam just downstream, along with a power plant
to pump Colorado River water to Phoenix and equally arid points beyond. But
the Sierra Club, in what Foreman lauds as "the high-water mark of conservation
advocacy in this country," launched the celebrated ad campaign that both
killed the dam and got the Club's tax-exempt status revoked. One ad, mocking
the government's claim that turning the Grand Canyon into a reservoir would
make it more accessible to sightseers, famously asked: "Should we also flood
the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?" Millions of
Americans said no. With the exception of Arizona's congressional delegation-
which continues to push for a dam at Bridge Canyon, 200 miles downriver-most
any politician fool enough to suggest disfiguring the Grand Canyon these days
would be committing career suicide. "It was the battle over this dam that
taught us the conservation techniques we're using today," proclaims Foreman,
framed against the red rock and the clear summer sky. "And it was the battle
over dams that made the Sierra Club a household name. The most defining
moments for the Club have had to do with dams and rivers."
One of those moments still haunts conservationists, and none more than fellow
Club Board member David Brower. In 1959 Brower, then the Club's executive
director, agreed to the compromise that saved Utah's popular Dinosaur National
Monument from flooding-but allowed little-known Glen Canyon, on the Arizona-
Utah border, to be inundated instead. He has, in his words, "worn sackcloth
and ashes ever since." (See "Let the River Run Through It," March/April 1997.)
"Glen Canyon Dam is probably the single most objectionable feature in the
West," Foreman says. "It's symbolic of the industrial conquest of the
wilderness." As the 1981 equinox arrived, he and some Earth First! friends
gathered at the dam for what Ed Abbey-a guest at the event-would sardonically
term "spring rites." Using three 100-by-20-foot rolls of black plastic,
1,000 feet of duct tape, and 1,000 feet of nylon rope, they created what looked for
all the world to be a 300-foot crack down the middle of Glen Canyon Dam. The
caper put Earth First! on the map, and began Foreman's too-brief friendship
with the elder Abbey.
The dam, of course, still stands. In November 1996 Foreman cast his vote,
along with the rest of the 15-member Sierra Club Board, for a Brower
resolution that calls for draining Lake Powell in order to reclaim the
lost treasure below. As to whether the feds are likely to pull the plug on
the unnatural wonder he calls "Lake Foul," Foreman takes the long view.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter whether you have a chance of making something
happen," he says. "Sometimes it's important just to raise the issue. Do we
live in a natural ecosystem, or do we live in an elaborate plumbing system?
Talking about draining the reservoir forces us to think about the future."
Down the river and back in time we go, Stevens providing running commentary,
an outdoorsy version of the stolid narrator in Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
We plunge deeper and deeper, encountering new kinds of rock-actually older
strata-as the Colorado bears us through the wondrous chasm it carved out a
geologically paltry 40 million years ago. The porous limestone of the Kaibab
Plateau, up at the Lees Ferry put-in, is 250 million years old; we'll end our
225-mile journey amid the dense Proterozoic granite and the black, 1.7-
billion-year-old Vishnu schist that makes you feel you've stumbled into the
planet's core. Snapshot from prehistory: somewhere during the Cambrian
period, where the emerald Bright Angel shale emerges, life on Earth takes
its first halting steps toward bilateral symmetry, a form that distinguishes
higher animals from, say, sea anemone. "We're making critical decisions about
how to be" at this point in the Paleozoic, Stevens tells us. "Nothing in
biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," he adds, quoting the
geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. It's somewhere during the Cambrian, too,
that I solve a small but nagging mystery about Foreman: the guy sounds like
John Wayne. He laughs when I suggest this to him, then breaks into a dead-on
impression of the Duke that requires him only to slow down his baritone New
Mexico drawl. Following a long-ago drinking binge, he tells me, he assumed
his Duke persona and found himself stuck that way for three solid days.
The affinity with America's favorite movie star is only partly ironic. Foreman
describes himself as a "cowboy" and a "redneck," and likes his steak on
the bloody side. As a college student he worked to send Barry Goldwater to the
White House in 1964, and insists that he's "still a Republican," though he
admits that he hasn't actually voted for one in perhaps 15 years. ("Twenty,"
corrects Morton.) At the height of the Vietnam War he joined the Marines, but
quickly realized "Semper fi" wasn't for him: he went AWOL, which earned him a
month in the brig and his walking papers. Although he has long mistrusted many
of the red-white-and-blue institutions Wayne spent a career glorifying, Foreman's
chronic problems with authority-"I just can't stand to be pushed around," he says,
sounding a bit like the Duke again-have more to do with individualism than anarchism.
He calls Abbey, that bard of resistance, "a great American patriot."
