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Let the People Judge: Wise Use And The Private Property Rights Movement

Let the People Judge: Wise Use And The Private Property Rights Movement

by Grant Ferrier

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"One of the most serious challenges to environmentalism that has emerged in the 1990s is the so-called Wise Use movement. While operating under the guise of an independent movement of small landowners, it is in reality a backlash against environmental protection measures, funded and organized by corporations with a vested interest in preventing further environmental


"One of the most serious challenges to environmentalism that has emerged in the 1990s is the so-called Wise Use movement. While operating under the guise of an independent movement of small landowners, it is in reality a backlash against environmental protection measures, funded and organized by corporations with a vested interest in preventing further environmental gains. Let the People Judge collects the writings of a wide range of thinkers on the Wise Use movement and the controversies that fuel the Wise Use debate.

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Let the People Judge

A Reader on the Wise Use Movement

By John D. Echeverria, Raymond Booth Eby


Copyright © 1995 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-895-0


The Wise Use and Property Rights Movements

The Wise Use movement emerged on the national scene with the publication of The Wise Use Agenda in 1989. Touted as both "the citizen's guide to environmental issues" and "a task force report to the Bush administration by the Wise Use movement," the book was a good likeness of the movement itself: a volatile mix of traditional conservative ideology blended with some revolutionary proposals to open public lands to greater private exploitation.

The takings, or property rights, movement is rooted in the libertarian ideology of Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, who argued in his 1985 book Takings that the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires public financial compensation for virtually any reduction in the use or value or private property due to regulatory action. Advocates of deregulation seized upon this novel legal theory as an indirect yet effective tool for achieving their goal.

Part I of this volume collects several articles providing an overview of the Wise Use and takings movements and the challenge they present to the cause of protecting the environment. Like the parts that follow, Part I is by no means encyclopedic. It is intended to provide selected background information on the origins and objectives of these related movements.

In "Cloaked in a Wise Disguise," Thomas A. Lewis describes the leaders of the Wise Use movement and its key objectives. He also explores how Wise Use leaders have embraced the takings issue as a way of broadening the base of their movement.

In "Stop the Greens," Eve Pell, with the Center for Investigative Reporting, examines the support that some corporations have provided to nominally grassroots groups with benign-sounding names in order to serve their corporate interests. Ms. Pell also describes what she terms as efforts by certain corporations to "co-opt" and "buy influence" with mainstream environmental groups.

Margaret Kriz, author of "Land Mine," explores the origins of Wise Use and the efforts of the environmental community to counter this new movement. She describes how Wise Use leaders have openly borrowed environmentalists' political organizing techniques, and relates some of the early conflicts between Wise Use leaders and the Clinton—Gore administration.

In "The 'Property Rights' Revolt," Marianne Lavelle, of the National Law journal, focuses on the takings issue. She describes some of the efforts, particularly in the state legislatures, to enact takings legislation.

Cloaked in a Wise Disguise

Thomas A. Lewis

"I went to a meeting in Bozeman and there were 700 people there. You can't imagine the virulence of the outcry. I was Saddam Hussein, a Communist, everything else you could think of. One lady got up there, jaw quivering, used her time to say the Pledge of Allegiance, then looked at me and called me a Nazi."

Thus, early in 1991, Robert Barbee met the so-called "Wise Use Movement." Barbee, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, had gone to that meeting in Montana to discuss a plan for protecting the ecological integrity of the park and its surroundings. Congressional hearings had found that authorities at the region's two national parks, six national forests, and two wildlife refuges were managing resources in different, sometimes conflicting ways, seldom communicating with each other. Meanwhile, logging, drilling, mining, grazing, and development on the 11 million acres surrounding 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone park were increasingly threatening the ecosystem.

The response was a 76-page plan, titled "A Vision for the Future," designed by the managers of the region's national parks and national forests to bring unity to the handling of this remarkable natural area, and to "encourage opportunities that are economically sustainable." According to Bob Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (a citizens' group favoring preservation of the area), "Nothing in the plan proposed to enlarge the park, or restrict or eliminate multiple use in areas around the park." But as expected, the reaction from loggers, miners, and cattlemen was negative. What was surprising was the strength of the reaction.

For example, of the 8,690 letters commenting on the plan, 5,625 were form letters opposing any limitations on industry. Of the 700 people at the public hearing described by Barbee, most were hostile and had arrived together on buses provided for them by groups opposed to the plan. Hundreds of angry people communicated with Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan and the area's Congressional delegation. Money and organization had been applied to create what looked like a spontaneous upwelling of outrage while, according to Ekey, polls showed strong public support for principles of the "Vision" document.

