What Earth First! Got Right in the Adirondacks
My family has a place on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, about a twenty-minute drive north of Lake George on Route 87, and I have spent many summer vacations there in my 55 years. In the early 1990s, when I was in my mid-twenties, a curious and newsworthy incident occurred just a few miles away from the family cabins: The radical environmental group Earth First! cut the guide wires on the rickety old fire tower perched atop Pharoah Mountain and blockaded the road to nearby Crane Pond. The locals were furious and a series of confrontations occurred between them and the protestors.
Back then, before I was sufficiently woke to the environmental movement, I was baffled by this story. I had climbed up into that tower many times, after first climbing the mountain with my family (in fact, Pharaoh was the first mountain I ever climbed). Why would anyone want to make that creaky old metal structure even less safe? For that matter, why close the road into Crane Pond, which was the trailhead for Pharaoh Mountain?
By that time, Earth First had a reputation as being “violent” extremists and "ecoterrorists," though, as with antifa in the modern era, they didn't actually kill people or even try to. They were infamous for “monkeywrenching,” a form of direct action that involves strategic and purposeful sabotage and property destruction, often aimed at loggers and developers in an attempt to shut down their operations in a particular area. Monkeywrenchers would pound spikes into trees in an effort to destroy saw blades at lumber mills. They engaged in the tree sitting, a practice wherein one person would occupy a tree in protest of lumbering practices in the area. They have sometimes damaged construction equipment and sabotaged construction sites. If you consider a bulldozer to be on par with a living, breathing human being, then yes, they have ended the lives of a few of them.
From my perspective at the time, there was something deeply subversive about this kind of sabotage. I had been raised in New Jersey in a relatively conservative and law abiding Catholic family. Consequently, I had learned early that destroying property is wrong. Rioters, looters, vandals, and lowlifes destroy property—people without good morals to begin with. Real protest was about the sit-ins, marches, and large-scale nonviolent action, like the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s. Destroying property could never be justified, even as a protest.
The net effect of this pro-property ideology, I now realize, was to completely negate the morality of anyone who destroys property, despite their goals or intentions. It took me some time to overcome this bias for protecting individual and corporate property rights at all costs—decades actually—but I believe I have finally put it rest completely.
Shouldn't a mature adult be opposed to vandalism and property destruction, especially one who is now a homeowner himself? In fact, the downward trend line of my respect for property is directly proportional to the rise in my own net worth. I am now utterly unconvinced of the supposed "sanctity" of property now that I have some. What went wrong with me (or right as the case may be)? A misfire in the indoctrination process perhaps? A short circuit in the wiring that is should connect my lifestyle to my worldview? I was supposed to simply accept the prevailing legal and philosophical concepts surrounding private property as I matured. That never happened.
Maturity for me was a devolution, a complete reversal of the common cultural pattern. In fact, I have grown more radical in my worldview as I have aged. This is especially true of my attitudes about capitalism and the environment. My personal relationship to the Adirondack Mountains has been at the center of this devolution. It is impossible to spend time there and not learn, for instance, that the lush blanket of tree cover that rolls over the mountains of Adirondack State Park is almost entirely new-growth forest. In fact, forest historian Michael Kudish estimates that only 5-10 percent of the Adirondacks have never been logged. Within the last century and a half, nearly the entire park was stripped of timber, often leaving huge tracts of land bald and treeless. So the road to Crane Pond, which was used both by tourists and loggers, is symbolic of the extractionist capitalism that has permanently altered the natural beauty and biodiversity of the entire region.
I also learned about acid rain, which is essentially wet or dry fallout from coal-powered energy plants, with contributions from automobile exhaust mixed in. Clouds of what is essentially smog drift eastward from the Midwest and blanket huge portions of the Adirondack forest and waterways, killing fish and poisoning both the soil in the water. Mercury enters the food chain. Fish cannot spawn and fish eggs to not hatch properly. The environmental effects are devastating.