Indeed, Foreman's own conservation ethic is rooted in a fundamental conservatism.
"Conservation isn't just about protecting beautiful places or protecting our outdoor
recreation opportunities," he says. "It's really come down to protecting the
integrity of the diversity of life and the evolutionary process." The world is
losing species at "a thousand, maybe ten thousand times the overall background
rate of extinction in the fossil record," says Foreman, who lays the blame on
"six billion human beings" and a civilization that's fatally out of touch with
"Marvin Harris, the anthropologist, says you can look at industrialization as a big
soap bubble," he explains. "It grows and it grows and it grows, and at some point
it reaches the limit and it pops. I think that's what's going to happen. I don't think
society can keep going in the direction it's going. And the more it rushes to
globalization, the more it rushes to depersonalization, the closer and closer it
gets to some kind of collapse which nobody can predict."
Meanwhile, Foreman-a longtime champion of "deep ecology," which holds that humankind
is no more important than any other species-is determined to save as much of the
nonhuman world as he can. "It's not that we're going to cause the end of life-that's
certainly beyond even our ability," he says. "But what we are going to do is cause a
massive depopulation of life unless some things are done, unless we somehow can tell
the American people and people around the world what really is going on. The
frightening thing is, I don't even think most members of the Sierra Club understand
just how serious the extinction crisis is, what we could lose."
Since 1991 Foreman has headed up the Wildlands Project, a small group of activists
dedicated to preserving and restoring "true wilderness" across North America. "We
need to look at the whole landscape, at the connectivity between protected areas,"
he says, citing a central tenet of the emerging field of conservation biology.
The Wildlands Project aims to establish wilderness corridors, buffer zones, and
other forms of protected habitat for wildlife, and especially large carnivores, that
can't survive in ecologically fragile "islands" like national parks and refuges.
"We see implementation not as one fell swoop, one piece of legislation, but as a
jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces," Foreman says, adding that it will take larger
groups, such as the Sierra Club, to put all the pieces together. Unlike Abbey,
Foreman is a distinctly political animal. Yet beneath the pragmatism, the moral
imperative is plain.
"If we picture life as one of those great American chestnut trees just spreading
thousands and thousands of branches out-if we see that as the tree of life-then
we aren't just snapping off a few twigs out on the end of branches that may grow
back in other ways," he says. "What we're doing is taking a chainsaw to huge
limbs of that tree of life."
Foreman once dreamed of being a preacher, and his more impassioned speeches ring
with a secular brand of fire and brimstone. But he is also a man of appetites, one
of these being a lust for water. Both he and Morton are bona fide river rats. One
afternoon, on the big river's stunningly turquoise tributary, the Little Colorado,
members of our group take turns swimming a miniature rapid. It's a chance to cool
off-temperatures are approaching 100 degrees in the shade-and to get a feel for
what to expect should we find ourselves running Crystal or Lava Falls without benefit
of a boat. Morton, of course, already has the feel, and Foreman has no need for such a
drill. For the sheer joy of it, though, they run the chute more times than anyone else
besides 12-year-old Josh, now prone, now supine, sometimes rolling over mid-rapid to
become a link in a sort of human slingshot. Then we hike a bit farther up the "Little
C," where Foreman shows off his diving form by doing flips off a 20-foot cliff.
A few nights later, Foreman twists his ankle during a raucous after-dinner jump-rope
competition. Like several of the rest of us-some of whom are unaccustomed to hiking
slick, craggy trails in river sandals-he is tended to by Morton, a college nursing
instructor and proprietor of what comes to be known as Nancy's Foot Clinic. Morton,
I discover the hard way, dresses wounds expertly. She also makes a ferocious gin and tonic.
Layers on layers: subtext is everywhere. Every stratum of the canyon is a covert
record of centuries of erosion or deposition, every mile an archive of glacial
changes and explosive, violent upthrusts originating beneath the surface of the
earth. "The natural condition is a state of change," Stevens reminds us. Even
this, it turns out, is fraught with nuance. Stevens has spent a quarter century
studying the ways Glen Canyon Dam has altered the ecosystem downstream-riparian
vegetation and colder water making the main river corridor inhospitable to species
that once thrived here, for example, while providing vital resources for new ones.
He favors more environmentally sensitive management in the Grand Canyon, but worries
about the impact emptying Lake Powell would have on the recent arrivals.
As for Foreman, the truth is more complicated than his press clippings suggest.
