Leon Kolankiewicz's picture


  by  Leon Kolankiewicz

Legendary wilderness warrior, rewilding pioneer, and NumbersUSA friend Dave Foreman died this past September 19 at the age of 75 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, succumbing to an illness called interstitial lung disease. With his death, Mother Earth lost a diehard defender and the United States a formidable fighter for rational population and immigration policies cognizant of environmental limits.

The first time I saw Dave speak publicly was in about 1989 at a lecture hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico (UNM), Dave's alma mater. At the time, I was a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer, UNM grad student, university library staffer, and environmental correspondent for the campus newspaper, The Daily Lobo. Little did I realize then that Dave lived but a short distance from me in Albuquerque, which was also his hometown and birthplace.

We both resided on the lower slopes of rugged, forest-clad Sandia Mountain, a rampart of the Southern Rockies whose lofty crest rises above Albuquerque to a bracing elevation of 10,678 ft. Sandia is located in the Cibola National Forest and much of it is also a Congressionally-designated Wilderness Area, protected from all development, to Dave's and my satisfaction.

Cottonwoods in autumn colors along the banks of the Rio Grande in Dave Foreman's hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Sandia Crest in background climbing a vertical mile above the river to 10,678 ft. elev.

Dave was already famous as the outspoken, charismatic co-founder of the self-proclaimed, hardline conservation group Earth First! Founded in 1980, the group's strident battle cry was "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!" It was inspired by several 20th-century environmental and conservation classics, including Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and its uplifting and challenging "land ethic," Rachel Carson's evocative and elegiac Silent Spring, and Edward Abbey's suspense novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey's story was about a ragtag band of eco-rebels in the American Southwest willing to use illegal methods to interrupt the industrialization of a once empty and wild landscape.

That 1989 speech at UNM was riveting. Dave electrified the audience of mostly students as if he were a preacher...or an Evangelist for the Earth. This preacher — or prophet — sang the praises of our sacred Earth Mother and proclaimed the glory of the kindred animal species with which we shared the ecosphere, and which we had a sacred obligation to defend from rampaging, unrelenting human encroachment.

Dave Foreman in the 1970’s

Dave Foreman was a proud New Mexican. His dad served as a U.S. Air Force sergeant and later worked as an air traffic controller. As a young man, Dave was active for a time in conservative politics, campaigning for 1964 Republican presidential candidate (and Arizonan) Barry Goldwater and starting a Young Americans for Freedom chapter at San Antonio Junior College in Texas.

In 1967, Dave graduated from UNM with a B.A. in history. The next year, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps' Marine Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, but received an undesirable discharge after 61 days. He then returned Out West to his native New Mexico, where he worked for a time as a teacher and a farrier (caring for horses' hooves) on the Zuni Indian Reservation near Gallup in the isolated western part of the state.

From Conservative to Conservationist

His love of wild Nature and the desperate need for its preservation soon summoned Dave into the modern conservation movement, which was booming in the socially tumultuous late sixties and early seventies. For seven years in the seventies, he worked for The Wilderness Society, first as its Southwest Regional Representative in New Mexico, and later as its Director of Wilderness Affairs in Washington, DC.

In 1980, as mentioned above, Dave and fellow kindred spirits and deep ecologists co-founded Earth First! while on a long wilderness outing in the Pinacate Desert of northern Mexico. The founders of Earth First! shared a belief in deep ecology, the philosophy that all species of flora and fauna deserve to exist and that wild nature — untrammeled wilderness — should be safeguarded regardless of its instrumental value to human beings.

Earth First! was never a formal, hierarchical organization with budget, fund-raising, leadership, and staff, but rather more of a movement, a loose association of autonomous regional groups. It didn't engage in lobbying or letter-writing campaigns, as mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club did. Rather, one became involved in Earth First! by actually participating in its activities and nonviolent direct action, which might consist of civil disobedience (e.g., blocking bulldozers, chaining oneself to threatened trees), or "monkeywrenching" (sabotage of machinery), and the like.

