The Wayward West: Browning up the Neighborhood

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

The Wayward West: Browning up the Neighborhood

Ten Wise Use outfits that are moving in--fast--to a dispute near you
By Jon Christensen

When the wise use movement emerged in the late eighties, environmentalists mocked it as an industry-funded puppet show that delivered more shriek than punch. You don't hear that anymore, in part because Wise Use groups--sometimes spending less per year than what a big-green organization dishes out to its boss--have evolved into significant forces, largely by focusing grassroots attention on the alleged "human costs" of environmentalism. Now an interesting shift is in progress. After the Republican blitz of 1994, many Wise Use activists have started to believe that their time has come inside the Beltway. And environmentalists--whose Washington influence has flatlined--have been trying to get back to basics with more effective local organizing. What this means for 1996 is that always-feisty Capitol Hill dust-ups over western environmental issues will be played out with equal intensity regionally and locally. Here are groups to watch when the clanging starts.

Bellevue, Washington
Former Sierra Clubber Ron Arnold, the éminence grise of Wise Use, bragged about swiping entire chapters from the Club's organizing manual when he joined CDFE in 1984. Tireless and aggressive, Arnold and his partner--CDFE founder and fund-raiser Alan Gottlieb--have built up the premier Wise Use propaganda mill, shrugging off documented charges that the group has had financial ties with dicey backers such as the Moonie-funded American Freedom Coalition. "That's a smear campaign," says Arnold, "to tie us to extremists, LaRouche, Scientology, and lately, militias." Gottlieb sends 30 million pieces of antienviro direct mail each year, netting $5 million that's dispersed to a variety of other Wise Use groups and his own bank account. With a claimed $280,000 budget and 30,000 members, CDFE sponsors an annual conference and pumps out reams of opposition research. Arnold's best-known report, Trashing the Economy, examines the budgets and internal politics of all the major green groups.

Riverside, California
"No on S.21" signs still dot Mojave Desert roadsides, where the CDC--a coalition of off-roaders, miners, and oilmen who opposed last year's California Desert Protection Act--hopes to turn back the clock in '96. In a recent letter to its 40,000 members, chairman David Hess, a four-wheeling physician from Bakersfield, acknowledged that the CDC came up short in its efforts to keep millions of acres of desert from being locked up by wilderness and national park protections. But that was then. "Our congressional allies are now in control," crows Hess. With help from Jerry Lewis, a Republican congressman from Redlands, California, the CDC successfully lobbied the House of Representatives to slash the 1996 budget for the new Mojave National Preserve to a laughable $1. At press time, there was a good chance that funding would be restored, but the CDC, which operates on a $50,000 annual budget, was striking on other fronts, lobbying to open trails in the Mojave to off-road vehicles.

Alpine, Texas
In Texas, they apparently measure property-rights groups not by membership, but by the size of their spreads. Davis Mountains won't disclose its head count, but it claims to "represent" 13 million acres of privately owned land, almost 10 percent of the state, with a budget in the "low thousands." The group originally got fired up by a 1989 National Park Service proposal, since defeated, to buy nearly four million acres of private land in the oak-and-piñon-covered Davis Mountains. (Founder Ben Love said that while a few locals might benefit from park-generated tourism, most would get "little more than a bag of dirty diapers from a passing Winnebago.") These days the association is drawing a line in the sand to stop reintroduction of the Mexican lobo north of the border.

Englewood, Colorado
With 230,000 members and a $9.5 million budget, the cowboy megalobby runs like a huge herd of longhorns: easy to stampede and hard to turn. It used to be that cattle barons could call up their congressman and get a too-green Forest Service ranger replaced the same day. But even in the West, cowboys have lost a lot of clout as other land users--mainly transplanted urbanites--have surged in. Hence Cattlemen's has had to go to court to try to halt Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's rangeland reforms, which call for a modest grazing-fee hike and formally bring environmentalists into the loop on range management. The real test will be its 1996 efforts to revive Senator Pete Domenici's Livestock Grazing Act, a cattle-hugging alternative to Babbitt's plan that stalled in '95.

