Earth First! protests the destruction of Redwood Forests (Redwood Summer), United States, 1990


In 1990, Earth First! activists began organizing a radical non-violent campaign called the “Redwood Summer” in response to Louisiana Pacific Lumber Mill’s decision to double the rate of logging. Earth First! hoped to expose the logging of old growth forests by Louisian Pacific and Maxxam, Inc., which had depleted 95% of Northern California’s forests. Earth First!, an organization of activists working against logging was led by Judi Bari and her colleagues. They began work in the spring, when they drove to various college campuses to raise awareness.

The cause was quickly gaining momentum when on May 24, a potentially lethal pipe bomb exploded under the seat of Judi Bari’s car, shattering her pelvis and leaving her hospitalized for several weeks. Deryl Cherney, another Earth First! activist who was in the passenger seat was seriously injured. The government investigated and later charged Bari for possession and transportation of a bomb, but failed to assemble proof. Media attention sparked widespread international outrage at what many journalists called an assassination attempt on Judi Bari. The extensive press coverage drew almost four thousand volunteers and attracted high profile alliances (Food Not Bombs,
International Workers of the World, and Seeds of Peace) to the Redwood Summer protests.

Earth First! split the activists into small teams to take on various tasks. Protesters campaigned in small towns across Northern California all summer. The campaigners used standard techniques of nonviolent action including picketing, carrying signs and banners through their towns. In Fort Bragg, the home of the Georgia Pacific Pulp Mill, protesters obstructed the main road and prevented traffic from leaving and entering the mill, forcing a halt to production that day.

One of the most controversial practices used by Earth First! was “tree-spiking,” a process in which protesters inserted a metal spike in the base of a tree, preventing loggers from felling it. However, later in the season, a factory worker processing the wood was severely injured after his machine malfunctioned due to one of the spikes that was still lodged in a piece of wood. The press used the accident to enhance the widespread perception of Earth First! as a radical, and even insiduous force in the environmental movement, calling them “eco-terrorists”. More moderate groups, like Sierra Club, denounced them for their dangerous tactics. After the incident, Earth First! officially stopped spiking trees because of the risk it posed to human life.

After the tree-spiking incident, Earth First! adopted other obstructive practices to halt the destruction of the old growth forests. Protesters frequently snuck into logging sites at night in teams and disabled trucks and machinery, forcing work to stop the next day. On several instances, this enraged logging teams. The campaigners would chain themselves to threatened trees and stand between the redwoods and the bulldozers. Loggers verbally harassed the campaigners, and at one point a logger severely beat a campaigner.

The group also consistently used symbolic action against the loggers. They dressed in animal costumes, using in particular the colors and patterns of the spotted owl, an endangered species that lived in the old growth forests that were threatened by logging. They also camouflaged themselves with leaves and sticks and used special war cries, adapted from Native American war cries, to communicate with each other. Performers and musicians also came to the redwood groves and helped to host rallies. These events helped illustrate Earth First! as a wildly radical group, which eventually led to stigmatization even within the environmental movement. Many other environmentalists viewed Earth First! as unprofessional and ineffective for their extreme use of symbolic action.

At the end of the summer, the campaigners left the groves peacefully and moved on to new projects, having established Earth First! as a famous (or infamous) network for environmentalists. However, their work during the Redwood Summer did not seriously disrupt the logging companies.