John Sununu, then President Bush's chief of staff, was quoted as describing the plan as a political "disaster" and demanding a rewrite. The document was pared from 76 pages to 11 and edited to remove any hint of opposition to commercial activity. For example, where the original "Vision" said that "projects permitted will have to be shown to be without potential to harm geothermal features," the revision said "development projects on adjacent national forests do not threaten geothermal features." The two key officials responsible for the draft—the regional forester and regional Park Service director—were transferred under protest to new jobs. Both soon left government service.

They, and their "Vision," were neither the first nor the last casualties of a new alliance of Americans who suggest that their government often is required to make a choice between economic prosperity and ecological health, and that government is usually intimidated by environmentalists into making the wrong choice. This alliance disparages the argument that a society can have both economic and ecological plenty as un-American.

The Wise Use alliance is rich and growing. In the four years since it coalesced, it has declared outright warfare against the environmental movement. It has also come up with an agenda of initiatives that, if implemented, could unravel the nation's system for protecting natural resources and the environment, as well as public health and worker safety.

"This is a classic example of a lie galloping across the range while the truth is still pulling its boots on," says National Wildlife Federation President Jay D. Hair. "The self-proclaimed 'Wise Use Agenda' is merely a wise disguise for a well-financed, industry-backed campaign that preys upon the economic woes and fears of U.S. citizens."

In recent years, the Wise Use alliance has loudly opposed federal and state legislation it did not like (such as bills to impose higher fees for grazing cattle on public lands), has won approval for federal and state laws it did like (such as an authorization for federal gasoline-tax money to be used to build off-road vehicle trails), has made powerful political friends (one of its founders is pictured on the cover of its national agenda with a smiling George Bush) and has intimidated government regulators. In the words of U.S. News and World Report, it represents the "first unified political challenge" to government's role as protector of natural resources "in the 20 years since the environmental movement took hold."

The appalling effects of uncontrolled pollution in the United States stimulated the imposition of a myriad of environmental regulations in the 1970s. And it was outrage at the impact of some of the new laws on unrestrained development that triggered the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" in the late 1970s, in which western agricultural and business interests clamored for transfer of federal lands to state or private control in order to elude the growing pressures for environmental responsibility. Their uprising was raucous but not well organized, and with the election to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the movement died out.

But beginning in the late 1980s, other events began to take shape that would further challenge unrestrained natural resource development. U.S. courts, acting on lawsuits brought by conservationists, upheld mandates of the Endangered Species Act and curtailed logging in ancient forests to safeguard imperiled animals like the spotted owl; tougher rules were adopted to protect the nation's dwindling wetlands. Opponents of such measures again strapped on their gunbelts, but this was no Sagebrush Rebellion. This time they had leadership, organization, and money.

Alan M. Gottlieb, 45, of Bellevue, Washington, had made a name and a small fortune as a direct-mail fund-raiser for conservative politicians and causes, especially his Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. He had a knack for writing letters that loosened purse-strings. And he had accumulated the names of millions whose purse-strings became especially slack when certain buttons were pushed. His career had not been unblemished, however. He served a year in prison in 1984 for tax evasion.

But Alan Gottlieb knew the direct-mail business and, in the late 1980s, he told The New York Times he needed another "evil empire" to stimulate giving. He decided to try out environmentalists in the role. The results were immediate and unambiguous. The environmental movement made the perfect bogeyman. So Gottlieb founded another of his tax-exempt creations, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. His associate in that organization, Executive Vice-President Ron Arnold, took center stage with a theology of outrage for an anti-environmentalist crusade he dubbed the "Wise Use Movement."

Before joining Gottlieb in 1984, Arnold, 55, had been a public relations consultant to industry who saw, he says, company after company defeated by environmental regulations. "It was always the same," he explains. "The environmentalists would go to government and get a law or regulation passed, and the company that was about to be put out of business fought the government over the regulations. Nobody ever fought the environmentalists." In the 1980s, Arnold says, he decided "if things continued like they were going, the environmentalists were going to destroy all industry and all private property within 20 years." He determined the only way to avert this was to "systematically destroy the environmental movement," which he says is "polluted with a hatred of humans." To Arnold, this main proposition has two axioms: "Industry cannot save itself by itself" and "only an activist movement can defeat an activist movement."

Arnold does not speak of differences over public policy, but of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. A former activist in the Sierra Club, he speaks with the zeal of the converted. "This is a war," he told The Baltimore Sun. "We're trying to destroy the opposition."

