The Sacramento Bee

Dangerous environment

Kate Coleman examines the world of Judi Bari

By William Endicott -- Special To The Bee
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, February 13, 2005

Judi Bari was either a selfless environmental activist whose major focus was on saving Northern California redwoods, or a smug, self-righteous eco-freak mostly interested in self-promotion. Or maybe she was both.

In "The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods, and the End of Earth First," investigative reporter Kate Coleman offers a penetrating look at the complex personality that was Bari, and also takes us inside the North Coast drug culture and the sometimes violent world of Earth First.

Coleman's book is a largely sympathetic portryal of a young women who grew up in a Marxist household in the East, joined protests against the War in Vietnam, became a militant feminist and, by the mid-1980s, had moved West and was deeply involved in Earth First's war against the North Coast timber industry.

Bari died of cancer in 1995, five years after a car bomb in Oakland almost killed her and badly injured her companion and fellow Earth First leader, Darryl Cherney. The case has never been solved. The FBI initially theorized that the wounds were self-inflicted, that Bari and Cherney had been transporting the bomb for the purpose of a violent campaign of "ecotage." Suspicions also have ranged from the FBI itself to an ex-husband to disgruntled loggers.

Coleman offers little or nothing to help resolve the mystery. But she takes us on a detailed reportorial tour through the various scenarios, and tracks the evolvement and subsequent unraveling of Earth First, which now appears to have morphed into the secret cabal calling itself the Earth Liberation Front.

It is the ELF, espousing an anarchist philosophy, that has claimed credit for a recent series of firebombs at construction sights in the Sacramento area foothills.

Whether that is attributable to Bari's environmental legacy is debatable. Coleman writes that opinions vary even among her former associates. Some believe she became too obsessed with fighting the FBI and police agencies and thus diverted attention from their cause; others still consider her an eco-icon and an environmental martyr.

Those who knew Bari and worked with her have given Coleman's book mixed reviews, which are reflected in comments posted on

Danny Weil, a Trinity County resident, calls the book a "sympathetic view of the complex and legandary icon." But Anna Marie Stenberg of Fort Bragg, a Bari political ally who was interviewed by Coleman, labels it a "subjective attack on Judi Bari and the activists she worked with."

My own view is that Coleman has weaved a fascinating social history of the North Coast into a highly readable biography and has produced a balanced story of a person who still engenders strong emotions almost 10 years after her death.

The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods and the End of Earth First

Kate Coleman
Encounter Books
61 pages; $25.95

About the writer:

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Bee.