Wise Use Groups Spread Into Southern Mountains Scaring Rural Residents With Demagoguery, Deceit


Once strictly a Western phenomenon, the Wise Use movement and its agenda of opening up public lands to unrestricted timber, mining, and off-road vehicle development has spread into the East. From North Carolina to Alabama, Wise Use organizers are demonizing conservation groups and using rural landowners as unsuspecting pawns in their quest to log and mine the last, best places in the mountains.

The “Wise Use” movement began in the West as an offshoot of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the late 1970s. During this time, there was a backlash among ranchers, miners, and loggers to President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to permanently protect millions of acres of federal land as wilderness (mostly in Alaska.) This backlash culminated in attempts by Wise Use groups to privatize public lands (or to turn them over to western states), an idea solidly rejected by sportsmen’s groups, the general public, and the courts.

But the Wise Use movement has continued to feed off anti-governmental sentiments wherever they exist, and the southern Appalachians is certainly a hotbed of distrust. Though they pose as grassroots groups representing “the people,” most Wise Use organizations are actually sponsored and funded by large corporations and extractive industries, who have only their selfish profit-motives at heart.

“With People for the West, it’s the people who decide what to do,”proclaims a flyer distributed by People for the West, a seminal Wise Use group that is spreading its tentacles into the southern mountains. “There are no big organizations or ‘giants’ of any kind that set the campaign course.”

What the flyer doesn’t disclose is that People for the West! was founded as a front group for the mining industry, with the primary objective of fighting reform of the
1872 Mining Act. This antiquated law allows corporations to extract millions of dollars of gold, silver, and other precious metals from public lands (including wilderness areas) while paying miniscule royalties to the Federal Treasury. More than 80 percent of People for the West’s $1 million budget comes from corporations such as Chevron, Bond Gold Corporation, Westmont Mining Company, and other big mining outfits.

Another Wise Use group, the BlueRibbon Coalition, is funded primarily by off-road-vehicle manufacturers. They were able to get an amendment added to a 1991 highway reauthorization bill that included up to $30 million dollars in gas-tax money to build off-road-vehicle trails. Under this legislation, trails for motorized vehicles can be made through previously roadless areas, decreasing the chances of these areas being protected under the Wilderness Act. The group also successfully pushed the Bush administration to overturn a Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

In August, 1988, Wise Users from across the country convened a Multiple Use Strategy conference in Las Vegas, Nevada to outline their goals. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, a Washington-based lobbying group founded by Ron Arnold, considered the father of the Wise Use movement. Their final agenda contained 25 goals, including: drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, increasing logging in all national forests, opening up all public lands to mining, and amending the Endangered Species Act to exclude “relic species in decline before the appearance of man,” such as the California Condor.

Wise Use groups are as diverse as the environmental groups they oppose, but there are two main principles they all share: (1) They believe that there should be no restrictions on the use of private property, including laws designed to protect human health, the environment, and scenic beauty. If your neighbor wants to put a smelly hog lagoon or toxic waste dump next to your home, that’s their right, according to Wise Users. (2) They believe that there should be no restrictions for logging, mining, drilling, motorized recreation, and all commercial enterprise on public lands. Wise Use groups think mining should be allowed in national parks and wilderness areas, and that even old-growth forests should be open for logging.

Besides these two tenets, Wise Use groups share a number of strategies. One is to feed off the fears and economic hardships of rural communities living adjacent to federal lands, portraying environmentalists as heartless city people who care more about bugs or snail darters than about people. Wise Use groups have used environmentalists as the scapegoat for high unemployment rates in Pacific Northwest logging towns (when mechanization, overcutting, and exports to Asia were actually to blame), and now they’ve turned their sights on conservationists in the southern Appalachians.

A case in point: Steve Henson is director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, a lobbying group for the timber industry based in Waynesville, NC. In guest op-eds and speaking engagements across the region, Henson rails against environmentalists as pagan tree-huggers who place the same value on a beetle’s life as they do on a human life. For a rural landowner who has never met, much less spoken, with an actual Sierra Club member, this is easy to believe. But it’s patently false.

