The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground

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Given the current environmental crisis facing the planet, even some of those responsible for putting the Family behind bars find themselves sympathizing with the group's motives. "My heart's with these people," says Kirk Engdall, the lead prosecutor in the case. "We've got to save the planet for our children and grandchildren. Where they went wrong is when they resorted to violence. They were desperate, because they felt that their cause wasn't being addressed appropriately."

Supporters in the environmental movement agree. "This is such a waste of good people," says Roselle. "I'll bet I trained some of these people in nonviolent civil disobedience, and we taught them that history shows that radical movements that are violent make people paranoid, isolated and easy for the feds to pick off." He starts to choke up. "When I think about them, it brings me to tears."

For Avalon, the impetus to wreak havoc on man-made structures began with a pure-hearted love of the wild. To him, every creature was precious, from sparrows to mountain lions to his favorite: bats. Avalon, raised in upstate New York, was a quiet, sensitive child of middle-class parents. In the early 1980s, he enrolled in an ROTC program at a college in Rochester but dropped out after a few months, making his way to Prescott College, an environmental school in Arizona. In the high desert of Prescott, a town of Republican retirees with a tight-knit group of radicals on its fringes, he was introduced to Deep Ecology, a vision of the world in which humans have no more divine right over the planet than any other life form. "He was amazingly connected to the Earth," says ex-girlfriend Katie Rose Nelson. "Everything in nature was like a family member with whom he had formed an intimate relationship."

By the early 1990s, Avalon was devoting most of his time to Earth First!, the unruly, zealous environmental group established in the 1980s in reaction to polite, mainstream groups like the Sierra Club, which radicals viewed as making unjustified concessions to industry. Founded by a bunch of macho cowboys with a yippie sense of humor and an adulation of cult writer Edward Abbey, Earth First! urged activists to monkey-wrench the system by employing "all the tools in the toolbox" — pulling up survey stakes, pouring sand in the gas tanks of bulldozers. The goal was to protect America's remaining swaths of "big wilderness" from any human intervention, from logging and mining to overflights by aircraft. Their slogan: "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth."

Avalon not only bought into the Earth First! worldview, he took it further. Convinced that even the most modest human habitation was too much of an imposition on the Earth, he took to living out of his silver-blue Toyota truck, a present from his parents. He even preached against domesticated pets and houseplants, explaining that humans could never fulfill the true desires of cats and ferns.

Traveling across the West in his truck, Avalon devoted months to the group's effort to save Arizona's red-squirrel habitat from a university astrophysics observatory and spent summers campaigning to stop logging in Idaho's Cove-Mallard forest, part of the largest roadless area in the lower forty-eight. Then, in 1996, he heard that a new kind of campaign was taking place in Oregon on fourteen acres of old-growth timber in the Willamette Valley. To prevent the forest from being logged, activists had transformed the area around Warner Creek into "Fort Warner," a square mile of encampments complete with a watchtower and ten-foot-deep trenches outfitted with a stream-fed shower. Avalon took his place behind the fortress walls, where activists chained their wrists to half-ton concrete barrels whenever Forest Service officers approached. The activists saw the area as part of Cascadia, a vast bioregion spanning the Pacific Northwest, and they defended the fort for eleven months.

"Warner Creek was one of the first permanent encampments, or 'free states,' as we called them," says Jim Flynn, a former editor of Earth First! Journal. "Whereas most Earth First! actions had been about 'you block the road until they kick your ass, and then you leave,' here people went up to the woods and declared that Cascadia is our land, and we're not going home, because this is our home."

Avalon was inspired by the radicals at Warner Creek, who seemed to herald a more militant stage of the movement. They even flew a new flag, of the Cascadia Forest Defenders, symbolically casting off Earth First! and its "patriarchal cowboy" baggage. At Warner, Avalon met the core group of intelligent PC activists who would form the Family. He already knew Chelsea Gerlach, a peppy twenty-two-year-old from the Oregon boonies first arrested for civil disobedience when she was only sixteen. Her boyfriend, Stan Meyerhoff, was a handsome, arrogant guy hell-bent on figuring out a way to live for the rest of his life without working. Kevin Tubbs, nicknamed "the Dog," was a dreamy kid from Nebraska with a degree in fine arts and philosophy and a deeply held, almost spiritual commitment to animal rights, feeling physical pain himself when faced with the suffering of animals. The Dog lived in the newest and niftiest civil-disobedience contraption around, a "bipod" — a platform raised between two poles — rigged to pitch him down a cliff if messed with by the wrong person. "I hope that the Forest Service shows more respect for human life than they do for plant and animal life," he said at the time, shrugging.

Avalon also met Jacob Ferguson, one of the leaders on the trench-digging team at Warner Creek. Ferguson went by a variety of code names, including Donut and Patch, but none of them stuck. He thought all the forest-elves stuff stupid. Like many of the protesters, Ferguson looked like a gutter punk, but he was no suburban kid pretending to be a panhandler — while growing up, his dad was in prison for armed robbery and writing bad checks. "I'd been all over the country hopping trains since I was nineteen," Ferguson says. "I was in New York squatting and sleeping on the sidewalk, stealing cars, breaking into shit, robbing people, burning the rich kids who came down from Connecticut to cop drugs, hopping a train to New Orleans, getting fucked up and hopping a train to Minneapolis, mailing heroin to San Francisco and getting money mailed back." When Ferguson got off a train in Eugene, Oregon, he bummed free food at the Food Not Bombs kitchen, where he befriended some of the forest defenders and soon found himself at the Warner Creek encampment.

"I'm a homeless, stupid dirtbag, and suddenly I get to go hiking and do something to stop the loggers," Ferguson recalls. "Man, it was so empowering."

The Forest Service eventually canceled its logging plans for Warner Creek, but not before officers destroyed the blockade and arrested four women who had chained themselves to concrete barrels. Ferguson was furious. "You get fed up because you're so much into it with your heart, and then you get insomnia and can't sleep at night," he says. "You look for a way to say, 'You guys in power have been fucking things up for years and years, and we're sick of being passive and playing by your rules.'" At Warner Creek he'd heard stories about the ELF, a new group of England-based radicals who were resorting to "ecotage." Ferguson liked the sound of that. He always did like to play with fire as a kid.

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