The Wise Use Movement: Right-Wing Anti-Environmentalism

In the last days of the 1992 presidential campaign, George Bush denounced “environmental extremists” who sought to lock up natural resources and destroy the American way of life. At the heart of this imagined green conspiracy was the “Ozone Man,” Senator Al Gore Jr., author of Earth in the Balance. Bush’s attack on environmentalism failed to save his candidacy, but it was a high water mark for the political influence of the “Wise Use” movement, a network of loosely allied right-wing grassroots and corporate interest groups dedicated to attacking the environmental movement and promoting unfettered resource exploitation.

New organizing opportunities and media exposure of the movement’s less savory connections have caused constant splintering within the movement. At present, the best way to recognize Wise Use groups is by the policies they support. Therefore, Wise Use will be used here to describe all organizations that promote the core Wise Use agenda: removing present environmental protections and preventing future environmental reforms in order to benefit the economic interests of the organization’s members or funders.

Five years ago Wise Use was just the latest fundraising concept of two political entrepreneurs: Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb. Arnold once worked for the Sierra Club in Washington State. He has told reporters that he helped organize teaching expeditions to areas that became the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Alan Gottlieb is a professional fundraiser who has generated millions for various right-wing causes.

Wise Use groups are often funded by timber, mining, and chemical companies. In return, they claim, loudly, that the well-documented hole in the ozone layer doesn’t exist, that carcinogenic chemicals in the air and water don’t harm anyone, and that trees won’t grow properly unless forests are clear-cut, with government subsidies. Wise Use proponents were buffeted by Bush’s defeat and by media exposure of the movement’s founders’ connections to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church network (tainted by charges of cultism and theocratic neo-fascism), but the movement has quickly rebounded. In every state of the US, relentless Wise Use disinformation campaigns about the purpose and meaning of environmental laws are building a grassroots constituency. To Wise Users, environmentalists are pagans, eco-nazis, and communists who must be fought with shouts and threats.

Environmentalists often point to public opinion polls that show most Americans are willing to sacrifice some short-term economic gains to preserve nature. But the Wise Use movement is eroding the environmental consensus that dominated American politics from the Greenhouse Summer of 1988 until shortly after the media overload that greeted Earth Day 1990.

What’s in a Name?

The term “Wise Use” was appropriated from the moderate conservationist tradition by movement founder Ron Arnold. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot, first head of the US Forest Service, called for national forestry policies based on the wise use of America’s trees and minerals. That triggered a simmering feud between Pinchot and Sierra Club founder John Muir. Muir wanted to see wilderness valued for its own sake, as the spiritual center of the world. In theory, the current US system of combining national forests managed for resource extraction with wilderness areas managed for recreation is a compromise solution to this debate.

But Ron Arnold did not pick the term Wise Use because of an affinity to the moderate conservationism of Pinchot. In 1991, he told Outside magazine that he chose the phrase Wise Use because it was ambiguous and fit neatly in newspaper headlines. Such duplicitous and opportunistic tactics are a trademark of the Wise Use movement. “Facts don’t matter; in politics perception is reality,” Arnold told Outside.

For a number of years, Arnold was a registered agent for the American Freedom Coalition, a political offshoot of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The American Freedom Coalition takes credit for funding the first Wise Use conference in 1988. Aside from telling Outside he is willing to ignore facts to achieve his goals, Arnold proclaims at every opportunity that his mission is to destroy the environmental movement. “We’re mad as hell. We’re dead serious. We’re going to destroy them,” he told the Portland Oregonian. In the spring of 1995, Arnold told a Vermont audience that Wise Users do not want to negotiate with environmentalists.

Ron Arnold’s big career break coincided with the coming of the Reagan presidency and Arnold’s own rapid swing to the right. In 1981, he co-authored At the Eye of the Storm, a flattering biography of James Watt that the former Secretary of the Interior helped edit. Watt’s attempts to dismantle environmental regulation and open federal lands to logging and mining produced short-term gains for corporate interests, but the long-term result of such policies was public revulsion and the explosive growth of the environmental movement during the 1980s.