By the late 1980s, as often happens within emerging, unstable radical movements, bitter ideological differences had split Earth First! into two warring factions: biocentrists and social justice warriors. Dave Foreman belonged decidedly to the former, once calling himself a "redneck for the environment." Dave and his wife, Nancy Morton, publicly left Earth First! in 1990, writing that the group had taken on an "overtly counterculture/anti-establishment style." In turn, one of Dave's erstwhile friends and co-founders denounced him as "an unrepentant right-wing thug."

During the same era, even as the group was riven with acrimonious, ideological infighting, some of the more radical or damaging actions of Earth First! members and the even more aggressive spin-off group, Earth Liberation Front, resulted in their being labeled eco-terrorists and becoming the targets of investigations by law enforcement and the FBI. As is their wont, the FBI also infiltrated Earth First!

In 1990, the FBI arrested Dave and four others following an operation in which agents infiltrated an Arizona Earth First! group, encouraging them to sabotage a power line feeding a water pumping station. While Dave had played no direct part in the attempted sabotage, he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge for handing two copies of his book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching to an FBI informant; he received a suspended sentence on this charge.

Dave may have been done with the wayward Earth First!, but he was by no means done with the Earth herself. In 1991, he co-founded The Wildlands Project (later the Wildlands Network), whose aim was to establish an interconnected, continental-scale network of protected wildlands and wildlife habitat corridors across North America. Between 1991 and 2004, The Wildlands Project published a quarterly magazine called Wild Earth, for which Roy Beck and I once wrote an article on why the U.S. environmental movement had abandoned its quest to stop ruinous U.S. population growth, a core concern of the movement at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970.

Dave Foreman with his long-time friend and colleague John Davis

Then, in 2003, Dave co-founded still another new organization called the Rewilding Institute, which carries on his vision and work to this day. He had coined the term "rewilding" back in 1992, and to him it meant protecting wilderness and biodiversity and recovering apex carnivores. In the North American context, apex carnivores include such iconic creatures as grizzly, black, and polar bears; mountain lions, bobcats, and lynxes; timber wolves, lobos (Mexican wolves), and coyotes. Two decades on, the rewilding meme has grown into a global movement with a worldwide following.

Dave Foreman on Immigration, Population, and the Environment

If earlier in his career, Dave had been attacked mostly from the right as an "eco-terrorist," later in life he was demonized by many liberals / leftists and the legacy media as an anti-immigrant xenophobe, nativist, and racist — all false smears.

By the mid-nineties, Dave had won election to the national board of directors of the Sierra Club, just in time to be at the center of a deeply divisive debate in that venerable organization over what its policy should be toward immigration-driven U.S. population growth. Since 1970, the Club had been in favor of "stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world." In the mid-1990s, however, a new board more oriented toward so-called "social justice" jettisoned that earlier position for a more globalist approach to population that prohibited anyone speaking in the Club's name from advocating any particular immigration level to the U.S.

Dave supported the principled — if ultimately doomed — efforts of the informal group of dissidents (including yours truly) known as Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS) to return the Club to its earlier, more holistic and scientifically-supported positions on immigration, population, and the environment. He argued eloquently against "progressive cornucopians" on the left who claimed that human population size and growth were irrelevant to preventing environmental destruction, which in their view was caused entirely by greed, wealth, capitalism, overconsumption, evil technologies, war-mongering, racism, sexism, and nationalism. (Those of this ilk would later add "transphobia," "white supremacy," and "the patriarchy" to their litany of supposed environmentally-damaging ills.)

As the years went on and U.S. population continued mounting (60 million added between 1990 and 2010 alone), Dave didn't mince words or pull his punches when it came to population. In 2011, he published a book called Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife.

As the arresting, politically incorrect title suggested, Man Swarm was a hard-hitting polemic, but not an angry one. In keeping with "Uncle" Dave's self-proclaimed personality as an "old sorehead," Man Swarm had a gruff but avuncular tone, and of course it was eminently readable, like everything he wrote. And here's what he wrote in Man Swarm: "The population bomb did not fizzle. It blew up. It's still blowing up."

