Dave Foreman

Do Something!


This true warrior has an undying passion for the wilderness. Dave Foreman lives his life larger than most in order to protect wilderness for it’s own sake. In the 1980s he co-founded Earth First! in response to what he believed many environmentalists were “not doing” at that time. He believed that there needed to be an “activist” organization that “did things.” This video is a great insight into one of the co-founders of Earth First! You may also enjoy watching our interviews of Mike Roselle and Bart Koehler, the other founders of Earth First!

From an early age Dave Foreman has been interested in the environment and paleontology. In the early 1970’s he worked for the Wilderness Society as their Southwest Regional Representative and a Director of Wilderness Affairs in Washington DC. At the Wilderness Society he found a cause that was to ignite his passion for a lifetime. When the overall philosophy and management of the organization changed, Foreman left.

In 1980, he co-founded the environmental advocacy group, Earth First! with Mike Roselle, Howie Wolke, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar. Members of Earth First! were “eco-warriors” who were encouraged to “monkeywrench” for the environment. The concept of “monkeywrenching” was first promoted in a book by Edward Abbey called The Monkeywrench Gang. Foreman left the organization sometime around 1990 as members were becoming more and more radicalized and the group ideas were diverging from his own.

In 1991, Foreman co-founded the Wildlands Project, which aims to establish a network of protected wilderness areas across North America. From 1995 to 1997 Dave served on the Sierra Club’s board of directors, but left after a difference of opinion. In 1997 Foreman started another organization, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. In 2003, Dave Foreman and the board of directors of the Wildlands Project found a new think tank, the Rewilding Institute, dedicated to “the development and promotion of ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America and to combat the extinction crisis.”

Dave Forman is also an author of several books: The Lobo Outback Funeral Home, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, and Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. He has also co-authored The Big Outside with Howie Wolke. Most recently, he authored Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife, which argues that human overpopulation is the primary cause of biodiversity loss and other environmental problems.


Dave Foreman:   “That’s what my life is for. It’s to throw it in the wheels of this insane progress. That’s what warriors are for. We all don’t have to be saints on this planet to do something for it. We don’t have to have our philosophy honed down to the nth degree, there’s room for inconsistency, but do something!”


Huey Johnson:   Dave Foreman, it’s a pleasure to see you again.

Dave Foreman:   It is great to see you, Huey, as always.

Huey Johnson:   You are one of everybody’s heroes in the environmental world and I often tell people stories about you. My favorite one being as I recall, you and a couple others started Earth First!.

Dave Foreman:   Right.

Huey Johnson:   Can you tell me about that?

Dave Foreman:   “Out of this planet, out of the earth has emerged a society of warriors, women and men who are planting their spears in the ground and are taking a stand, and that’s Earth First!”

Dave Foreman:   There were several things that happened around 1979, 1980. One, the Wilderness Society changed and it was taken over by that dreadful businessman, Bill Turnage, who totally changed the character, the personality, the sense of family. And I considered the Wilderness Society — as Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall — ended, and another organization entirely, started. And so that was a real trauma for me. And then we had played the second roadless area review and evaluation straight. We had done what the Forest Service wanted. We offered those kinds of detailed comments, and we got screwed, even by Jimmy Carter — of 62 million acres of roadless areas in the National Forest, they proposed 15 million for wilderness, and most of that was without timber. And so Howie Wolke, and I, and Bart Koehler and a few others decide this will not stand, we support it all to be protected, and we went out to talk about the ecological values of wilderness as much as the recreational. And so those were the two things that really led to Earth First!. That somebody was needed to say what most conservationists believed, and wanted, and asked for, and be tough about it.

Dave Foreman:   One of the things we said when we started Earth First! was, we’ll let our actions set the finer points of our philosophy. One of my disagreements with the Greens’ — is that they seem content to sit around and hammer out these detailed agendas and statements of principals and all of this, and they never do anything about it. Earth First! is the only activist green group around, if you want to look at it that way. The others are debating societies.

Huey Johnson:   Well, you started some organizations that are wonderful, can you describe that experience?

Dave Foreman:   Well, I’m manic depressive, like a number of people in the conservation business. I find out –

Huey Johnson:   I think most of us.

Dave Foreman:   And during the manic phases, I don’t get real manic, but I start organizations, and so I joked that my medication for bipolar is to keep me from starting another organization. You know, back in the ‘70s starting an organization was very easy. You didn’t incorporate. You didn’t get tax status. You didn’t worry about money. You just did stuff.

Huey Johnson:   Yeah.

Dave Foreman:   And so I was involved with a number of groups, the New Mexico Wilderness Study Committee that never incorporated. You know we had chipped in money to send out the newsletter and things like that. People paid their own way, had no staff. I worked for the Wilderness Society as the Southwest regional rep. Started out in 1973 at $250 dollars a month, then finally got up to $400 a month, and then $800 a month, which I thought was boy, fat city. And you know we did things and volunteers did a lot of it. So many volunteers and members today think that the paid staff is going to take care of it all, and all they need to do is send money. And so I’m very happy with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. We really get folks out in the field doing things.

Huey Johnson:   Very good.

Dave Foreman:   And working on wilderness boundaries, and that sort of thing, again, which is so important to get their buy-in like that, where they aren’t just members, but they are the organization.


Huey Johnson:   Tell me, how did you get interested in nature?