Arnold’s movement-building was enhanced when he joined forces with Alan Gottlieb. Gottlieb’s Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE) reportedly takes in about $5 million per year through direct mail and telephone fundraising for a variety of right-wing causes. Gottlieb seems to possess a genius for dancing along the edge of legal business practices. He purchased the building that houses CDFE’s headquarters with money from two of his own non-profit foundations, then transferred the building’s title to his own name so he could charge his foundations over $8,000 per month in rent. Gottlieb also spent seven months in prison for tax evasion.

In 1988, Gottlieb published Ron Arnold’s book, The Wise Use Agenda, which outlines their movement’s goals and aims. Few environmentalists would find fault with the spirit behind this quote from The Wise Use Agenda: “[Wise Use’s] founders [feel] that industrial development can be directed in ways that enhance the Earth, not destroy it.” But the Agenda itself is basically a wish list for the resource extraction industries. The Wise Use movement seeks to open all federal lands to logging, mining, and the driving of off-road vehicles. Despite much rhetoric about seeking ecological balance and environmental solutions, almost the only environmental problem The Wise Use Agenda addresses rather than dismisses is the threat of global warming from the build-up of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. The solution proposed is the immediate clear-cutting of the small portion of old growth timber left in the United States so that these forests can be replanted with young trees that will absorb more carbon dioxide.

Although the science cited by Wise Use sources is suspect, and their arguments are mostly retreads of corporate press releases, today nearly everyone on the right wants a piece of the Wise Use movement. Rush Limbaugh, Lyndon LaRouche, the National Farm Bureau Federation, and dozens of other organizations and public figures are adopting their own versions of Wise Use rhetoric.

Much of this popularity can be explained by the lingering economic recession of the early 1980s, which provided a receptive grassroots audience for the Wise Use claim that it is easier to force nature to adapt to current corporate policies than to encourage the growth of more environmentally sound ways of doing business. Wise Use pamphlets argue that extinction is a natural process; some species weren’t meant to survive. The movement’s signature public relations tactic is to frame complex environmental and economic issues in simple, scapegoating terms that benefit its corporate backers. In the movement’s Pacific Northwest birthplace, Wise Users harp on a supposed battle for survival between spotted owls and the families of the men and women who make their livings harvesting and milling the old growth timber that is the owl’s habitat. In preparation for President Clinton’s forest summit in Portland, Oregon, Wise Use public relations experts ran seminars to teach loggers how to speak in sound bites. Messages such as “jobs versus owls” have been adapted to a variety of environmental issues and have helped spark an anti-green backlash that has defeated river protection efforts and threatens to open millions of acres of wilderness to resource extraction.

While attacking environmentalists, Wise Use statements borrow heavily from environmental rhetoric; this borrowed rhetoric often cloaks a self-serving economic agenda. The Oregon Lands Coalition in effect supports the timber industry by arguing that only people who cut down trees really love the wilderness. At the same time, the Wise Use movement opposes environmentalist efforts to find new careers for unemployed loggers who could be hired to begin restoring the stream beds ravaged by clear-cutting of forests.

Similarly, National Farm Bureau Federation publications repeatedly argue that farmers are the true stewards of the land. But the Farm Bureau lobbies for fewer restrictions on pesticide use and for the clearing of wetlands–not for government support for the alternative farming practices that the National Research Council’s 1989 book, Alternative Agriculture, showed can reduce farming’s impact on the environment while improving farmers’ net incomes.

Both the National Farm Bureau Federation and the Oregon Lands Coalition later disavowed any association with Alan Gottlieb’s Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and the term Wise Use. Groups that portray themselves as moderate Wise Users, like the Farm Bureau and Alliance for America, now describe their approach with substitute terms like “multiple use,” while still employing Ron Arnold’s tactics and inviting him to speak at Wise Use conferences. This distancing is apparently due to Arnold’s willingness to make extreme statements to the press and the baggage of his association with Rev. Moon’s Unification Church.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that there are these terminology wars, given that so much of this movement is about manipulating language and manipulating people’s understanding of concepts like environmentalism,” according to Tarso Ramos, who monitors Wise Use activity for the Western States Center in Portland, Oregon.

In fact, the Wise Use movement resorts to a bewildering range of subterfuges to mask its agenda. For instance, the developer-funded Environmental Conservation Organization and its member organization, the National Wetlands Coalition, want to make it easier for their funders to drain wetlands to build malls. To that end, Champion Paper and MCI fund the Evergreen Foundation, which spreads the word that forests need only clear-cutting and healthy doses of pesticides to become places of “beauty, peace and mystery.”