But the most maddening chapter of environmental atrocities in the Adirondacks is "pond reclamation," a practice that also attracted protests from Earth First! in the early 1990s. Reclamation is a dubious euphemism for the deliberate poisoning of fish to make ponds and lakes compatible for "stocked" fish like brook trout that are favored by sport fishermen. I call this practice maddening because many well-intentioned and environmentally conscious people have supported it. The logic of reclamation reads like a Jonathan Swift satire: because humans have both accidentally and purposely introduced non-native fish species such as yellow perch, bluegill, pike, and suckers to Adirondack lakes and ponds, native species such as brook trout have been pushed out and their numbers greatly reduced. Therefore, in order to successfully re-introduce these native species, it is necessary to poison every fish in these lakes and then stock them with the "native" species.
Reclamation has been done since the 1950s using a chemical called rotenone that is ruthlessly efficient at killing gilled species of all kinds. And I mean every fish. After the poison is introduced, the fish die, most of them sinking to the bottom of the pond or lake. Some float to the surface, however, attracting flocks of birds that scoop up or grab the dead fish. The stink of rotting fish is terrible. Then, the following spring, after the water has been effectively sterilized and the poison dissipated, the new species are "stocked" to replace the old.
I have tried to imagine what would have happened in the 1960s if a scientist or politician had proposed that the best method for reintroducing bison into Badlands National Park was to kill every air breathing mammal in the area and then, after they were all dead, march the bison into the park? I wonder, is this proposal ludicrous on its face, or does it only seem absurd to us because humans are quite fond of some of those mammals--bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, mountain lions, red foxes, and prairie dogs for example? Perch and suckerfish hardly rate as adorable or noble creatures in the human calculus of animal species we care about. They also are not much fun to reel in from the side of boat. So why not exterminate them?
The defenders of reclamation are fond of stories about what the park was like 200 years ago, when the lakes and ponds were brimming with trout and fishermen were pulling in fish almost as fast as they could cast a line, as if to suggest that this particular snapshot of the region's biodiversity is timeless and perfect, and therefore worthy of radical measures to restore it. But biodiversity is dynamic not static, and for this reason, reclamation has always seemed myopic to me. I am admittedly no scientist and only the most amateur of amateur naturalists, but shouldn't the biodiversity of a body of water be measured from below the surface rather than from above it? What does the mass extermination of fish in a lake do to the rest of the life forms in that body of water?
One scientist who has studied biodiversity in Adirondack lakes is Curt Stager, a limnologist at Paul Smith's College. In a study of the water quality of Black Pond in the Adirondacks done with other researchers and published in Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies in 2001, he concluded that some combination of rotenone treatment and trout stocking likely had a deleterious impact on the pond's water quality. In another study using core samples from Lower St. Regis Lake, also in the Adirondack State Park, he concluded that the yellow perch, one of the "trash fish" that has displaced native trout species, has in fact been present in the lake for at least 2,000 years, making it a native species as well.
The impulse of environmentally conscious people to restore native species is a good one, but as with those who advocate "peace through superior firepower," something went terribly wrong with the logic of those who jumped to reclamation as the method.
I dwell on reclamation only to demonstrate how the state's environmental policies--aligned or synchronous as they often are with corporate and business interests--can also be described as extremist. There is something quite extreme about killing all of the fish in a lake so that a single species can be introduced into it.
One of the big lessons of my ideological devolution is that there is no objective moral ground in American society. Moral systems and ideas that conform to capitalist ideology are allowed to thrive. Those that do not are crushed or marginalized. Earth First! understood this. Blocking roads, spiking trees, and killing bulldozers offered some tangible interruption of development activities, but they were also symbolic acts designed to disrupt the logic of extractionist capitalism and reassert a marginalized moral system--biocentrism.
Sometimes the symbolism of Earth First! actions was truly epic.
In August 1991, for example, a year after the incidents around Pharaoh Mountain, Earth First! came to Little Green Pond in the heart of Adirondack State Park to protest a scheduled reclamation by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Hearing that eco-terrorists would be there to disrupt the reclamation, sixty armed law enforcement officers descended on the pond with billy clubs and police dogs only to find two Earth Firsters floating on strange-looking inflatables in the pond.
I often summon this scene in my mind to remind myself of how disproportionately American society leans towards the interests of capitalism and resource management when assessing the value of biodiversity. When push comes to shove, a small army of uniformed men will show up to defend the rights of sports fishermen to fish for brook trout and two guys in swimsuits will be there to defend the lives of the fish no one cares about--one riding an inflatable alligator and the other on an inflatable shark.