Dave Foreman:    Paleontology and evolution really drew me. I read everything by George Galen Simpson, who was a pioneering paleontologist, evolutionist of that time. I just read a lot and I tried to be a match to those.


Huey Johnson:   You invented “re-wilding,” tell us about that.

Dave Foreman:   Right, well I’m very proud of the word re-wilding, it’s in dictionaries now. And so, gosh, from a literary standpoint to come up with a word that’s in use around the world today and what it meant to me was that in the early days of the wild lands project in 1993 or ‘92, or so, we were working with ecological restorationists somewhat, which I found a fairly engineering approach. And so I came up with the word re-wilding to be ecological restoration from an ecological approach of wildness, of big places, of getting the systems back and all. And then Michael Soule, the great conservation biologist, developed it into a scientific theory, one that emphasizes the important role of large carnivores and ecosystems as we’ve learned in Yellowstone. And also the vital need for connectivity in the landscape, so wildlife can move back and forth, not only for what they’ve been doing for eons, but also given climate change. And so in that sense, rewilding is putting all the players back in, and I’m really passionate about restoring mountain lions to the Appalachians and Adirondacks and then creating wild-ways from Mexico to Alaska, from Florida to the Maritimes of Canada, up the Pacific Coast and to Alaska, and that type of thing where wildlife species can really move back and forth. And so, how do we get them over and under freeways, around agriculture and urban areas, that type of thing. There’s a lot of things that still fascinate me and that I’m passionate about, and one of those really is getting young people involved and making them understand what wilderness is and what they ought to be seeking outside –which is not taking pictures with their cell phone and instantly transmitting them to all their friends –but being totally in the place.


Dave Foreman:   I tell students “Go into the wilderness, get away from the trail, find a nice tree and take a nap under it — and then start trying to parse out all the different sounds: how many different birds are you hearing; what does the breeze sound like in the trees?; do you hear a stream?   Those types of things. Really connect with it.” The best statement of ethics is to be a good neighbor, and so let’s see wilderness and wild places as wild neighborhoods, and we’re visitors and we have to behave nicely. And we have to respect the folks who live there, who are all the flowers and the birds, and everything else, and get to know them by name so we can say, “Hello Desert Marigold, you’re looking pretty today,” things like that. Of course it keeps other people away from me on the trail, the dottering old man talking to flowers and stuff, saying, “We’re going to leave him alone.” But I just find that really does help connect.


Huey Johnson:   You stayed with your wolf howl?

Dave Foreman:   Oh, I do the wolf howl but I also do chickadees.

[chickadee noises]

Dave Foreman:   People go around after my talk going, “Chickadee, dee, dee, dee, chickadee, dee, dee, dee,” and I use that, what I say now is that I’m multi-lingual, that I speak cat, and I’m pretty good at scrub jay and all, but I really excel at chickadee. And when a chickadee comes, it goes chickadee, dee, dee, dee to me, that there’s a whole lecture in there about their goodness in themselves. And so I tell people to start chickadee, dee, deeing. So people are always coming up to me going “chickadee, dee, dee, dee.”

Huey Johnson:   And you’re going to write your memoirs?

Dave Foreman:   I’m going to write my memoirs, I have this other book True Wilderness I’m almost done with, that takes on the wilderness deconstructionists like [J] Baird Callicott and those people, and the sustainable development crowd, and then the “Anthropoceniacs” as I call them, the people like [Peter] Kareiva, and Erle [C] Ellis, and all those, “Hey we’re Gods now. We’re running the planet. That’s our destiny.” And so I’m trying to slap them down. Their whole business that we’ve so overtaken things, that we control earth. And part of my response is, “Yeah, we influence things, we touch things, but that doesn’t mean that we control. And that we need wilderness to teach us humility that we are not Gods.” One of my experiences on a long, month long canoe trip, nearly 400 miles on the Noatak River in the Brook’s Range a couple of years ago, when a bull musk ox ran after me and I was afraid I was going to be stomped into the earth. Well, you know, that taught me a lot of humility.

Huey Johnson:   You have an interest in ethics, can you reflect on that for me?

Dave Foreman:   One of my passions right now is that we protect wild places for their own sake, while recognizing at the same time that they have lots of values to people. But that the key thing is having an ethic where you respect these other creatures for themselves. And I try to find that in writings from other people that went before me, and its certainly there, and it’s becoming more mainstream. And of course, one of the fights we had with Peter Kareiva and other people at the Nature Conservancy and elsewhere, is their argument that that doesn’t work, that we have to talk about the value of nature for people and ecosystem services, and that kind of stuff. And my feeling you know growing up meant to be a fundamentalist preacher, and that’s still my speaking style. Ken Brower says, “Only two people who gave sermons in the movement were his dad and me,” and I think you challenge people with an ethic, with doing good, and folks respond to that.

Dave Foreman:   “Look at these Ponderosa Pines. Look at the maple, they’re screaming out with joy. That’s what we’ve got to scream out with, whether we’re sitting in jail or standing in front of the bulldozers, or writing letters, or being crushed by the oppressiveness of urban smog, we’ve still got to ring with joy, and there’s no more glorious life — than the life of a warrior — in defense of what’s right. There’s recognition that in your life, the most important thing is not your life.   As Martin Luther King said, “A human being that doesn’t have something they’re willing to die for, you don’t deserve to live.” Those are hard words, but they’re true words. And I pity those people who are only interested in their paychecks, their VCR’s, or their own life. But I salute you, and I celebrate you, and I love you for being fellow warriors.”