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.

Also present in the Nugget was Dick Carver, county commissioner from Nye County, Nevada. Carver gained national notoriety two summers ago when he asserted Nye's authority over federal lands and used a bulldozer to make his point, putting a road through federal lands and threatening that Nye's sheriff would arrest any government employee attempting to enforce environmental laws and regulations on local ranchers. Of late, Carver reportedly has been preaching his message of local control at gatherings of the Christian Identity movement. No one would seem to be a rougher diamond; no one more removed from palavering inside the Beltway. Yet Carver's lawyer, also at the Nugget, is Roger J. Marzulla of Akin Gump--D.C.'s prime Democratic law firm, headed by Robert Strauss and Vernon Jordan.

One of Carver's foot soldiers confided their plans for the summer, inviting Nature and Politics to attend a ceremony in which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would be crucified in effigy, the cross placed in the ground upside down, and then burned. The man seemed nonplussed when it was suggested that treating Babbitt like the Romans did St. Paul might well backfire and put him on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The irrepressible Chuck "Rent-a-Riot" Cushman, leader of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Washington, spent most of his time selling "Clinton Free Zone" posters and bumper stickers with slogans like "Don't Steal: The Government Doesn't Like the Competition." But the lead raconteur of the Wise Use Movement did briefly address the gathering on his personal history "as a political guerrilla fighter." Cushman has two principle enemies in his life: the National Park Service and its real estate agent, the Nature Conservancy. The Park Service, it seems, once tried to condemn a cabin Cushman owned near Yosemite National. When that failed, Cushman said, they sent the Nature Conservancy to do their work for them. Cushman recounted tales of battles with the Park Service in Minnesota and Alaska, where Park Service planes were shot at by angry landowners. "When a car backfired, everybody ducked," Cushman said. "It was serious."

But in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Freeman standoff, Cushman went out of his way to urge Wise Use militants to craft their protests in a nonviolent way. "Violence is never appropriate in a democratic society," he counseled. Instead, Cushman said communities should strike back against the feds by hiring local sheriffs who would arrest federal land managers and then try them before local juries.

The Wise Users are going high-tech. One of the founders of the movement is Alan Gottlieb, the direct-mail maven of the Reagan Right, who along with Ron Arnold runs the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Washington. Gottlieb, who brags about his time in the federal pen for income tax evasion, was promoting the political virtues of his latest enterprise: Talk America Radio Network Online. This network gives his conservative talk shows a worldwide audience on the Internet. Gottlieb said he plans on taking the company public in the next month or so and expects to make more than $40 million. "I have no idea what we'll do with all that money," Gottlieb said. Also on tap was Ken Fowles, an executive from Microsoft, whose planned presentation on using the Internet to combat the environmental radicals fizzled when his copy of Windows crashed his computer. Another priceless Microsoft moment.

The Wise Use gathering was as white in skin tone as any enviro equivalent, but was exceptional in the number of women present in positions of leadership. In Ron Arnold's history of the Wise Use Movement, the founding impulse was provided by the Northern California group Women in Timber. Many of the women Wise Use leaders are self-professed Christian fundamentalists, scornful of things like "value-laden and outcome-oriented" education in the public schools.

Emceeing the Wise Use Leadership Conference (slogan: "Defending Your Life, Liberty, and Property; Defeating the Enviro-Radicals") was Kathleen Marquardt, who founded Putting People First in 1990 and later threatened to sue Clinton for stealing the name for his book.  

Marquardt, a right-wing demon queen with a wicked sense of humor, mostly targets the animal rights movement, having written a book called Animal Scam: The Beastly Abuse of Human Rights. She wants to sustain Wise Use as a cohesive political force and correctly fears its fissuring into Loyalists for Dole and the Republican Party or into militia-style activity.

It was an interesting weekend. A Harvard-educated sociologist told the Wise Users that Rousseau was a greater threat to them than Marx. True, no doubt. But the implications seemed lost on many in the crowd, who reflexively refer to environmentalists as "watermelons": green on the outside, red on the inside.

But the big coming threat, judging from the platform rhetoric, is World Anti-Golf Day. Yes, it appears the lawyers have definitely taken over Wise Use.

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