The Wise Use movement is also deceitful in its use of misleading language. Indeed, even the names of some Wise Use groups are misleading. Most people would think organizations with names like the Environmental Conservation Organization, National Wetlands Coalition, and Wilderness Impact Research Foundation would be pro-environment. But these are all Wise Use groups, funded not by grassroots members but by big, multinational corporations who oppose environmental protection.

Lamar Marshall knows how deceitful Wise Use groups can be. The leader of Wild Alabama, a grassroots group dedicated to protecting his state’s public lands from marauding special interests, Marshall ran up against People for the USA, a spin-off of People for the West!

In 2000, Wild Alabama heard that President Clinton was preparing to designate some national monuments before he left office to preserve some special public lands.
Thinking that the Bankhead National Forest was such a place, the group began calling county commisioners, local mayors, and tourism groups to build support for two national monuments in Alabama.

Wild Alabama’s proposal would have protected 140,000 acres of publicly owned land in the Warrior Mountains from mining, industrial logging, and other destructive practices, while preserving 106,000 acres in the Cheaha Mountains. Their draft national monument proclamation, which they hoped Clinton would sign, specifically said, “The United States shall not condemn private property within or adjacent to the monument.”

But the proposed national monuments didn’t sit well with a group of inholders who own private property within the boundaries of the national forest. Soon, a People for the USA operative from Arizona was flown into northern Alabama to help organize resistance to the fledgling national monument campaign. With that operative’s help, an inholder named Myra Ball Bryant formed a front group patterned after dozens of other People for the USA chapters, called the Alabama Forest Conservation Multi-Use Association.

“You know how these groups are,” Marshall said. “They use a name that sounds like they’re true, blue Americans, but actually they’re financed by the timber industry or Suzuki or a mining company out West.” People for the USA is financed by the mining industry, he pointed out, and the mining industry doesn’t want a national monument in the Bankhead National Forest because it would preclude them from accessing a massive coal seam beneath it.

It didn’t take the new Wise Use group long to crank out flyers and petitions that were full of misleading information designed to scare inholders. Following the Wise Use trend, this propoganda was filled with “mights” and “coulds.” The federal government “might” condemn your property, and if they didn’t take it outright, your private property rights “could” be restricted. Roads “may” be closed, the flyers said, so that landowners couldn’t access their property. None of this was true, of course, but truth doesn’t matter to people who are scared by lies.

It only got worse, as rumors and innuendo about the national monument proposal spread from rural post offices to barber shops to feed stores. A national monument would mean the United Nations would take control over the forest. Hunting would be stopped. Horse trails would be closed. Family cemeteries would be dug up and bodies moved. None of this was true, but with Wise Use groups “fanning the flames of demagoguery,” as Marshall put it, there was no convincing people otherwise.

Marshall, who owns a trading post that serves tourists and locals alike within the Bankhead, had a man threaten to burn down his business, while another man promised to blow his head off. Still, he continued to doggedly pursue a national monument, while trying to educate local residents about the misinformation they were being spoon-fed by the People for the USA and their lackeys. Marshall even got Jim Snow, staff attorney for the USDA Condemnation Office in Washington, on the phone.

Snow said: “The effect of a national monument is to put restrictions on the federal government’s management of its own land. It doesn’t change one iota how private property rights exist within the area. Every condemnation in the last 25 years that has gone out of this department has gone across my desk and I haven’t seen any condemnations in any national monuments.”

Ultimately, a resolution creating two Alabama national monuments didn’t make it across Clinton’s desk in the closing moments of his administration. Most likely the Wise Use misinformation campaign had little to do with that, since the national monuments were endorsed by Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and other key politicians. But it couldn’t have helped, and Wild Alabama had to waste countless hours trying to set the record straight. The damage done by the Wise Users’ deception may be evident for years to come.

Things followed a eerily similar pattern in western North Carolina, after the conservation group Appalachian Voices began rallying support for two new wilderness areas at Lost Cove and Harper Creek. Republican Congressman Cass Ballenger, hardly a shill for environmentalists, had first proposed making these two areas wilderness in 1990; the U.S. Forest Service, who owns the land, supported creating wilderness in both drainages.

Enter a mysterious group calling themselves North Carolina Citizens For A Sound Economy, which is affiliated with the industry front-group Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE.) In a newspaper announcement last April, CSE said they were hosting a meeting to discuss river buffer regulations and the two proposed wilderness areas.