The origin of the Wise Use name is instructive. Arnold concluded the best way of opposing environmental activism was to adopt its techniques. For inspiration, he turned to the words of Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. Forest Service chief. Pinchot, in 1907, had coined the word conservation, defining it as "the wise use of resources." Arnold saw that the phrase had a nice ring, and "took up only nine spaces in a newspaper headline." The Wide Use campaign had a name.

While Gottlieb and Arnold became their cause's most visible proponents, they were hardly the only ones. Another principal is Charles Cushman, executive director of the National Inholders Association (of owners of private property in federal parks and other facilities) and organizer of a group dedicated to opening public lands to private profit. Cushman describes himself as a "tank commander" in the war against environmentalists, and insists it is not merely a war, but "a holy war between fundamentally different religions. The preservationists are like a new pagan religion, worshiping trees and animals and sacrificing people."

Meanwhile, in 1986, Nevada attorney A. Grant Gerber founded another group, the Wilderness Impact Research Foundation. He declared that preservationists are anti- Christian and anti-scientific, that environmentalists are "pantheists, like the Druids," and that the Sierra Club practices "weird science and earth religions." Gerber's foundation is an important partner in the Wise Use campaign.

Another ally in the "cause" was the Blue Ribbon Coalition of Pocatello, Idaho. This was an alliance of some 200 local clubs of dirt-bike, snowmobile, and all-terrain vehicle users who wanted public lands opened up to them. Their case was stated by a past president, Henry Yake, who commented, "Wilderness has no economic value."

These groups and about 200 other organizations, companies, and individuals participated in a conference in Reno, Nevada, in August of 1988. More than 100 papers were presented there, and these were later published as a "Wise Use Agenda." This document called for a number of initiatives, including: opening "all public lands including wilderness and national parks to oil drilling, logging, and commercial development"; immediate oil and gas development of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; liquidation of all old-growth forests; and privatization of public rangelands. It advised breaking up the National Park Service and launching a "20-year construction program of new concessions" in all national parks.

"This isn't a battle between two 'religions,'" says George Frampton Jr., president of The Wilderness Society "It's an assault by commercial interests trying to preserve their traditional freedom to plunder the West without restriction—indeed, with taxpayer subsidies. They claim they lead a grass-roots movement, but they are in fact speaking for industry and their grass is watered by corporate money."

Since 1988, the Wise Use campaign has developed three principal themes, says Arnold: "The private-property movement; pro-jobs economic development; and multiple-use of federal lands."

Their so-called multiple-use lobby was instrumental in defeating the Yellowstone "Vision" statement. It also succeeded in getting a Congressional amendment passed in 1991 authorizing use of as much as$ 30 million a year from the Highway Trust Fund for building recreational trails, much of it for off-road vehicle use.

The pro-jobs arm of the campaign argues at every opportunity that employment is more important than ecology. Cowboys, for example, must work, whether or not overgrazing is destroying their range.

The intensifying debate over property rights has become truly national in scope. The Wise Use campaign contends government has no right to interfere in how land is used and it cites the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be "taken for public use without just compensation." Its traditional meaning is that the U.S. government, unlike a monarchy has no sovereignty over the land and has to pay for any private property it takes for a road, an army base, or public building. But in the view of the Wise Use alliance, any government regulation that reduces the value of property constitutes a taking and requires compensation.

If taxpayers had to pay people to obey laws, we could afford few laws. The idea, observes attorney Albert Meyerhoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "presents an extremely serious threat to much of the environmental reform legislation that has been enacted over the past 30 years." It also, adds NWF attorney Glenn Sugameli, "threatens health, safety, labor, civil rights, and consumer laws."

Yet the notion has support in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. President Reagan issued an executive order, still in effect, that requires all federal agencies to follow guidelines that review the effect on private property values of any regulations they promulgate. The Congressional Research Service has stated that these guidelines are flawed because they misinterpret Supreme Court rulings and exaggerate the risk of a taking.

Even so, the Senate twice approved a bill to codify the executive order, and the Bush administration proposed a bill requiring agencies to pay such compensation from their budgets. While waiting for legislation to get through Congress, Wise Use leaders wanted action to redefine the Constitution. In the late 1980s, they found a court willing to do it.


Excerpted from Let the People Judge by John D. Echeverria, Raymond Booth Eby. Copyright © 1995 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Philip Brick teaches international and environmental politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and is co-editor of A Wolf in the Garden (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

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