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--- April 29, 1993 ---
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The so-called "wise use" movement is something to be reckoned with. Several thousand small groups and countless individuals now identify to some degree with the movement. They say they are the only true environmentalists; everyone else in the environmental movement they label "preservationists who hate humans." In a nutshell, the "wise use" movement aims to repeal or gut all environmental laws on the theory that environmental regulation has ruined America by curtailing the rights of property owners. Many "wise use" advocates avoid complexity by simply denying the existence of many problems. For example, many "wise use" leaders insist that the ozone depletion problem was manufactured by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and isn't real.

The movement originated in the western states, but now is active in the East as well, where it is championed by "developers" who want to abolish wetlands regulations and other restrictions on land use. The movement first came together under the banner "wise use" in 1988 when two men from the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Washington, Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, published a book called the WISE USE AGENDA. Ron Arnold is a writer and a showman who is expert at inciting angry crowds of "little guys" who are being squeezed economically, such as ranchers and commercial fishermen. Gottlieb is a phenomenally successful fundraiser for right-wing causes, a convicted felon who filed false income tax returns as head of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in 1984.[3]

Another leader of the "wise use" movement is W. Cleon Skousen, founder of the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS). Skousen once suggested that President Eisenhower had socialist tendencies. In 1987, Skousen's NCCS was promoting classroom use of a history book called THE MAKING OF AMERICA which was accompanied by a "Study Guide and Bible Supplement." NCCS distributed the book free to schools. In describing the 15th amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery, the book blames slaves for their own mistreatment, offers racial stereotypes of blacks (including repeated use of the term "pickaninnies"), and portrays slavery as a normal expression of the "dark side" of human nature. The book argues that the U.S. Constitution was derived from the Bible and that the Supreme Court has illegally usurped power. Each state should be free to impose its own restrictions on free speech and the press, the book argues, and all national forests and parks should be abolished.

Some of the glue linking NCCS with other "wise use" leaders, like Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, is funding provided by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Moon is a Korean multi-billionaire who has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into militant right-wing organizations in the U.S., including a right-wing newspaper Moon publishes in the nation's capital, the WASHINGTON TIMES. (As TIME magazine said January 13, 1992 [pg. 64], "political power, not profit, is Moon's goal--and... he is quietly achieving it.")

For several years Ron Arnold was a registered agent of the American Freedom Coalition (AFC), which was begun with a $5 million loan from Moon's Unification Church. AFC was for a time housed in a building Gottlieb owns. AFC now has 70 full-time employees, pushing pro-development land-use laws, state by state.

Various parts of the "wise use" agenda are not new. They trace their heritage to the "Sagebrush Rebellion" led by Ronald Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. Simply put, Mr. Watt believes that God commanded humans to "multiply and subdue the Earth;" in this view, bulldozers are the highest expression of God's handiwork and conservationists are in league with the devil.

Going further back, the "wise use" movement represents nothing more than a longstanding controversy over the best use of public lands--the 29.2% of the total area of the U.S. (forests, prairies and deserts) that is owned by the federal government (all of which was taken, it is worth remembering, from the native people who lived on it without any concept of ownership until Europeans swept westward between 1790 and 1890). Traditionally, the timber companies and the mining companies seek unrestricted access to public lands, and traditional environmental groups (Wilderness Society, Audubon, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy) want to restrict access so that there'll be something left for the next generation. This controversy has been in open debate since at least 1877 when Carl Schurz, then Secretary of the Interior, proposed the idea of national forests, to be rationally managed instead of pillaged.[1]

It would be a serious mistake to believe that everyone who identifies with the "wise use" movement is a religious nut or a right-wing wacko. Throughout the 1980s, small farmers, small ranchers, small mining operations, and small logging operations have come under tremendous financial pressure. As resources dwindle, the cost of mining anything (gold, copper, trees) goes up. As costs go up, either prices have to go up in lock step, or yields decline. In either case, the little guy gets hurt. One result is increased mechanization. Some logging companies now cut trees with giant scissor-like machines, substituting factory methods for human labor. These are truly hard times in the west. Many sincere, hard-working people find themselves in financial trouble. People are frightened, fearful of losing their livelihood, and worried that they're losing their way of life. The "wise use" movement gives people a focus for their concern by describing a conspiracy to destroy America, with environmentalists in a starring role. Environmentalism is sometimes portrayed as a new communist threat. For example, conservative political columnist George Will wrote in the WASHINGTON POST May 31, 1992, that environmentalism is "a green tree with red roots... a socialist dream... dressed up as compassion for the planet."

