Andy won’t tell you his last name. He prefers anonymity. The focus, he says, should be on Earth First. Earth, always, first.
“You know, I’m a pretty normal guy,” Andy says. “I work a day job. I’ve always been a nature lover—I grew up around the Kalamazoo River. When an oil spill happened—that was my wake-up call.”
Andy is referring to the oil spill in 2010, when an oil pipeline operated by Enbridge burst, resulting in the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Thirty-five miles of the Kalamazoo River were closed for a clean-up that lasted years. About 300 acres of wetlands alongside the river were destroyed, much of it during the clean-up process, Andy says.
By 2014, Andy was ready to do his part. He founded Fen Valley Earth First!,
or FVEF!, a local group branching from the international movement, Earth First!
The Earth First! movement grew as a grassroots effort from the point where most environmental groups leave off—not shying away from protest and civil disobedience when the occasion arises.
The Fen in Fen Valley Earth First! refers to the prairie fens, or wetlands, of southern Michigan.
“The wetlands are a crucial part of Michigan ecology,” Andy says. “Our wetlands are one of the most damaged ecological systems by agriculture. When people talk about loving nature, they tend to think of tree huggers, but we are based in the Kalamazoo River Valley, and the focus of FVEF! is on the Kalamazoo River watershed.”
Andy likens the wetlands to kidneys, filtering and cleaning the water systems of the Earth, recharging groundwater aquifers. Because so much of Michigan area is covered by wetlands, they tend to be more protected in this state than in others. Michigan wetlands are home to nearly 1,200 native plant species.
“About three-quarters of Michigan wetlands have been destroyed since European settlement,” Andy says. “That’s a decline of roughly 11 million acres down to 3 million.”
As Andy tells it, he was sitting around with a group of friends, kindred spirits in their love for the Earth, talking about what they could do. They wanted to do more. Fen Valley Earth First! was born from a desire to make a difference in eco-defense, beginning with efforts to do something about industrial projects that cause serious damage to the ecology of Michigan.
“Membership depends on participation,” he says. “We’re a small group, eight to 12, maybe more during events. When we feel it is necessary to take action, we use every tool in the toolbox. Petitions, blocking construction, whatever is most effective without intentionally doing harm to any living species.”
Fen Valley Earth First! offers two-hour workshops prior to making protests, discussing what one might expect.
“We discuss legal issues, how to interact with the media, define our goals and strategies and tactics,” Andy says. “We want people to understand the risks. Prepare bail money in case you get arrested. Earth First! is not afraid of controversy.”
A recent protest took the shape of an open letter to Attorney General of Michigan, Bill Schuette
(R). The letter begins:
“The tar sands oil spill that shocked the continent, and ignited contention over shutting down another pipeline. As the clean-up efforts on the Kalamazoo River continued to be proven full of fraud and insufficient, the concern for a potential crude disaster in the Straits of Mackinac grew. Enbridge, the company facing controversy, has continued to delay, omit, and lie about the details of their 63 year old Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinaw, as well as their ability to respond to a potential spill.”
Andy says, “The amount of negligence to the Great Lakes Basin is alarming. The Line 5 pipeline must be shut down now, and it shouldn’t be reopened until it has been investigated and repaired. Its days are numbered before there is another oil spill.”
The letter, he says, has not been acknowledged by the Attorney General.
Fen Valley Earth First! is equally dismayed at the recent appointment by Governor Snyder of former BP America Executive Heidi Grether to be the next director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
“Her experience is to woo people away from controversy, not address it,” he says.
For Fen Valley Earth First!, taking on a controversial situation usually begins with a process of “identify and agitate.” The group is now at work creating a detailed map of the Kalamazoo River Valley watershed that will show all major industrial projects and sources of contamination. The map will then be used to raise public awareness of the present threats to the wetlands and river valley.
“It will include large farms with the runoff of pesticides, pipeline crossings, and the like,” Andy says. “People need to understand that we have already passed our tipping point
. As of August 8 this year, we have exceeded our resource consumption for 2016 of what the earth can restore. This is the earliest date that we have used up our resources for the year. You can’t have a gallon of water, take a teaspoon out of it every day, and never put anything back.”
Fen Valley Earth First! encourages a new way of thinking about the future of our economy that is based on an understanding of these limited resources. Whereas the general line of thought has long been based on a growth economy—always bigger, always more, always expanding—FVEF! wants people to understand that it is long past time for us to think instead of a sustainable economy.
“Either we do that voluntarily, or we crash,” Andy says. “This is not an individual issue. It’s a collective issue that requires collective action. We need to abandon 'hope for change' and develop intentions to make change happen. Having hope is displacing power away from ourselves; with strong intentions, we can act to create change.”
To learn more about Fen Valley Earth First! or to find out how to get involved, visit here
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.