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Foreman had been interested in environmental issues since childhood, and from 1971, he became involved with wilderness protection. Between 1973 and 1980, he worked for The Wilderness Society as Southwest Regional Representative in New Mexico and the Director of Wilderness Affairs in Washington, DC. From 1976 to 1980, he was a board member for the New Mexico chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
By the late 1970s, Foreman had become increasingly disillusioned by what he viewed as the “professionalisation” of the environmental movement. After the United States Forest Service's Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II resulted in the opening of thirty-six million acres (146,000 km²) of land for logging in 1979, Foreman left Washington and abandoned his job as an environmental lobbyist.
In April 1980, Foreman and friends Howie Wolke, Ron Kezar, Bart Kohler and Mike Roselle took a week-long hiking trip in the Pinacate Desert. It was during this trip that Foreman is believed to have coined the phrase “Earth First!”
The movement that subsequently bore that name was inspired, in some part, by the writings of Edward Abbey, author of the satirical novel The Monkeywrench Gang. In contrast with the cautious lobbying efforts of the established environmental organisations, “monkeywrenching” – industrial sabotage traditionally associated with labor struggles – would become the chief tactic of the Earth First! movement in the 1980s; the Earth First! Journal, which Foreman edited from 1982 to 1988, featured lively debates on the ethics and effectiveness of this controversial tactic.
In 1985, Foreman published the first edition of the book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, sharing the editing credits with one “Bill Haywood”. Ecodefense collected articles published in Earth First! Journal’s “Dear Nedd Ludd” column, which provided advice to would-be monkeywrenchers on sabotage techniques.
In 1990, Foreman was one of five people arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation following operation THERMCON, in which FBI agents infiltrated an Arizona Earth First! group, encouraging them to sabotage a powerline feeding a water pumping station. While Foreman had no direct role in the attempted sabotage, he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy. He was permitted to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for handing two copies of Ecodefense to an FBI informant, and received a suspended sentence.
After less than a decade, Foreman left Earth First!, disillusioned by the changing character of the organization. According to Foreman, the incorporation of Marxists and Anarchists into Earth First! changed the movement, and not for the better. Many Earth First! members attribute Foreman's departure from the organization as having to do with his alleged sexism and racism. Foreman went on to form the Rewilding Institute.
Following his 1990 arrest, Foreman ceased acting as a spokesperson for Earth First! In 1991, he co-founded the Wildlands Project, which aims to establish a network of protected wilderness areas across North America. From 1995 to 1997, he served on the Sierra Club’s board of directors, but departed after the organisation rejected his proposed policy on restrictive immigration. In 1997, Foreman co-founded the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. In 2003, Dave Foreman and the board of directors of the Wildlands Project founded a new think tank, the Rewilding Institute, dedicated to "the development and promotion of ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America and to combat the extinction crisis."
Foreman is the author of The Lobo Outback Funeral Home, a novel, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, a collection of essays, and Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. He also co-authored The Big Outside with Howie Wolke. Most recently, he authored Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife, which argues that human overpopulation is the primary cause of biodiversity loss and other environmental problems.