Denver, Colorado
Made famous by its first president, James Watt, Mountain States is the Wise Use answer to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, using an annual budget of around $900,000--largely collected from mining, ranching, and timber companies--to file flurries of legal actions all over the West. Run by former Wattling and chief litigator William Perry Pendley, Mountain States lost a pricey appeal last year to stop the Interior Department from returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Still, Pendley is a formidable presence, and he'll press hard on upcoming cases, including one on behalf of Idaho rancher Eugene Hussey, who last January allegedly lost a calf to a wolf introduced to the state under the Clinton administration's wolf-recovery plan. The wolf was later shot by "a person unknown"; Hussey will argue that the government owes him compensation for the lost calf. Pendley's new book, War on the West, hits bookstores this fall.

Caroga Lake, New York
A coalition of 600 Wise Use and property-rights groups claiming to represent eight million people in the East and West, the Alliance is run by Harry McIntosh, a volunteer who works out of a borrowed cubbyhole with little more than a computer, phone, and fax machine. Part of the group's $60,000 annual budget pays for a lobbying display called the Fly-in for Freedom, a heartstrings-tugging event that sends battalions of working stiffs to Capitol Hill to rail against the Alliance's primary target, the Endangered Species Act. "Wear work clothes," organizers tell participants, "with special attention to gloves, boots, hard hats..." Though critics maintain that the spectacle is wearing thin, the Alliance, more than any other group, has succeeded in giving Wise Use a yammering human face on Capitol Hill.

Pueblo, Colorado
The lesson of PFW!, a 15,000-member organization that claims 120 chapters in western states, is that industry bucks can field a formidable grassroots team. Most of the group's $1 million annual war chest comes straight from the mining and forest-products industries, but it's spent almost entirely on local organizing. Operations director Guy Baier, who spent 30 years with the Bureau of Land Management before his change of heart, oversees six full-time regional lieutenants who make sure their players turn up when it counts. In 1991, the group thumped the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on its own turf by stacking hearings on a federal interagency plan to manage the Yellowstone ecosystem--Yellowstone National Park and the various national forests that surround it--as an integrated unit. In 1996, the definitive test of PFW!'s muscle will be its attempt to push an industry-friendly mining bill through a Congress that is still gridlocked over the issue.

Salt Lake City, Utah Founded by Met Johnson, a Republican representative who heads the Utah legislature's cowboy caucus, WSC is the elected wing of Wise Use in the West. Its 3,000 members include state legislators, county commissioners, and mayors. WSC's claim that it "represents" 22 million people is probably a stretch--that's nearly half the entire population of the West--but the coalition has become an important player in just two years, mainly because its members already wield real power. With a lean budget of around $60,000, Johnson's goal is to "turn the war against the West back toward Washington." The group's recently released "12-step" plan to revive the West advocates, among other things, a flat policy of turning BLM turf over to the states.

Park Ridge, Illinois
With more than 4.5 million "member families" in 2,800 county and parish Farm Bureaus in all 50 states, the Federation generates instant support for Wise Use causes. Farm Bureau dues fund a $16.3 million budget dedicated to protecting agriculture's perks, big and small. At the top of the Bureau's 1996 environmental agenda is the promotion of "common sense" (read lax) wetlands regulations in the Clean Water Act. State-level Farm Bureaus have successfully pushed "takings" legislation, which requires compensation for any loss of property value because of government regulation, in 17 states.

Elko, Nevada
A founding father of antienvironmentalism, WIRF president Grant Gerber works out of his small-town law office to educate the public about what he calls "the damage wilderness causes society, the economy, and even wildlife." With an annual budget of $120,000, WIRF sponsors studies that paint an apocalyptic vision of the economic impact of wilderness. One paper makes the claim that southern Utah's existing wilderness study areas--3.2 million acres of BLM land--if designated as permanent wilderness by Congress, would cost the state's economy $9 billion per year. The pending jihad over Utah public lands will reveal whether most people--even those in a conservative state--are willing to buy purely economic arguments about the spiritual value of wilderness embodied in Utah's redrock temples.

Jon Christensen, an environmental writer based in Carson City, Nevada, is the Great Basin editor of High Country News.

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