His notorious public image-fashioned in two dimensions, like that bogus breach in
the dam, for tactical reasons-is a husk that no longer fits, if it ever did. "The
people who started Earth First!, we'd all been in the mainstream groups, we were
solid conservationists. But we were frustrated at making too many compromises,"
Foreman explains, debunking the popular myth that Earth First! sprang more or less
full-blown from Ed Abbey's imagination. When Foreman and four others conceived the
group in 1980, he had nearly a decade under his belt as a buttoned-down lobbyist
for the D.C.-based Wilderness Society. And he found support from old allies for
his brazen new venture. "Earth First! was started by a lot of people within the
conservation movement who'd been talking about the need for taking a stronger
stand. It wasn't a bunch of radicals from outside."
Those demographics didn't hold: as the decade unfolded, the group took on a more
countercultural, overtly leftist coloration than Foreman was comfortable with. "I
offended a bunch of the new, radical-type Earth First!ers in the mid-eighties when
I said that if I had to choose between the Sierra Club and Earth First! there'd be
no choice at all-I'd pick the Sierra Club without thinking twice," Foreman recalls.
"Because Earth First! only has meaning as part of the larger conservation movement.
And that's what the Sierra Club is."
Looking back, Foreman believes the insurgents succeeded in toughening up the green
establishment, and he's proud of their role in promoting the causes of ancient
forests and conservation biology. Yet science and politics, he now realizes,
were mixed up with more personal factors. "I was clinically depressed,"
discloses Foreman, who has only recently begun to fight back with medication.
"If you really want to look at it, Earth First! was a way for me to deal with
depression by being a workaholic and starting something wild and crazy when
I'd been submerging my personality in The Wilderness Society for the sake of
getting the job done. You probably shouldn't psychoanalyze yourself, but I
think that's a legitimate part of it."
Foreman has always spoken his mind. But now the eco-warrior seems intent on
exploring his own nature, confronting his demons, making peace with his past.
At sunbaked Kanab Creek I ask about his 1991 trial on charges of conspiring with
four others to sabotage nuclear power plants in California, Colorado, and Arizona.
The ordeal ended with a joint plea bargain-and with recriminations from some one-
time supporters, who hatched conspiracy theories of their own to explain how he
dodged a jail term while his codefendants received sentences ranging from 30 days to
six years. Foreman just shrugs. He didn't do time, he replies wearily, because he
didn't do the crime.
"Once I was sort of like Bill Clinton and wanted everybody to like me," he says,
psychoanalyzing himself again. "And then I got to the point where I don't care if
people like me, or what they say about me." The trial, nonetheless, was a watershed.
"The kind of support I got from my real friends-and quite frankly, I got more support
from the mainstream than I got from the new Earth First!-made me happy, because that's
where my deeper roots are. You wouldn't want to go through something like that just to
get that sense of love and support, but it was truly a wonderful thing for me."
As we talk, in the summer of 1997, Foreman is several months from turning 51,
and several months from resigning his seat on the Sierra Club Board. The two
are not unrelated. He wants to spend more time with his wife, more time in New
Mexico's Gila Wilderness-"the center of my universe"-and more time writing fiction,
like his friend and mentor Abbey. (He's finished a novel he characterizes as "sex,
violence, wilderness, wolves, and the 'wise-use' movement" in the Southwest.) "I'm
not the workaholic I once was," he says. "I just can't work at that pace anymore.
But I am a Sierra Club member-I have been for twenty-five years-and I'm going to stay
involved with the Sierra Club."
The precise form that involvement takes remains to be seen. It seems certain,
however, to grow out of the Wildlands Project, a quirky marriage of bold vision
with the art of the possible, otherwise known as politics. The group is already
working with Club activists at the national level and in places from New Mexico to
Vermont to establish scientifically sound wildlife reserves. For Foreman, this
synthesis of inspiration and pragmatism is a function of evolution, the continuity
as clear as that from the dinosaur to the great blue heron.
"For over twenty-five years now I've been doing the same thing," he insists.
"I've never changed my goal as a conservationist-and that's been to protect as
much wilderness and as many intact ecosystems and native species as possible.
And as times change, as a person changes, you seek new ways of doing that. I've
been looking for new, effective strategies the whole time.
"If I were going to drown in Lava Falls in two days and had to evaluate my career
so far, I'd say that what I'm best known for-Earth First!-was the biggest aberration,
that what I'm doing now is more the real me. I was playing a role in Earth First! I'm
basically a shy, private person. I'm a lot happier doing what I'm doing today, I was a
lot happier doing what I was doing in the Wilderness Society days, than I was rabble-
rousing. I don't apologize for any of the Earth First! stuff. I think it was absolutely
necessary. But it's something I was never fully at home with."
Foreman pauses, thinking perhaps about Lava Falls, the steepest, scariest, most
treacherous rapid in the canyon. "I know that'll piss people off that feel I've
sold out anyway," he says. "But c'est la vie."