Dave Foreman has for a quarter-century been at the front lines of the political and cultural fight to save wilderness. He was the Southwest regional representative for The Wilderness Society in the 1970s, lobbying congressional members on Capitol Hill to introduce and support wilderness legislation. In the early ’80s, disillusioned by the compromises made by mainstream environmental groups, alarmed by the endorsement by politicians of the continued degradation of wild lands, he co-founded Earth First! with Darby resident Howie Wolke. While the movement—which took inspiration from Edward Abbey’s book, The Monkey Wrench Gang—raised awareness of the destruction of wild places and provided cover for mainstream conservation groups to pursue a more aggressive course, Foreman grew increasingly uncomfortable with his role as agitator. In the ’90s, he was implicated in a bizarre FBI investigation and subsequent court trial with strange-but-true real-life parallels to the plot of one of Abbey’s outlandish novels.
These days, the legal entanglement with the feds sorted out, and the harrowing, demanding role of spokesman for Earth First! now shunned, Foreman has become a more serene, but no less outspoken, defender of wilderness. Foreman’s passion for the earth has most recently translated into his role as founder and chair of The Wildlands Project, an effort to bring together grassroots environmentalists and conservation biologists to map out links among wilderness areas in North America that are extensive enough to restore working ecosystems.
An outspoken proponent of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), Foreman is also active in wildland preservation issues of the Southwest, where he makes his home. He is the executive editor of Wild Earth magazine and author of Confessions of an Eco-Warrior and The Big Outside with Howie Wolke. His first novel, Lobo Outback Funeral Home, will be released next month by University of Colorado Press. He will be in Missoula this week, speaking on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 7:15 p.m. at the Missoula Children’s Theater to kick off the Wild Rockies Rendezvous, an annual gathering sponsored by the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Foreman was interviewed by telephone from his home in New Mexico. His grizzly baritone belies his politeness, though quickly reminds the listener of one of the large predators whose habitat he defends.
When you come to western Montana, what places grab your attention and thrill you the most?
I’ve done a couple of long trips on the Main Salmon; I’ve done a ten-day trip in the Bob [Marshall Wilderness], and of course I’ve done a lot of trips in Yellowstone. But what probably grabs me is the total landscape, and the potential for how it can be tied together.
Western Montana seems to contain many of the threats to wilderness from industrial society that you describe in the introduction to The Big Outside. We’ve got the nuclear lab in Idaho Falls, the proposed Rock Creek Mine, unsustainable cuts on national forest land, to name just a few. Is there any one of these issues that seems more urgent than the others?
The method I would use to determine their urgency is to ask, What is their impact on the diversity of life, the impact on ecological integrity? We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction episode in earth’s history. We haven’t seen anything like this since the dinosaurs became extinct. That was caused by an asteroid, but what’s going on today, where we may lose a quarter of all species within the next 50 years, is caused entirely by human beings. And so in deciding what are our priorities, I think we need to look at how different threats relate to causing extinction, and to preventing bringing back other species.
Leading scientists say that the number one cause of extinction is habitat destruction and fragmentation of habitat. The second cause is the invasion of exotic plants and animals. Then comes over-exploitation. I think in western Montana we see all of those at work. All of these things are interrelated. You can’t fight one without fighting all of them. What we’ve developed here in the Southwest is following Aldo Leopold’s admonition that “the penalty of an ecological education is to be aware that you live in a world of wounds.” So what we have been doing in looking at the landscape is to ask, What are the major ecological wounds here? What are the different causes? How do they interrelate?
Let’s talk politics. The 100th co-sponsor of NREPA in the House of Representatives just signed on. Do you find that number encouraging?
Oh, it’s extremely encouraging. NREPA remains the most visionary and scientifically based wilderness proposal ever to be introduced in Congress. Of course we have to get it up to the magic number [218, a simple majority in the House] and be able to pass it at some point. But we’re sort of whip-sawed today, by a lot of depressing things, we see destruction all around us, and yet at the same time, we see a lot of hopeful things, like the return of wolves to Yellowstone or western Montana. There’s no clear message that it’s getting better or doing worse. It’s doing both at the same time. In some ways, psychologically, that’s difficult to deal with.
The spin on things also could contribute to confusion. Sen. Conrad Burns and Gov. Racicot are holding a “fire summit” in Helena this week.
I think I saw something in Time magazine—I think it was Time—saying that it’s completely false to see Racicot’s proposal as a way to sneak more logging back in. I think most of us are smarter than Racicot gives us credit for being. That’s exactly what they’re doing. They have consistently ignored the best science on everything, they twist everything around. I’m a lot more interested in following the views of respected fire scientists and forest ecologists than I am in listening to Helen Chenoweth and Marc Racicot on why we had these fires. What they’re proposing as a solution is exactly what got us into the fire problem. It’s like saying the cure for a black eye is another punch in the eye. There are plenty of people who don’t understand how science works in this country, who mistrust it, who believe that people on the ground like loggers understand the forest a lot more than ecologists. We constantly have to deal with that kind of know-nothing-ism.
You’ve never minced words when talking about how timber and mining companies exploit local people as well as natural resources.
Well, exactly. Whenever timber companies cut out the forest, or the mining companies, when all the minerals play out, do they care about community, or local culture and custom? Hell no, they pick up and go where the profits are, and people need to wake up and see that. It’s so frustrating and sadly ironic that folks who are concerned about globalization, and the coming new world order and that sort of thing, believe that conservationists are part of it. The people who are manipulating them are the big timber companies and mining companies. They’re exactly the ones who are pushing the new world order and global trade, and sending jobs overseas, and all of that.
You’ve got two new books coming out, Lobo Outback Funeral Home and The War on Nature. Care to give a brief synopsis of each?
Well, The War On Nature isn’t finished. It will be my big fat masterpiece on conservation. Lobo Outback Funeral Home is a novel that I’ve been working on for a while, that takes place in fictional southwestern New Mexico. When people ask me what it’s about I generally say it’s about sex, violence, wilderness and wolves, and the Wise Use Movement.
Any specific inspiration for it?
It comes from my experience over the last 30 years, working on conservation issues, living in rural areas, trying to understand the opposition, seeing the increasing role of science and ecological restoration, seeing the recovery of large carnivores coming to the fore. The point I want to make with it, is that when we shirk commitment, when we do not defend what we love, the consequences can be quite terrible.