Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

While the police were preoccupied with monitoring the demonstration, six of the protesters made off undetected onto the top of the dam, carrying a heavy black bundle on their shoulders. Foreman, Wolke, and four other members of Earth First! hurried onto the concrete rampart of the dam. When they reached the mid-point of the dam’s arch, they stopped, flushed with adrenaline and the fear the police might arrest them at any moment.

Seven hundred feet below over a small parapet lay the Colorado Gorge, the river squeezed into white plumes of water from the sluiceways. They lashed the corners of the bundle onto the parapet as best they could, and with the cry “Earth First!” pitched it over the side.

A 300-foot black polyethylene banner slowly unfurled down the unblemished face of the dam, looking from afar like an enormous crack opening in the super-structure. It was a simple and graphic gesture of protest against the destruction of nature by the artifacts of industrial society: a symbolic “cracking” of Glen Canyon Dam.

Before the police arrived, all six activists hurried off the dam and rejoined the demonstration. The police made no real attempt to find out who was responsible for the embarrassing plastic “crack.” They were more eager to meet Abbey, who, from the back of an old pickup truck, was giving a speech that included this echo from Churchill: “Surely no man-made structure in modern American history has been hated so much, by so many, for so long, with such good reason.” Of course, they had no way of knowing that Abbey had himself contributed $200 to purchase the crack.

All that was left to do was cut the plastic from the dam, which fluttered to a grassy area below called “Dominy’s Football Field.” Ever diligent, the F.B.I. took possession of the crack and hauled it off as evidence. They dusted it for finger-prints, apparently with no results. The F.B.I. would later label Earth First! a “soft-core terrorist” group. And just a little over five years after the cracking of the dam, it would devise an elaborate and expensive scheme — initiated by the scandal — shrouded attorney general under Reagan, Ed Meese — to use infiltrators and electronic surveillance to arrest Foreman for allegedly conspiring to cut power lines around nuclear power plants in three western states.

All this, however, lay in the future. For now no charges were brought and officialdom considered the matter closed.

As would soon become customary when dealing with radical environmentalism, officialdom could not have been more wrong. The symbolic cracking of Glen Canyon was the first Earth First! action to catch the public’s attention. Many more would follow. Not content with merely cracking the dam, Earth First! immediately began a petition campaign to raze it, hoping to “march up to the Capitol with 20 million signatures.” (The radicals almost got their wish from a higher source than Congress when the 1983 floods seriously damaged the structure.)

While the cracking of the dam was symbolic, it seemed to let loose the very real floodwaters of a new kind of environmental activism: iconoclastic, uncompromising, discontented with traditional conservation policy, at times illegal, always motivated by a vision of the world that rejected the premise held by government, industry, and mainstream environmental groups alike, that mankind should control and manage the natural world. Just as Glen Canyon Dam held back the Colorado, this grass-roots commitment to a more militant and uncompromising environmental movement had been pent up and frustrated by the cautious bureaucratic machinery of the mainstream environmental organizations. Now Earth First! was inventing a style of ecological confrontation that would give direction to this discontent.

The protagonists of the Earth First! movement realized the significance of their action even at this early stage. “We knew we were making history,” said Roselle years later. “The cracking of the dam was not just a media stunt, it was the real birth of the radical environmental movement — a movement all of us felt had to be born if the natural world was going to survive.”

For years after the event, Earth First! was known as the group that cracked Glen Canyon Dam. It has moved on to be known as the group that spikes trees or burns bulldozers or, for the more unsteady, like Sue Jorger, former executive vice-president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, the group that “is a real threat to the American way of life.”

Nevertheless, the Glen Canyon protest remains an important event in the iconography of the radical environmental movement, dramatizing what a growing number of grass-roots activists believed: that our technological culture with its intrusions on the natural world had to be curtailed, perhaps even undone, to keep the ecology of this planet and our role in it viable. It marks a shift from a rearguard strategy to protect wilderness to an affirmative attempt to roll back the artifacts of civilization, to restore the world to the point where natural processes such as the flow of rivers could continue. It was the opening shot in a battle between radical environmentalists and the foundations — concrete and spiritual — of industrial society.

If at the time it was a shot not exactly heard around the world, it was at least very much part of an expanding zeitgeist of ecological militancy rising up to resist the destruction of the natural world. Radical environmentalists now exert a growing influence on public lands decisions and environmental policy —to the dismay of timber companies, government agencies, and, not infrequently, the main-stream environmental movement, which many perceive as being out of touch with people’s deep concern with environmental degradation. Increasingly, it is grass-roots activist groups like Earth First! that are setting the environmental agenda and bringing national and international attention to such critical ecological issues as the destruction of tropical rain forests and of our own temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest. The means they use are often both dramatic and drastic.

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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