Some conservationists admit that, though the leadership of the "wise use" movement is opportunistic, it was conservation organizations that provided some of their opportunities. John Rousch, former chairman of the board of the Nature Conservancy says, "These are hard times, there are real problems. Government bureaucracies and environmentalists have not been sensitive to small land owners' needs and genuine concerns. A lot of the 'wise use' leaders are opportunists and the environmental movement created some of those opportunities. The environmental movement has some work to do to catch up, there's no doubt about that."[3]

In a sense then, many of the rank and file in the "wise use" movement represent the same kind of people who make up the grass-roots movement for environmental justice--people whose property values, livelihoods, and health have been wrecked or at least threatened by government and industry programs.

Unfortunately, opportunistic "wise use" leaders have captured the hearts of these "little guys" and have enlisted them in fights that promote the not-so-hidden agenda of timber companies, mining concerns, and ultra-right-wing militants.

As a self-conscious movement, "wise use" began in 1988 when Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise sponsored a conference in Reno, Nevada called the Multiple Use Strategy Conference.

Multiple use is a land-use concept adopted in the 1950s that allows logging and mining on lands initially set aside for preservation purposes.[2] In theory, multiple use means that careful timber harvesting can occur in ways that don't diminish wildlife habitat or the recreational possibilities of the forest. In reality, multiple use led to wholesale clearcutting (a logging technique that removes all trees from an area, leaving desolation in its wake). Now 95 percent of America's original ("old growth") forests have been mined and are gone.

The multiple use conference in Reno in '88 was co-sponsored by Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and by a group called the Multiple Use Land Alliance, which had been started earlier by Charles Cushman.

Cushman is among the more rational of the "wise use" movement's leaders. He grew up the son of a Park Service ranger in Yosemite. He owns a piece of land inside the park and some time during the 1970s, his "inholding" (as such properties are called) was threatened. The government was going to take it. He fought back and won. Soon, to hear him tell it, he was getting calls from other little guys who had a beef with the government. Cushman is a natural community organizer, and he has led many successful battles on behalf of the little guy. He speaks proudly of helping the Osage Indian people in Oklahoma defeat a government attempt to place their land in an Osage Prairie National Preserve. Cushman swears he advocates only non-violent political action. However, he is known by the nickname "Rent a Riot."[4]

Wise use leaders like Arnold and Cushman acknowledge that they have adopted organizing techniques from environmental activists ("They wrote the book, we read the book," says Cushman). But there's a difference: Arnold once explained to a meeting of executives of the Canadian timber industry that they could not promote their own agenda directly because people are suspicious of big business. He recommended that they start citizens groups instead, because grass-roots groups "can do things the industry can't... They can form coalitions to build real political clout. They can be an effective, convincing advocate for your industry. It can evoke powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtues of the close-knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller, and many others you can think of." And so "wise use" is growing bigger by fighting for the little guy, all the while promoting an agenda that serves the long-term needs of large land owners and corporate polluters.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.

[1] See chapter 9 in Roderick Frazier Nash, AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM, READINGS IN CONSERVATION HISTORY. Third edition. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990).

[2] David A. Clary, TIMBER AND THE FOREST SERVICE (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1986), especially chapter 6.

[3] John Rousch, untitled presentation during panel discussion, "Covering the Wise Use Movement," Society of Environmental Journalists 2nd National Convention, Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 6-8, 1992. Audio tape #25 of this session is available from Goodkind of Sound, Route 3 Box 365AA, Sylva, NC 28779; phone 800/476-4785.

[4] An untitled talk by Charles Cushman can be heard on the tape described in footnote 3.

Descriptor terms: wise use movement; preservationists; environmentalists; environmental movement; peroperty rights; ozone depletion; center for defense of free enterprise; ron arnold; alan gottlieb; wise use agenda; citizens committee for the right to keep and bear arms; w. cleon skousen; the making of america; slavery; african americans; blacks; minorities; bible; superme court; sun myung moon; washington times; american freedom coalition; sagebrush rebellion; james watt; public lands; multiple use; carl schurz; george will; john rousch; nature conservancy; multiple use strategy conference; old growth forests; forstry; multiple use land alliance; charles cushman; chuck cushman;

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