Printer Friendly

A call to action.

Environmentalists must learn to fight the Wise Use Movement by putting people back into the ecological equation.

[Ed. Note: In Part I (Nov./Dec. 1992) of this three-part series, we reported on the history of the Wise Use Movement and the people and corporations behind it. Part II (Jan./Feb. 1993) described two battles with the Wise Use Movement. In this article, Part III, we present the views of a spectrum of conservationists on ways to respond to Wise Use]. "It's the Economy, Stupid"

--sign on the wall of Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters

ENVIRONMENTALISTS have allowed themselves to be painted into a corner. They prefer owls over jobs, trees over people, sea turtles over families. So goes the Wise Use message from commodity interests, and the message is finding an audience. Just as the Republican Right successfully partitioned "tax and spend" Democrats from the political mainstream, the Wise Use Movement (WUM) is working to isolate "tree hugger" conservationists from mainstream America. Their threat is not to be underestimated.

Jon Roush of Montana's Canyon Consulting tells of recently appearing on a panel with Charles Cushman of the National Inholders Association and correspondents from CNN and the New York Times. Their audience was the Society of Environmental journalists, and at the end, Roush says the read on the day by the Times reporter was that "the little guys are out there getting hurt by the big environmentalists. This, " the Times declared, "will be the story of the '90s."

It took the Democrats 12 years to reposition themselves and to reshape their message so that it struck a chord with the American public. Environmentalists may be faster learners. There are signs similar to the one that guided Bill Clinton in the minds, if not on the walls, of a growing number of conservation leaders. For many, the sign reads, "It's the People, Stupid."

Many small environmental groups that operate on the local or regional level, particularly those concerned with public health issues, have always focused on people and economics. But Darrell Knuffke, Central Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society, worries that the large national groups let the Wise Use Movement take the high ground. "We failed to communicate that we care about people," he says. "We didn't speak ... about economics."

Perhaps because they were so focused on the enormity and urgency of ecological problems or on the desperate need for change, many environmentalists sight of the human part of the equation. They assumed that when they spoke of saving the Earth, people understood it was being saved for them or for their children. The assumption falls apart when families are worried about the next mortgage payment or the next hospital bill. The Wise Use people recognized and cynically played on very real fears and concerns to create an anti-environmental grassroots movement.

Nathaniel Reed, who served as assistant secretary of the Interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations, says the Wise Use Movement has in one sense been positive--it has brought pragmatism to the environmental movement. "They have forced," he says, "an honest recognition of man's role on Earth, and the necessity of economic gain in a capitalist society." As a result, Reed says, the human equation has again become part of environmentalism's thought and decision-making process.

Reed counts himself as one of the many who underestimated the Wise Use Movement. He says ruefully that he misjudged the vast funding the extractive and exploitive industries would pour into it. Most environmental groups were too busy with their parochial battles, be it over mining, grazing, water rights, or timber, to see the threat posed by the coalition of their enemies. Even now, in preparing this article, it was interesting to find that there were many conservation groups that would not discuss the Wise Use Movement on--or even off--the record. They preferred, they said, to "lay low" on the issue.

Some groups, says Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), are still in denial. "We need to get mad. We've got to come at them directly," Pritchard argues. "Right now, everybody's saying, |we're too much above this; we don't have to worry about these guys."' Much as the Wise Use Movement is a coalition, Pritchard believes its attacks will ultimately bring large and small conservation groups together. "You'll see more verbal confrontation," he predicts, "more debate."

Almost everyone agrees the Wise Use Movement must be confronted; it's the who and the how that are open to debate. Kelly Cash, of The Nature Conservancy, is a diplomat. "Avoid conflict," she says. "Negotiate solutions." The Conservancy relies on outreach and education to counter the fear and hatred spread by the Wise Use Movement. Having worked with 20,000 landowners over 40 years, the Conservancy can draw on a wealth of experience to demonstrate that what is good for nature is also good for business. When Jack Turnell, who ranches Conservancy-owned land, tells cattlemen they can make money without overgrazing, they listen. Turnell's 120,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch includes grazing rights to 40,000 acres in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. Since he started rotating pastures and rebuilding streamsides, Turnell has seen his beef production increase by 300,000 pounds a year.

Bridge building has to start in the field, through local grassroots organizing. "We've dropped the ball," says Brock Evans of the National Audubon Society. "We need to go into rural communities, not as city boys in suits, but with local people who can talk to their neighbors." The people already out there say conservationists are in for a pleasant surprise: they and the people of rural America share common values. Jon Roush runs focus groups, each with 20 people of varied backgrounds. When questioned about values, he says, everyone sounds alike. Rhetoric and polarization don't come until later, when discussion turns to implementation.

