In the sacrifice zone
Earth First! shakes up the Durango conservation scene

Bald Mountain stands watch over La Plata Canyon early this summer. Earth First! has arrived on the Durango scene in an effort to safeguard views like this one. The radical environmental group puts more of a focus on direct action and a more revolutionary approach to conservation issue. Founded by Durangoans Nathan Coe and Travis Custer, the group hopes to foster solidarity in local activist circles./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Amy Donahue

Well before Ed Abbey put the sands of Utah on the map, the Southwest has been a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness aficionados willing to fight for the places they love. However, the very richness of the natural resources that bring these nature-lovers to the Four Corners also brings those interested in resource extraction. Thus, it often is a place of conflicting concerns and priorities.

“The Southwest is a designated national sacrifice area, and as the nation begins to look deeper for energy sources, we will be the focus of the onslaught in the coming decades,” said Nathan Coe, who recently co-founded a Durango chapter of Earth First! “We’re going to get hit harder and harder for things like oil and gas extraction, shale oil, uranium and infrastructure. These are all issues that mainstream groups have fought for years and have effectively stalled, but the projects are still moving forward.”

Colorado Wild is one of these groups and has made strides in fostering community organization around local environmental matters since its creation in 1998. Originally a loose gathering of motivated citizens commenting on ski area expansions, timber sales and Forest Service projects in Colorado, Colorado Wild has since become a more permanent organization striving to work with other groups on statewide issues.

“Before, the Forest Service had no watchdog group to make sure they were consistent with the law,” said Ryan Demmy Bidwell, the executive director of Colorado Wild. “We have expanded a bit in terms of activities by reviewing timber sales and ski area expansion, writing comments, and filing appeals and lawsuits.”

Groups like Colorado Wild operate in a grassroots activism style that is heavily dependent on the motivation of community members to write comments to the forest service, to contact local elected officials, and to catalyze petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

“It is our job to encourage those parties to engage on an issue and provide good, scientific information and the relevant process for members,” Bidwell said. “We pursue public appeals through litigation when we feel there is sufficient recourse to do so.”

Bidwell said he believes the organization’s current methods are working and that the group’s plans to work collaboratively with elected officials and agencies to create positive change as to how federal lands are managed in Colorado.

“The idea is fairly simple – we would much rather stop bad projects from happening than fight bad projects when they do happen,” Bidwell said. “I feel pretty optimistic that we’re working on the most important issues … that will affect land management for years to come.”

Healthy as compromise-based activism may be, there are always more issues than any one organization can address. In the face of a national struggle over energy security, mainstream activist groups like Colorado Wild find themselves with increasing areas of focus. However, direct-action and more radical groups such as Earth First! are looking for a way to ease some of that burden.

Coe and fellow Durangoan Travis Custer attended an Earth First! conference in Tucson in February. Along with attendees from Grand Junction and Denver, the two decided to revitalize an EF! presence in Colorado under the name High Country Earth First. The Denver chapter already has begun campaigns against the expansion of I-70, but the chapter here is still in the developmental stages. Custer said that before a Durango chapter of EF! can establish a itself, it is important to look at how the group may fit in with the already-strong activism here.

He praised the success of the local food movement in Durango, expressing that growing their own food is one of the most radical actions a group of people can take, as it addresses several environmental issues in one fell swoop. Custer also mentioned several indigenous groups speaking up against destruction of tribal lands, as well as the successes of groups like Colorado Wild and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

“Solidarity among activist circles is one of the most important tools we have,” Custer said. “Right now, we’re looking at all these different groups that are doing such great work, and figuring out where we can plug in and provide support.”

The next step for the group would be public awareness and outreach in the form of meetings and events. Coe said he sees a lot of compromise-based groups working efficiently in the Durango area, but when mainstream activism fails, there are typically no further steps taken.

An advocate of direct action, Coe emphasized that ecodefense and confrontational measures should serve only as a last resort, but that these tactics are important when the public has not been heard through letter-writing campaigns, litigation and petitions.

“Mainstream groups have done a great job throwing monkey wrenches into the system with paperwork,” he said. “It doesn’t ultimately stop it but slows projects down long enough for people to mobilize to stop them.”

The key to effective activism, according to Custer, is a multifaceted approach where all of the traditional tactics are employed, resorting later to more drastic measures like road blocks, lockdowns and physical demonstrations. Although such tools have held a negative connotation, Custer believes the first step toward building public support for direct action is building a sense of place and community.

Echoing the EF! philosophy, Custer asserts that the natural world holds intrinsic value outside of its use to humans. In viewing the environment merely as a resource, we are destroying or drastically altering the life systems of the planet. In order to create a more healthy, sustainable way of life, he argues, we must first take responsibility for the consequences of our lifestyle and be willing to progress toward a more holistic view of our existence.

“Unfortunately, we are pretty far behind in addressing our mistakes, and we have some serious issues to think about in the Southwest,” he said. “Globally we’re looking at total climate change, but locally we have a lot of micro issues we need to focus on.” Such pressing issues include water and air quality, and impacts from resource extraction. However, in order to form an ethic about the environment, people have to have a connection to it, he said.

“There are definitely a lot of amazing community-development projects going on here, like Food Not Bombs,” Coe added. “I think there’s a great sense of community in Durango, but that it’s very privileged.”

Custer agreed, adding that a large reason that it’s difficult to mobilize action in the Southwest is that Durangoans are not faced with prevalent environmental degradation on a daily basis.

“It’s easier to look at a rainforest on one side of the road and a clear-cut on the other and acknowledge that there’s a problem,” he said. “The West is still greatly uninhabited and a lot of these resources are coming out of those areas, which fosters an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.”

However, environmental degradation does exist, and both Coe and Custer urge people in the area to take a moment to assess why they live here and what value they find in the landscape. Moving from that thought, they simply ask that the people become involved in some way.

“Being a part of EF! is a personal choice based on personal morals, values and motivations. Figure out why you live in the place that you live and start to question how that place is being treated,” Custer said. “Realize that as one person you may not have a lot of effect, but organizing as a group has a lot of power and can be very effectual. Find a group that you agree with and become active.” •

The Durango chapter of Earth First! can be reached at



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