“Steve Hinson (sic), one of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, will address citizens on buffer regulations and private property rights issues,” the announcement said. “Wilderness areas, another heated private rights issue, will also be discussed. The federal government is proposing plan to establish Harper Creek and Lost Cove as wilderness areas, which would threaten private property rights by mandating limitations and restrictions on managing timber, which would ultimately inhibit the timber industry.”

The announcement was typical of the devious workings of the Wise Use movement. For one, it misrepresented the facts: wilderness designation would only affect public lands, and wouldn’t have any effect on private property rights; nor would it affect timber supply, since the lands in question have been off-limits to cutting for years. As Rep. Ballenger, a staunch conservative, told his House colleagues, “In fact, the Harper Creek area has not been logged in over 15 years, and the Lost Cove area in over 80 years.”

But those facts were lost on the 60 Avery County residents who showed up in Newland on April 22 (Earth Day) to listen to Steve Henson of the Multiple Use Council.
First, Henson tiraded against environmentalists, who were trying to implement land restrictions with “religious fervor.” Then he took on the modest stream buffers proposed by the North Carolina legislature, which are designed to reduce erosion and sedimentation into the badly polluted Catawba River. Cutting trees along streams isn’t as harmful as environmentalists say, Henson argued.

But Henson saved his most duplicitous statements for the two proposed wilderness areas. “They [the environmentalists] want 2.8 million acres of wilderness designation,” he said. “I don’t want my tax money going to support this.” True to form, Henson completely misrepresented the facts — what Rep. Ballenger and conservationists have proposed is creating 12,850 acres of new wilderness at Harper Creek and Lost Cove. Currently, only 66,845 acres (less than 7 percent of all national forest land) in North Carolina is designated wilderness.

Henson also misled the citizens of Avery County when he told them that wilderness areas can only be used for “low-level recreation” like hiking. In fact, wilderness areas allow a variety of uses, just not anything involving motorized vehicles. You can hunt, fish, rock climb, kayak, raft, canoe, orienteer, backpack, picnic, bird-watch, collect mushrooms, gather firewood, ride horses, and hang-glide in wilderness areas. None of which classifies as “low-level recreation” to most people.

Several weeks after the CSE/Henson meeting in Newland, a member of the High Country Sportsmen Coalition showed up at an Avery County Commissioners meeting and urged the commissioners to pass a resolution opposing wilderness designation. “That was Steve Henson’s suggestion,” says Matt Wasson, executive director of
Appalachian Voices. “There was no doubt that that was an outgrowth of the April meeting in Newland.”

On May 16, the Avery County Commssioners took up such a resolution. But Wasson and others pointed out to the commissioners that a large portion of the county’s revenue base is tourism based, and wilderness areas always draw more tourists than unprotected areas.

“We also pulled some studies showing that large blocks of mature and old-growth forests provide essential habitat for game and non-game species,” said Wasson, who has a doctorate in biology. The commissioners withdrew the anti-wilderness resolution and scheduled a public hearing for June 3.

Eventually, though, the deceptive practices of CSE and Henson won out and the commissioners passed a resolution in opposition to new wilderness at Harper Creek and Lost Cove. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it has thrown cold water on attempts to permanently protect these two publicly owned treasures from mining, logging, and road-building. Henson claims the ongoing wilderness campaign is nothing but an attempt by environmentalists to “lock up private lands,” using funding from wealthy organizations.

How ironic, considering that Henson and the group he represented, CSE, receive their money from big extractive industries bent on logging, mining, and drilling every acre of public land they can access. According to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Association, CSE received 80 percent of their $16.2 million revenues in 1998 from big corporations such as Exxon, Eastman Chemical, and timber giant Georgia-Pacific. In fact, $2.3 million of their funding came from oil, gas, and timber companies that year.

What can conservationists do to counter Wise Use groups and their campaign of deceit? According to Marshall and Wasson, the best thing they can do is to tell the truth, and keep telling it until people start to see who is being honest with them. “I guess because so many of the folks that oppose wilderness do not see environmentalists as having a credible voice, we need to combat this by putting forward messengers that are credible,” Wasson said.


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