Darrell Knuffke agrees that there are thousands of people in the West who don't call themselves environmentalists but who value their land for all the same reasons. And Kelly Cash warns against attacking WUM members; many, she says, are moderate people who at heart sound just like conservationists. The Nature Conservancy and other groups have noted a surprising number of people who belong to both Wise Use and conservation organizations.

But diplomacy doesn't always work. Sometimes, Al Runte says, you have to put on a flannel shirt, slug down a beer, and talk direct. The environmental historian (see his "A Word to the Wise," May/June 1992 National Parks) lives in Seattle, where timber companies created the Owls vs. Jobs lie to enlist lumbermen in the industry's drive to cut the last vestiges of ancient forest. Runte drives a verbal logging truck through an obvious crack: "Listen, guys," he'll say. "Wake up and smell the coffee. You guys are suckers. You lost your jobs because the logging industry sent raw logs to Japan and closed their mills. They didn't give a damn about you in the past. What makes you think they do now?"

The fact is, of course, that loggers and mill workers are being put out of work because they are running out of trees to cut. Paul Pritchard calls lumbermen the blacksmiths of the 20th century. The same economic fact of life confronts the other extractive/exploitive industries. The Western big four--mining, ranching, subsidized water, and timber--are all in decline. The Kings of the West are in reality the Lords of Yesterday. "The last perception to change," Darrell Knuffke says, "is how the community makes its living." In most Western communities, service industries are already the economic mainstay.

Those jobs are denigrated by some as being no more than flipping burgers and making motel beds, but in fact, there is vertical integration. The computer/fax/modem revolution is opening the West to new industries and new professionals who are attracted by the same natural values the big four seem bent on destroying. Nevertheless, many rural communities and many Western workers feel threatened, and they blame environmentalism rather than changing economics. Environmental writer Phillip Shabecoff warns that a growing number of Americans "have legitimate fears about how their livelihoods, their property rights, and the quality of their lives will be affected by environmental laws and regulations." Those fears, he writes, have to be addressed.

Historian Runte finds little new about the crisis facing the workers of the West. When talkies replaced silent films, he says, tens of thousands of musicians were thrown out of work, no longer needed to play background music in local theaters. No one banned talking pictures to save the musicians' jobs. Likewise, when planes replaced trains, thousands of Pullman workers lost their jobs. No one suggested banning air travel. The porters suffered until they found a new line of work. So it is today with the commodities workforce. The situation in the Northwest is not, as the Wise Use Movement would have it, about jobs. It is about temporary employment while the timber companies squeeze the last drop of profit out of public lands.

Conservationists need to hammer home the point that traditional Western jobs are disappearing because of economic change, not environmental fiat. They need to explore and accentuate shared values. They need to organize on the local level. And then they need to extend a hand. Like most conservationists, NPCA's Pritchard strongly believes it's possible to balance jobs and the environment. Activists have consistently argued that an environmental agenda will create more jobs than it costs. The time has come to put that belief into action. Rural workers are also a resource; we must not, in our race to save one resource, destroy another. There's a built-in bonus to the logic of preserving human as well as natural resources: each worker for whom conservationists find meaningful new employment means one fewer foot soldier to be exploited and manipulated by the Wise Use Movement.

And there's work to be done. From rebuilding stream banks to replanting entire forests, there are tasks which not only give displaced workers paychecks, but which have an economic payoff at the end. In the timber industry, the development of parallel-strand lumber techniques, which apply the concept behind plywood to the fabrication of giant load-bearing beams, means that smaller second-growth wood can do the job of taller old-growth trees. Millions of acres of second-growth forest are being profitably harvested in the East and South. Conversely, there are millions of acres of devastated forestland in the West. The same skills that made the mess can clean it up. These are jobs that require little or no retraining. A side benefit is that growing hundreds of millions of new trees will remove and store vast quantities of atmospheric carbon.

Resource restoration may be the ultimate infrastructure repair. Audubon's Brock Evans has identified 137 watersheds that need restoration. There is work there to last 20 years, he says, and when it's done, we won't have just a highway that's good for maybe 15 years; we'll have a sustainable forest good for a millennium. Renewed forests and renewed watersheds will mean a renewed timber industry and renewed fisheries. It's a win-win-win proposition. Evans has another win-win suggestion: ban the export of raw logs. Exporting ancient forests to Japan is putting Americans out of work at the same time it is destroying our natural heritage.