In a similar example, the Sea Lion Defense Fund is the Alaska fishing industry’s legal arm in its fight against government limits on harvests of pollock, one of the endangered sea lion’s favorite foods. Oregonians for Food and Shelter and Vermont’s Citizens for Property Rights cultivate a folksy grassroots image while promoting the agendas of developers or extractive industries. This was a tactic first advocated by Ron Arnold in a series of articles he wrote for Timber Management magazine in the early 1980s.

Alliance for America

Since the first corporate check arrived, the Wise Use movement has been split by debates over who will control organizing strategy and funds. “[Wise Use] is not a disciplined ideological coalition. It is a multifaceted movement. There are factions within it. They fight. The objectives of various players are very different. Coalitions can be tenuous, but they are very effective,” says Tarso Ramos. The Oregon Lands Coalition (OLC) is dominated by timber interests but also includes the National Farm Bureau Federation, pro-pesticide groups, and land-use planning activists representing developers.

In 1991, the OLC became a national organization by creating the Alliance for America. The Alliance’s stated purpose is to “put people back in the environmental equation.” The means to this end is to enlist grassroots groups in each state to fight environmentalists on a wide variety of issues. In 1991 and 1992, the Alliance staged “Fly-ins for Freedom” that brought supporters to Washington, DC, to lobby on behalf of logging, mining, and ranching interests.

From its founding, the Alliance for America’s purpose was to unify grassroots anti-environmentalist organizations in all 50 states. In the western states, where the movement was born, the Wise Users tend to be freedom-loving, right-wing libertarians, yet they spend much of their time and energy working to protect government subsidies for ranchers, miners, and loggers.

A well-worn joke describes the typical westerner’s attitude toward the federal government as “go away and give me more money.” Groups like the Oregon Lands Coalition and People for the West strive to preserve government privileges, such as below-cost sales of timber from federal lands and the 1872 mining law that lets mining companies lease government mineral rights for as little as $2.50.

A more subtle approach was required to build support for Wise Use groups in eastern states, where the Wise Use movement’s natural audience, primarily rural landowners, was not so accustomed to government largesse. The Alliance for America quickly found a slogan for its efforts to organize east of the Mississippi: private property rights.

The Theme of Private Property Rights

The Wise Use movement argues that regulations protecting environmentally sensitive areas on private property are unconstitutional “takings.” They cite the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states in part: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” That clause is the basis for the concept of eminent domain, which allows government entities to take land for public projects by paying property owners the land’s fair market value.

Across the nation, the Wise Use movement is backing state legislation seeking to expand the legal concept of what constitutes a “government taking” to include all situations where possible profits from developing, mining, or logging private lands are limited by environmental regulations. The movement argues that if a regulatory agency wants to protect a wetland, for example, the agency must pay the wetlands owner what he or she might have made if the wetlands were drained in order to become a buildable site.

The private property rights strategy may prove Wise Use’s best weapon. Despite their ability to draw attention and corporate money, western Wise Use organizations will remain vulnerable to negative press coverage because they are so often arguing for more government handouts for their corporate backers. But the call to protect private property rights from “government land grabs” or “unconstitutional takings” appeals strongly to rural landowners and small businesspeople, sectors of society that fear economic change and heavy-handed environmental reforms. “As an organizing strategy, takings is a kind of deviant genius,” says Tarso Ramos. “It automatically puts environmentalists in the position of defending the federal government and appeals to anyone who has ever had any kind of negative experience with the federal government, which is a hell of a lot of people.”

By the end of 1992, private property rights advocates had introduced legislation expanding the definition of takings in 27 states. If passed, these bills would rule that government regulatory actions, such as wetlands protection or even zoning restrictions, are “takings,” and require that landowners be paid for the potential value of the land they lost due to government actions. A single lost takings case could bankrupt most state regulatory agencies. The takings movement would, if successful, effectively end environmental protection in the US. The only federal legal test of takings was Lucas v. South Carolina. Lucas, a developer, sued the state for the lost value of homes he had planned to build on land that South Carolina subsequently declared sensitive coastal habitat. The 1992 US Supreme Court ruling on the case is often trumpeted as a takings triumph by Wise Users, but was actually a split decision requiring that South Carolina prove the homes would have constituted a public nuisance before enforcing the regulation protecting the sea coast.