A newer edition of the book was released in 2015. Co-written with author Laura Carroll and now called Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World. Two chapters addressed immigration: "The Thorny Issue of Immigration" and "Steps to Capping Immigration to the United States."

In his lifetime, perhaps more than any other single prominent environmentalist / conservationist, with the possible exception of the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson himself, the very founder of Earth Day, Dave Foreman had the guts to tell it like it is on immigration. And he demonstrated abundantly that he was not "anti-immigrant" but anti-mass immigration. This of course is a huge distinction that our malicious critics never fail to miss, because the former connotes bigotry and the latter principle and they refuse to credit us with any principle.

Because of Dave's celebrity, and his previous popularity among many on the political left, he caught more than his share of flak for his unflinching but nuanced views on immigration. He was lambasted as a bigot and worse. More importantly, donor and foundation support for his important conservation biology initiatives with The Wildlands Project and the Rewilding Institute was undoubtedly less than it would have been had Dave chosen to be silent or politically correct rather than environmentally correct on population.

Dave appreciated Roy Beck's and my contributions to Americans' understanding of the issues related to population-immigration-environment, writing in Man Swarm that we "...have undertaken the most thorough look at why U.S. environmental and conservation bodies have shunned population quandaries." Roy and I, in turn, were honored when Dave Foreman, in the last year of his life, joined the list of advisors in our most recent national study on urban sprawl: From Sea to Sprawling Sea: Quantifying the Loss of Open Space in America.

One Life Ends But Its Legacy Lives On

For many years, Dave Foreman was married to his soulmate — Northern California native, Chico State grad, and medical professional Nancy Morgan. Dave and Nancy first met when she was a volunteer wilderness activist in Northern California. Their outdoor wedding in 1986 at the Earth First! Rendezvous in the Boulder/White Mountains of central Idaho was described by their friend John Davis as "an earthy celebration none of us lucky enough to be present ever forgot."

I wasn't at that wedding, but years later I did get to attend one of the popular Christmas parties Dave and Nancy threw for New Mexico wilderness enthusiasts every December at their Albuquerque home. Dave regaled me with engaging stories of some of his earliest adventures and told me that as his medical and physical condition had confined him more to his home, instead of wandering on distant trails and rivers, he'd become an avid bird watcher, inspired by the feathered visitors to the high-desert native plant garden that was their yard.

Nancy worked many years as an ICU nurse and later taught at the UNM School of Nursing for another 22 years, once being named the New Mexico Academic Nurse of the Year. She was also a wilderness first aid expert, nicknamed Nurse Nancy by her grateful companions on long river and hiking expeditions. In the last two decades of her life, Nancy paddled over a thousand miles on rivers in Artic Alaska and Canada. She was also an avid scuba diver as well as co-founder and chair of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance for many years.

In the final years of his life, Dave suffered from severe, debilitating physical ailments and needed surgery, and Nancy was there to care for him 24-7, until she couldn't anymore after being diagnosed with ALS ("Lou Gehrig's disease"). Then it was Dave's turn to return the favor and the TLC and provide round-the-clock care as needed. Nancy declined rapidly, and then, on the night of January 16, 2021, she chose to end her own life at the age of 68, before ALS "could rob her of free will or make her a burden to those she loved, particularly Dave."

A 1983 photo Dave Foreman took of his kindred spirit, and later wife, Nancy Morton, backpacking in the Marble Mountains Wilderness of Northern California

Without his beloved life partner and personal nurse, and ever more ravaged from the effects of his own advancing interstitial lung disease, Dave's final year and half was very hard emotionally and physically. On September 19th, surrounded by family and close friends, he drew his final breath.

Yet that dying breath was not the last gasp of what Dave stood for. His inspiring, courageous legacy of unyielding commitment to a living Earth endures in his many books, articles, speeches, the organizations he founded and breathed life into, and especially the thousands of followers he inspired in America and around the world.

Happy Trails in the Great Beyond, Dave.

LEON KOLANKIEWICZ is the Scientific Director for NumbersUSA and vice-president of Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization

Updated: Thu, May 11th 2023 @ 3:23pm EDT

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