Pragmatism also means moderation. The West cannot and should not be turned into one vast nature preserve. Efforts like the one to end all grazing rights, with its "Cattle Free by '93" slogan, are not only unrealistic, but serve to put every rancher on the defensive. As The Nature Conservancy has amply demonstrated, sustainable grazing is not only possible, it is beneficial to the environment. Native grasses thrive best with limited grazing; today's cattle fill the role once played by the buffalo. Instead of turning ranchers into enemies, conservationists need to build on the shared love of the land and work with the cattlemen to achieve a true wise use--sustainable ranching.

Working together produces unexpected benefits. Environmentalists and California rice farmers fought for years over the farmers' practice of burning off their fields after the harvest. The solution: flood the fields during the winter months. The water breaks down the chaff for the farmers and at the same time creates much-needed wetlands for migratory birds during the key winter period. There's even a bonus for the birds: farmers leave behind some 300 pounds of rice per acre during harvest.

If "The Story of the '90s" is to be written with a happy ending for nature and the environment, then conservationists need a strong dose of political savvy. It's commonly acknowledged that the Wise Use Movement has borrowed heavily from environmentalism's grassroots textbook. What may not be so apparent is that the WUM has shuffled those pages into the Far Right's political textbook of lies and dirty tricks, misrepresentation, and oversimplification. Kathryn Hohmann, who handles public lands issues for the Sierra Club, warns that "perception drives politics." When the New York Times buys into the argument that "little guys" are being hurt by "big environment," danger flags should go up all over. When the Times decides that's the environmental story of the '90s, it's time to head for the bunkers.

Brock Evans counts votes on Capitol Hill for Audubon. He notes that Western Republican members of Congress have voted lock-step against conservation measures for years, and he sees no evidence of Wise Use political gains. "I'll worry," he says, "if they start getting the moderate vote." Despite massive WUM lobbying for two successive provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil exploration, conservationists have successfully blocked the bills.

But moderates read the New York Times and, reminds Nathaniel Reed, "All politics is local." The commodities interests understand that. While large conservation and environmental organizations have become increasingly Beltway-bound, the big extractors and exploiters have been pumping massive corporate dollars into grassroots rabble-rousing. Evans recognizes that the large WUM war chest and sophisticated political tools spell a serious threat. "They can really rile up the locals," he says, "and all our initiatives are in their territory. They can slow us down."

Whether the Wise Use Movement simply slows the environmental agenda, or stops or even reverses it, will be determined in large part by how quickly and how well conservationists react politically. There was significant commingling of key environmental people in the Clinton campaign and transition. One can only hope those people were as busy ascertaining as they were advocating.

One hopeful sign is that conservation groups are turning to political consultants for advice. One who talked with me off the record said the environmental movement has become the political incumbent, perceived as large, well-endowed, powerful, institutionalized, out of touch--even though the Wise Use Movement is larger and is heavily bankrolled by industry. The time is ripe, he warns, for a change-oriented "take back the land" anti-incumbent movement--a quasi-populist attack on conservationism.

Environmentalists must heed the first rule of politics: learn what people care most about, then answer their needs. Consultants point to Clinton's "Timber Summit" as an object lesson: sit down, talk about the problem, listen, be honest, work out a solution. Confrontation is a key tactical weapon against the Elmer Gantrys of WUM, but it's not the way to deal with the larger issue of public opinion.

Jon Roush advocates that public policy must deliver clear and immediate benefits if it is to win public support. Part of the solution is to redefine the argument. If the debate is over owls vs. jobs, the owls will ultimately lose. If the debate is over short-term greed vs. long-term jobs, the scales of public opinion will shift. Kathryn Hohmann notes the success environmentalists had in passing the Clean Air Act, once they persuaded the unions that benefits outweighed the cost.

People do believe in multiple use, but not at the expense of clean air or clean water or their cherished national parks. And people do expect industry to pay its fair share. Conservationists need to tap these shared roots to build coalitions with workers and business. They must now demonstrate that the environmental agenda can make the economy grow even as it makes the community a better place to live. Like the reborn Democrats, environmentalists should counter with positive alternatives. It is time to move the masses.

Richard Stapleton wrote and produced "Down to Earth," a daily environmental broadcasting, for CBS Radio News. Based in Brooklyn, New York, be now writes widely on environmental issues.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Parks Conservation Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Wise Use Movement; part 3
Author:Stapleton, Richard M.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Changing of the guard.
Next Article:Presidential pasts.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters