"Wise Use" Means Waging War on Environmentalists


a book review by Jeff Jacobson

The War Against the Greens:The "Wise Use" Movement, the New Right and Anti-Environmental Violence by David Helvarg
Press Gang Publishers, 1993/Sierra Club Books, 1994

Anti-environmentalism is no longer the exclusive terrain of resource industry lobbyists seeking to protect their federal subsidies or cranky developers unhappy with land-use regulations. Under the rubric of "Wise-Use" and the "Property Rights Movement" anti-environmentalism has grown in the last few years into a multi-faceted backlash movement whose aim is, among other things, unregulated access to timber, minerals, oil, gas, and range lands on public land, and the dismantling of the nation's key environmental and land-use regulations.

Two trends appear to be driving anti-environmentalism. First, traditional resource-based industries of the American West (mining, logging, ranching, plastic and petro-chemical processing) have been tightly squeezed by competitive global economic forces, putting a premium on maintaining massive federal subsidies of cheap resources on public lands. Second, long-term demographic shifts to the suburbs -- and their suburbs, the exurbs -- pit growing public demands for recreation and wilderness on public lands against unfettered resource exploitation. Private landowners too have felt the pinch as local governments seek to restrict development on the urban fringe.

How can the hopelessly backward 19th century policy views promulgated by Wise-Use and the Property Rights Movement be taken seriously in an age when public opinion polls consistently show that 80-85% of the population identify themselves as environmentalists? David Helvarg's new book seeks to shed some light on this perplexing question.

The core of Helvarg's analysis is that anti-environmentalism is an elite-driven political movement financed by resource industries and a wide range of special interests that stand to profit from continued exploitation of public and private lands. Major contributors to Wise-Use and the Property Rights Movement include the American Mining Congress, American and Canadian timber companies, ORV manufacturers, the Unification Church, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the NRA, and the Cattlemen's Association.

In the past, resource dependent industries rallied under the straightforward "pro-industry" banner. Under the leadership of Wise-Use, their demands are now portrayed as the product of a spontaneous grass-roots political rebellion. Central to this strategy is the fabrication of pseudo grass-roots organizations with well-meaning names like People for the West! (organized by mining companies specifically to fight reform of the 1872 Mining Law), The National Wetlands Coalition (organized by real estate, oil and gas companies to weaken restrictions on wetlands), and The American Forest Resource Alliance (which represents 350 timber and logging companies that have organized to fight federal protection of old growth forests).

Thus the "backlash", Helvarg argues, is little more than an elaborate public relations crusade geared toward distortion of fact and the creation of a climate of fear. "Preservationists," the movement snidely proclaims, care more about rocks and ferns than your community, your livelihood, or your God given property rights! Fear polarizes. Rational discussion of alternatives to environmental protection and sustainable development are anathema to the brand of extreme, end-of-the world cultural warfare preached by Wise-Use.

Most of the credit for orchestrating this backlash belongs to the renegade leadership behind the Wise-Use/Property Rights Movement. Steeped in the political methods of the New Right - phone banks, fax networks, television and talk radio, computerized bulletin boards, and direct mail - this group of "rearview visionaries" have forged financial and organizational ties linking traditional resource industries, special interest lobbies, right-wing think tanks, and "public interest" legal foundations in common cause.

Such collaboration is key to the multi-level attack waged on environmentalism. Wise-Use/Property Rights activists have cultivated sympathetic voices in the mass media, from talk radio to the New York Times; produced and disseminated claims from the "counter-science" fringe; and launched an assault on the legal basis of land-use and environmental regulations through the sponsorship of property rights litigation in the courts.

Perhaps most disturbing is the growing number of cases of outright intimidation and violence that Helvarg documents -- death threats, bombings, arson, rape, and even murder -- directed against environmental activists. These are not simply isolated accounts involving drunken rednecks or even displaced workers; more ominously, they are also the handiwork of "professional security" agencies (like the infamous Wackenhut Special Investigations Division) hired by threatened industries to deal with "trouble-makers".

Without doubt, Helvarg's recent book is the most in-depth treatment of Wise-Use and the Property Rights Movement yet available. The great strength of Helvarg's analysis is his exposition of the techniques through which a relatively limited set of interests have generated a potent "grass-roots" political movement. This is corporate power of a new and insidious sort.

Where Helvarg's analysis is misleading, I believe, is in his underestimation of the popular resonance of "property rights" rhetoric. Consider the following: 40 state legislatures have deliberated upon -- and 10 have passed -- laws requiring regulators to consider the effects of regulations on property owners, and an estimated 450-500 county governments throughout the country have passed "Catron County" ordinances (named for their first adoption in that county in New Mexico in 1990) which usually threaten state and federal officials with a one year jail sentence and $10,000 in fines if they violate property rights through regulatory action. In Washington State alone well over half the counties have adopted "Catron County" style ordinances, county separatist movements and their supporters have helped change the balance of political forces on county councils in Whatcom and Snohomish counties, and a "property rights" measure (Initiative 164) has gained enough signatures to make it on the November ballot.

In short, the Wise-Use/Property Rights movement has tapped into something significantly more dangerous to environmentalism than Helvarg seems willing to admit. Beyond punching holes through the gallery of smoke and mirrors constructed by the New Right, environmentalists need to face the real challenge: getting their message out on the ground, especially in rural areas where issues of local control simmer just beneath the surface; talking with the folks who have legitimate grievances; and taking the power of framing the debate over the meaning of environmentalism away from the extremists.

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