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Long-Time Environmental Activist: 'It's About the Confrontation'

Earth First! Co-Founder Reflects on Technology, Protests, Environmental Battles Ahead in New Book

by Rob Chaney

Earth First! made headlines with its tree-spiking in the 1980s, but the guy who helped make the anti-logging tactic famous didn't invent it.

Activist and author Mike Roselle reads from “Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action” at a book signing at Fact & Fiction On Campus in the University Center on Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian) Mike Roselle even titled one chapter of his new book "Why I Quit Spiking Trees." In it, the co-founder of Earth First!, the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society described how the practice brought old-growth timber cutting to national awareness, but became a public relations disaster for the protesters.

"I think the Wobblies can take credit for it if they want, but it's been around as long as logging," Roselle said, referring to the Industrial Workers of the World union organizers who spiked the trees of nonunion mills in the 1930s. "The anti-spiking laws in California date back to the 1880s."

In his book "Tree Spiker," Roselle claimed his colleagues always marked the trees they spiked to draw attention to their protest. But when an unmarked tree wrecked a bandsaw and injured a millworker in California, the environmental organization's image became one of eco-terrorists.

Roselle and fellow Earth Firsters denied involvement with the mill injury, but the logging confrontations were growing more violent. The group publicly foreswore tree-spiking. The point, Roselle said, was to draw as much notice to a problem as possible without getting anyone hurt.

"You can stand and fight and do so nonviolently, or you can do so violently," Roselle said. "The trouble with violence is it's a sure losing strategy in this country. Martin Luther King set a decent example for how it should be done."

Roselle and co-writer Josh Mahan visited Missoula on Tuesday to promote the book. Mahan said the two of them spent five years writing down the incidents and organizing the story.

Although Roselle is now deep in a new project, Climate Ground Zero, that uses the Internet and instant messaging to network, he was somewhat wistful for the old days when technology was a telephone wired to a wall.

"I think all this new social networking has caused people to retreat into their own personal world, rather than engage directly," he said. "You've got all these Web sites with buttons to click to participate. But when you have a rally, our experience is 10 percent of the people who push that button will show up.

"Now you've got flash mobs and sky art, like the Climate 350 people who all stood together and made a 350," he said. "No mining company executive is shaking in his boots when he sees 500 people standing together in a field. It's about the confrontation. That's what these actions lack - they're creative but they're not creative confrontation."

Looking back, Roselle didn't think of anything he'd want to undo, but he did wish one part of his logging battles had come out differently. He told of meeting a former Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, logger who was cutting down big trees along Washington, D.C., boulevards. The logger started talking about how "those spotted owl people put me out of work," and Roselle braced for a resumption of the old arguments.

Instead, the logger said he just wished the logging opponents had bought up his equipment, the way commercial fishermen had their boats and catch permits compensated when the government closed fishing areas.

"We left them high and dry," Roselle said. "They got kind of a raw deal. So now, when we work with the coal miners, we're always thinking about the economic future for all miners. There's no reason to victimize more people in this process. We owe them a debt for all they've done and all they've been through. When things get polarized, it's hard to keep that in perspective."

After spending more than 45 years as a protester and guerrilla theater organizer, Roselle remains in the fray. His latest foe is the mountaintop-removal coal operations of West Virginia.

"When I get out of bed, I want to know who I can (expletive) with?" Roselle said. "When you see they're violating the last of the roadless areas, or polluting our air and water or killing our life-support system, how can you not be angry? I've got to do something to challenge them in order to look at myself."

 

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