In Vermont, a failed takings law was nicknamed the “pout and pay” bill. Opponents argued that the bill would have encouraged owners of low-value properties to imagine fantastic development schemes that conflicted with zoning restrictions or wetlands protection, then present the federal government with the bill.

After a bitter legislative battle, Arizona Governor Fife Symington signed a takings bill into law in June 1992. Delaware also passed a takings bill in 1992. In 1993, Utah passed a takings bill. In Idaho and Wyoming, takings bills passed the state legislatures, but were vetoed by the governors of each state on the grounds that the laws would create unnecessary bureaucracy. Similar bills are pending in a number of states across the country.

It is at the grassroots, city, town, and county level in rural areas that the Wise Use movement has been most effective. State-level takings laws fare better than efforts to convince the federal government it has no right to regulate land use. American industry has never dared advocate total war on the environment, even if the argument can be made that at times standard industry practices have fit that description. But grassroots Wise Users are proving effective shock troops, using tactics inspired by Ron Arnold to reverse decades of environmental compromise and negotiation in a few months.

The private property rights call was first sounded in the Northeast by the John Birch Society. In 1990-91, John Birch Society members helped turn out hundreds of people to protest the Northern Forest Lands study, a joint effort by the federal government and the governments of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to plan for the future of the vast woodland known as the Big North.

Now, New England’s private property rights movement has outgrown its John Birch Society origins. Wise Use groups in every New England state have affiliated with the Alliance for America. In Vermont, Citizens for Property Rights has assembled a coalition of developers and far right politicians to crusade for the repeal of the state’s progressive land-use laws. The Maine Conservation Rights Institute, based in the state’s far northeast (a stronghold of Christian fundamentalism), promotes a typical Wise Use agenda, opposing wetlands and forest protection under the guise of conservation.

A western Massachusetts Wise Use group called Friends of the Rivers (FOR) blocked a US Park Service plan to designate the upper reaches of the Farmington River a federally protected “wild and scenic” river. With assistance from Alliance for America, FOR spread disinformation on the effects of wild and scenic designation. Its literature predicted businesses being forced to close, property values plummeting, and riverbank homes being taken by the government.

Friends of the Rivers’ most vocal ally was Don Rupp, who is affiliated with Alliance for America. Rupp previously had led an unsuccessful struggle against wild and scenic designation of the Upper Delaware river in New York. Along the Delaware, Rupp warned of dire effects from wild and scenic designation that were virtually identical to the claims that appeared in Friends of the Rivers’ literature. But no homes have been taken or landowners forced to move from Rupp’s home territory. And after the Park Service stepped in to provide protection to the river property, land values along the Upper Delaware rose.

Friends of the Rivers’ leaders included the Campetti family, owners of an oil distributor and off-road vehicle dealership, and Francis Deming, who operates his 100-acre property as a pay-as-you-go dumpsite. But despite this evident self-serving interest, FOR’s claims frightened enough Massachusetts residents to cause three towns to vote against the wild and scenic designation of the Upper Farmington. FOR displayed posters claiming local wild and scenic supporter Bob Tarasuk was a paid government agent. Tarasuk had once spent a summer working for the Bureau of Land Management; he reports that harassing phone calls from opponents of wild and scenic designation eventually forced him to get an unlisted telephone number.

“There is no better tactic than to threaten someone’s land. Get someone who lives on their land and that’s all they have and then tell them that the government is coming to take it. Fear works. The Alliance for America knows this and I believe they coach [local groups],” Tarasuk said. “Your land has been stolen,” read an FOR flier distributed along the Farmington.

In Connecticut, along the lower reaches of the Farmington River, a local river protection group called the Farmington River Watershed Association defeated FOR’s efforts to prevent wild and scenic designation. Drawing on its strong local base, the Watershed Association (founded in 1953) rallied local citizens to support wild and scenic designation. Don Rupp’s efforts to spread fearful tales about the Park Service were blunted by the fact that the city of Hartford has flooded several branches of the lower Farmington to create reservoirs. Connecticut residents saw wild and scenic designation as Federal protection from future dam projects.

