Henry David Thoreau once wrote that unjust laws should be broken. Combine this directive with the belief that natural rights should apply to the natural world and what you have is the motivation for a group of ecological warriors that sprang up in the United States during the 1970s.
In Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action, Earth First! co-founder Mike Roselle—with the help of Missoula journalist and former Indy reporter Josh Mahan—tells the story of Roselle's life within the controversial ecological movement. As one of the most vocal activists of his time, Roselle spent more than 30 years regularly engaging in direct action and civil disobedience to protest the logging, mining and drilling of the American West. He's been arrested and fined dozens of times, including the four months he once spent in a South Dakota prison for his role in an attempt to hang a banner and gas mask on Mount Rushmore to protest acid rain, largely caused by coal-fired power plants.
Roselle begins his compelling memoir with a 1986 Greenpeace action at the Nevada site where the U.S. military tested its arsenal of nuclear bombs. He and other activists successfully delayed the countdown for two days and Congress soon outlawed the tests altogether. The scene sets the stage for the book's subsequent collection of intriguing anecdotes in Roselle's risky search for environmental justice.
Roselle initially focused on war issues before falling into ecological activism. Police arrested him for the first time at age 15, when he distributed anti-Vietnam War leaflets at a concert. The teenager made money hawking underground newspapers, and spent years hitchhiking around the country with hippies and anti-war activists.
In his 20s, Roselle worked on an oil rig in Wyoming before reluctantly joining up with the Buckaroos—a group of Midwestern outdoorsmen who wore cowboy hats and downed beers as they organized to protect wilderness areas. Soon, he was hooked. In the late 1970s, he co-founded Earth First!, followed by the Rainforest Action Network.
Earth First! primarily focused on protecting wilderness on public lands from increased logging. The group engaged in non-violent civil disobedience—blockades, lockdowns, corporate-boardroom invasions—to obstruct logging and stir up public opinion, a tactic often frowned upon by mainstream-environmental groups. They saw their greatest foe as the U.S. Forest Service, whom they nicknamed the "Freddies."
Throughout the book, Roselle explores the issue of "forestry as dogma" and "logging as religion," critical mindsets he felt were responsible for a dilemma in which, he writes, "The issue was no longer about whether to log, only where to log." But here, Roselle refuses to acknowledge the obvious clash of social values at play, instead making logging either a right or wrong issue. He doesn't, for instance, recognize working-class families who rely on the timber industry to survive, or consider how maintained, working forests might save wooded land from development.
Tree Spiker forcefully argues in favor of direct action. Roselle doesn't shy away from critiquing the conservation movement, its flaws, how it has changed or maybe how it needed to change but never did. When he delves into politics later in the book, where passion and motivation—and not simply exciting anecdotes—come out, his story springs to life with sincerity. Before that, however, he sometimes comes across as an angsty man with a tumultuous upbringing, whose struggle to find his place in the world inadvertently led him to kindred rabble-rousing souls.
Clearly, Roselle isn't a man who has undergone any significant ideological shift in life; he appears to hold the same convictions today as he did in his youth. As his story unfolds—and that of a conservation movement that has seen its share of failures—it's easy to at least appreciate Roselle and his comrades for not selling out. It's also easy to wonder: At what cost?
In 1985, Roselle drove metal spikes into the bark of ancient trees slated for destruction, located deep in the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon. The action stopped loggers for only a few days but drew national attention, praise and contempt. Roselle eventually started the Ruckus Society out of Missoula to train other activists in creative confrontation. "If your action is justifiable, the campaign will eventually withstand the test of public scrutiny," he writes.
Has it? Reading Roselle's stories, I wanted—really hoped—to find reason to root for him, and in many cases I did. Yet, he only offers one answer to a stressed environmental movement with no easy solutions. And for that, he comes off as less of a true visionary and more as a stubborn man who refuses to expand his mind and move past old tactics to potentially more effective strategies.
Roselle's sincere tone gives the sense that his heart clearly underlies his campaigns. At one point when referring to the campaigns fought by he and fellow activists he writes, "It wasn't the anger that effected change, but rather the commitment to creating change, the nobility of the suffering and the depth of the love for nature."
But perhaps the most telling line of the book are words spoken to Roselle by Brock Evans, a former leader of the Audubon Society: "The secret to winning an impossible campaign is endless pressure endlessly applied." Tactics aside, the sentiment could easily inspire a new generation of conservationists to do just that.