The Wise Use Movement Up Close

Mustered in Reno, Nevada, on Mother's Day weekend were the leaders of the anti-environmental crowd, known as the Wise Use Movement. One of the present writers--Jeffrey St. Clair--was there as an invited speaker from the enemy camp, thus afforded an excellent opportunity to take the temperature of a group that not long ago seemed on the brink of achieving all its wildest dreams.

The prevailing emotion inside the plush confines of the Nugget Casino was one of betrayal. As recently as eight months ago, many of those present had thought that the annual bash in Reno would be a victory celebration of solid legislative achievements forced through Congress and past the president. Key targets of the Wise Use Movement were the Endangered Species Act, deregulation of wetlands, and the return of federal lands to the states and private ownership.

Yet the Bonanza Banquet Hall in the Nugget felt somber. The sense of history slipping by was accentuated by the absence of a Wise Use heroine. Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, the Boadicea of the Backwoods, was a no-show. Instead of the fiery Chenoweth, who proudly states that the only endangered species is the white Anglo-Saxon male, there was a platoon of Reagan-era officials from the Department of Interior, now snuggled down in right-wing think tanks or in big law firms such as Akin Gump.

One of the headliners was a lawyer named Mark Pollot, who runs the strangely titled Constitutional Law Foundation in Boise, Idaho. Pollot was one of the legal minds behind James Watt. In the waning days of Reagan, he authored the famous Executive Order 12630, which required the federal government to compensate property owners for "regulatory takings." Like many in the Wise Use Movement, Pollot sees California as the new Babylon of the green totalitarianism. "California is the world leader in stupidity," Pollot pronounced. "Perhaps they really do need to improve the air quality out there. It seems to be killing their gray matter. Oregon's almost as bad." Pollot now makes a fine living suing the agency he once worked for on behalf of ranchers and mining companies.

The theme of betrayal was angrily echoed by R.J. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He lashed out at Newt Gingrich's efforts to prove his environmental credentials. "The Republicans have been placed on the defensive by the liberal press and are running for cover on the environment," Smith exclaimed. "They'll do anything to prove they are green. They're going to be dishing out green pork in a big way."

Smith even leveled attacks on some past demi-gods of the Wise Use Movement, including Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado. Of Campbell, Smith said bitterly that he "should have stayed a Democrat." Senator Strom Thurmond was derided for his affection for the Natural Heritage Area Lands Act, which Wise Users detest as "a government zoning program." Even Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson came in for harsh criticism: "She'll do anything to get that urban vote." Smith, who wore a golf cap during his presentation, concluded that Wise Use only had three friends left the Senate: Grams of Minnesota, Craig of Idaho, and Thomas of Wyoming.

The current crisis of confidence in Wise Use echoes an earlier co-optation, when James Watt corralled the Sagebrush Rebellion. Many veteran leaders of the Wise Use Movement feel that Watt transformed a movement that was based on an assertion of private property rights into a pressure group for states' rights, with nearly disastrous results. Similarly, the political energy of today's Wise Use Movement has been taken over by Western governors such as Arizona's Fife Symington, and by the Reagan-era attorneys pushing "takings claims" in the lucrative venue of the Federal Claims Courts. Thus what was once a populist coalition of property owners, ranchers, miners, loggers, and millworkers is now losing its political fire, in somewhat the same way as the big green groups, which are now run by lawyers, lobbyists, and technocrats. The current manifestation of Wise Use is a strange and uncomfortable melange rather than a natural coalition.

The liveliest contingent at the Wise Use confab at the Nugget were the John Birchers, who made the rafters ring with their abuse of the hated Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Ghali had earned the enmity of the Birchers for designating the Yellowstone ecosystem as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.

The Birchers believe that in this fell purpose the UN is working with the Trilateral Commission, the big Eastern foundations, and the radical environmental groups. The invited rep from Nature and Politics chided the Birchers' naivete. If they were going to talk about a foreign interest stealing American assets, why were they not up in arms about the appropriately named New World Mine on the northern edge of Yellowstone Park, owned by the Canadian mining company Noranda? Faced with this company's plans to gouge out $2 billion worth of public gold (and hand over to the U.S. Treasury a mere $10,000) and leave behind a mile-wide pit of poison, Boutros-Boutros Ghali's might appear the more benign deal.

The Birchers went to great lengths to prove that the Eastern liberal foundations were funding the radical environmental groups as part of their bid to usher in One World Government. Once again the Nature and Politics rep was forced to chide them. The largest funder of environmental groups (none of which could be described as "radical") is the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose billions--derived from Sun Oil Co.--bankrolled the John Birch Society into existence and continued to fund them into the 1970s. Stunned silence from the Birchers.

Next Page »