COPLIN PLANTATION – An hour before lunchtime, the bustle begins at the kitchen tent set up in a field along the south branch of the Dead River.

Head chef Jessie Dowling of Thorndike issues orders while a team of workers chops and shreds mounds of ingredients for the macaroni and cheese and zucchini cakes on the day’s menu. It is a labor-intensive task to feed the 100 or so people who have already pitched their tents in these fields nestled between the Bigelow and Boundary mountain ranges in western Maine.

By the time all the campers trickle in this weekend, the kitchen is expected to be turning out meals for more than 350 people three times a day.

“I love to do this,” Dowling said.

She was among the early arrivals at the 2010 Round River Rendezvous, an annual week-long international summer gathering of the Earth First! environmental group. The location was carefully picked, not just for its scenic beauty.

Nearby are many of the projects Earth First! opposes: TransCanada’s wind project on Kibby Mountain, Nestle Waters North America’s two-year-old Poland Springs bottling operation in Kingfield, the logging operations of Plum Creek Timber Co., developer of the controversial proposed Moosehead Lake region resort and housing.

Dowling, a cheese maker and aspiring grass-roots caterer who slaughtered a few of her goats to roast during the weeklong conference, has special credentials. She is one of the so-called Plum Creek Six, who were arrested at the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission meeting in September shortly before the commission approved the Plum Creek development. Many of the six are in charge of organizing this year’s Earth First! convention.

Earth First! is a loosely organized group of environmental activists founded in the 1970s. They are known for their use of civil disobedience, such as roadblocks and tree sit-ins to stop logging and other land development. In Maine, Earth First! gained attention for its opposition to clear cutting forestry practices in the 1990s under the leadership of Jonathan Carter, who organized tree spiking events.

A metal rod would be driven into a tree, which can cause injuries to anyone cutting it down, just one of the group’s techniques that has won its adherents the label of eco-terrorists. But Earth Firsters claim their tactics don’t hurt anyone.

“The question I always posed was ‘Who is the real eco-terrorist, the people destroying our forests, the industrial wind folks who are ruining our mountaintops?’ It is not these folks who are trying to stand up and protect the environment,” said Carter, who is no longer associated with Earth First!

Philip Nyhus, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Waterville, said Earth First! is at one end of the spectrum as far as its political beliefs. At the other end, he said, are the mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, which have major donors, land-conservation campaigns and offices and staff around the country.

In the middle are groups such as Greenpeace, the international activist group which finances a fleet of ships to intercept whale hunts.

Earth First!, said Nyhus, takes a more eco-centric approach.

“Their logo is ‘No compromises in defense of Mother Earth,’ and they see the existing political system as the source of the problem,” Nyhus said.

The Earth First! movement has undergone changes over time, with some more radical elements breaking away. Although it remains out of the mainstream, its members have begun to try to soften its radical image. This year, invitations were issued to the media to attend the gathering.

But the invitations came with major restrictions. Reporters and photographers were barred from some of the meetings. They were accompanied at all times by a conference organizer.

Meg Gilmartin of Corinth said this was to protect those who didn’t want any media exposure and to present a consistent message to the world.

Despite the media restrictions, members didn’t appear to hide their political leanings.

A sign outside a restroom identified it as the “Severin Beliveau Loo,” named after Plum Creek’s Maine attorney. Trees were decorated with banners proclaiming “Life Over Profit” and similar slogans. An area for tree-climbing lessons — practice for future tree sit-ins — was prominently displayed.

News that hundreds of Earth Firsters were heading to the region rattled some residents of nearby Stratton and Rangeley, according to local media accounts. Harriet Powers complained to the Lewiston Sun Journal that some of her neighbors were calling her a terrorist for allowing the gathering on the fields owned by her and her husband, Basil.

Which may explain why Earth First! appeared vigilant about security.

Those entering the encampment had to pass through a registration area staffed around the clock by a half dozen volunteers.

On Thursday, only the occasional gawker slowly drove by to watch participants enter the gates, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, many of them calling themselves homesteaders, from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida and New York.

Inside, the day begins with an hour-long morning circle, followed by recreational and educational workshops on both practical and theoretical topics, such as “Saving the Earth without Losing Your Mind,” “Knowing your Rights,” “Tribal Issues” and the “North Woods National Park.”

At a workshop on dental hygiene, members were invited to introduce themselves by first name and preferred pronoun — he or she — before a hike to a nearby riverbank to identify horse tails, a source of silica good for building strong teeth.

At night, attendees may retire to their tents or gather around one of two campfires, the quiet fire or the rowdy fire, or take part in the evening’s contra dance or poetry reading.

While everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, participants say they have a serious agenda.

“I am here because I feel our culture as a whole has moved in a direction that is not sustainable,” said Ryan Clarke of Corinth.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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