Eco-warrior David Foreman moves on to another battleground IMAGE OF AN OUTSIDER

April 19, 1994|By David J. Williams | David J. Williams,Special to The Sun

David Foreman has been called a terrorist, a saboteur, even the devil. A major outdoor magazine characterized him as "arguably the most dangerous environmentalist in America."

His supporters call him a martyr, a folk hero and genuine rebel in the American tradition of the Boston Tea Party, the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement.

But last week, this controversial, self-professed eco-warrior was waiting out the day in a small motel room in Gettysburg, Pa., suffering from a bout of hay fever. In a few hours, he would address a group of students at Gettysburg College. He's much in demand as a speaker as April 22 -- Earth Day -- draws near. He will speak at Gilman School tomorrow.

In contrast to his extraordinary reputation, he seems like an ordinary guy. Gentle, even. Bearded. Almost 50. Speaks with a smooth, Southern drawl. Wears running shoes with chinos and a sweat shirt. His complexion reflects the sunshine of his home in Tucson, Ariz.

You might expect someone who cites the common cow as one of the most environmentally destructive animals on Earth to be a vegetarian, but at lunch he orders a cheeseburger. He does resist the temptation to order it rare, however. His wife, a cardiac nurse, "won't let me," he explains.

Acquiescence is a posture that would be unfamiliar to those who know him for his activism. In 1980, he co-founded Earth First!, the radical wilderness preservation group known for its head-on battles with bulldozers and for "tree spiking," in which long spikes are driven in trees to discourage the logging of ancient forests -- if undetected, the spikes can shatter chain saws and saw blades.

Using words as a weapon, he co- edited the controversial book "Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkey Wrenching," coveted by eco-warriors as a how-to manual for fighting an eco-war. He also wrote "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior and The Big Outside." He currently edits Wild Earth magazine.

In 1989, he narrowly escaped going to prison. After an 18-month, $2 million investigation, Foreman and four other Earth First! activists were arrested and charged with conspiring to sabotage nuclear facilities in three states.

The case glittered with dramatic, made-for-TV details such as an FBI mole posing as a mentally disturbed Vietnam War veteran who recorded almost 1,000 hours of conversations; and a theatrical nighttime arrest in the desert by more than 50 FBI agents in helicopters, on horseback and on foot, sporting bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.

Even Foreman's lawyer, Gerry Spence, is famous: He defended Imelda Marcos and won a $10.5 million judgment in the Karen Silkwood case (her story was made into a movie).

Foreman pleaded guilty to conspiracy, but his five-year sentence was plea-bargained and deferred for five years.

Another activist who was involved is still serving time.

Though no less dedicated and passionate these days, Foreman's message and methods have mellowed.

Now Foreman advocates the broader vision of something called the Wildlands Project, a concept that sounds less sexy than tree-spiking but is perhaps more controversial on a grander scale.

"I'm certainly more comfortable doing what I'm doing now than I was during Earth First! because I'm not fundamentally a confrontational sort of person, despite my rather romanticized reputation and image," he says.

The Wildlands Project is rooted in the increasingly popular science of conservation biology, which advocates saving species in their natural environments.

Wildlands proponents call for the restoration of whole landscapes and the creation of a network of interconnected wilderness areas, or corridors, that would crisscross the continent. In many cases, these reserves would dwarf today's largest national parks and may require the dismantling of man-made structures, such as roads, dams, power lines -- even homes.

Romantically speaking, the Wildlands Project proposes to restore enormous parts of North America to the way they were before Columbus landed 500 years ago, with their abundance of animal life.

Practically speaking, says Foreman, such a plan may be the only way we have left to save many animal species and wilderness areas from extinction.

"We've ended up with a wilderness system and national parks system that is really made up of islands of habitat in this sea of human development.

"What we need to do now is . . . realize that we aren't just putting aside outdoor museums or art galleries or yuppie backpacking parks," he says. "We need to try to reweave the natural fabric of North America."

For example, he explains, Yellowstone National Park isn't big enoughto sustain a viable population of grizzly bears. But if Yellowstone is connected with Central Idaho, to Glacier National Park in Montana, to the big national parks in the Canadian Rockies and on into Alaska, a network is created that can sustain populations of such large animals.

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