The battle over New England’s rivers reached a climax in March 1993, when the New Hampshire Landholders Alliance, an affiliate of the Alliance for America, convinced six of seven New Hampshire towns along the Pemigewasset River to vote against the river’s proposed wild and scenic designation. Patricia Schlesinger of the Pemi River Council said that only 15 percent of the registered voters in the seven towns took part in the town meetings that decided the river’s fate. “People felt intimidated and abused by fear-mongering and deceit. It was canned stuff, claims that the ‘feds are going to take your land.’ It was typical Wise Use tactics.”

The founders of the New Hampshire Landholders Alliance, Cheryl and Don Johnson, have a profit motive to fight wild and scenic designation along the Pemi. Don Johnson works for Ed Clark, a local businessman who has unsuccessfully sought to build a small hydroelectric dam at a scenic area called Livermore Falls–a project that would be prohibited if wild and scenic status were secured. As a result of the defeat of the wild and scenic plan, the state of New Hampshire will lose $450,000 in federal aid to develop a park at Livermore Falls.

Free Market Environmentalism

Environmentalists are conditioned by decades of using legislative processes to battle industry over the scale of development and resource exploitation in natural areas. But Wise Users don’t contest the scope of environmental protection; they wage war on the notion that any ecological problems exist that cannot be solved by reliance on the free market. David Gurnsey, Maine Conservation Rights Institute’s representative to the Northern Forest Lands Advisory Committee, did not criticize the conclusions of the Committee’s biodiversity study–he claimed the whole concept of preserving biodiversity was a veiled effort to take land from private owners.

Wise Users often call environmentalists “watermelons”: green on the outside, but red to the core. This association of environmentalists with the specter of communism is not mere grassroots name-calling. Corporate-funded, rightist libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation publish analysis and research supporting the Wise Use claim that green politics are the last vestige of communism’s collectivist, One World Government plot to subjugate the planet. In its most extreme forms, this logic surfaces in the claim of Lyndon LaRouche’s followers that Greenpeace’s activists are eco-terrorists and pawns of the KGB. The Greenpeace-KGB connection, first trumpeted in LaRouche publications, resurfaced in the writings of Kathleen Marquardt, founder of Putting People First and winner of the Best Newcomer Award at the June 1992 Wise Use Leadership Conference .

In some respects, however, free market environmentalism as advocated by Cato’s director of Natural Resource Studies, Jerry Taylor, or Reason Magazine editor, Virginia I. Postrel, has more merit than many environmentalists want to admit. For example, the biggest source of water pollution in America today is municipal wastewater facilities built with federal assistance. It was only after the end of federal subsidies for wastewater treatment that alternative clean-up methods like engineered wetlands were able to win out over traditional wastewater plants in many areas. But the Wise Use movement is not seeking to open opportunities for small businesses to profit while healing the planet. They want to dismantle government environmental protection while removing restrictions on industrial exploitation.

At the grassroots level, the Wise Users are taking on many of the typical characteristics of demagogic, paranoid right-wing movements, portraying environmentalists as in league with the federal government to destroy families. In Vermont, Citizens for Property Rights decorated a rally with effigies of their opponents dangling from nooses. Massachusetts’ Friends of the Rivers claimed that environmental groups had paid off legislators to support wild and scenic designation of the Farmington River. In New Hampshire, opponents of grassroots Wise Users along the Pemigewassett River received threatening phone calls.

Wise Use and the Right Wing

By 1993, the Wise Use movement had begun forming its first links with anti-gay activists and the Religious Right. In his report, God, Land and Politics, Dave Mazza of the Western States Center traced the growing association of two grassroots movements in Oregon. “Oregon’s electoral process has seen the Wise Use Movement and the Religious Right movement coming together in a number of ways, intentionally or unintentionally pushing forward a much broader conservative social or economic agenda,” Mazza concluded.

The Oregon Citizens’ Alliance, which achieved a small measure of national fame by its advocacy of a state referendum effectively legalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians (Measure 9), is trying to climb on the state’s crowded Wise Use bandwagon by sponsoring an initiative undermining Oregon’s land-use planning laws. As the Wise Use movement continues to spread, it is becoming both more vociferous and sophisticated. The leaders of the Wise Use movement have demonstrated that they would rather intimidate environmentalists than negotiate compromises between economic and environmental interests. In practice, Wise Use is proving to be a slick new name for some of democracy’s oldest enemies.

William Kevin Burke has written extensively about environmental issues. This article appeared in the June 1993 issue of The Public Eye. © 1995, William Kevin Burke.