Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Land-Use Advocates Make Gains

Swelling coalition of 'wise-users' is challenging traditional environmentalism. SAGEBRUSH REBELLION REVISITED

A NEW kind of environmental movement is coalescing from every corner of America.Challenging conventional notions of "conservation" and "preservation those of established groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club - new coalitions are entering legal and policy clashes from local communities to Congress and winning. With the battle cry, "preserve for man, not from man," they are resisting loss of land to wilderness designation, endangered species protection, wetlands laws, grazing, and mining restrictions. They are putting the heat on those who would exclude humans from public land. "Man can and should use the land, ocean, and water for his own benefit - and he can and will do so [while] at the same time ... benefiting wildlife," says Grant Gerber, executive director of the Wilderness Impact Research Foundation (WIRF) in Elko, Nev. One-third of the country is federally owned, he says. Of that, one- third is subject to some form of denied public access. "In fight after fight, environmental laws have been skillfully misused as tools of obstruction for which they were never intended," says Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho. "This counterbalance is growing to offset the good purposes of an environmental community that has gone too far." By most accounts, WIRF stands at the heart of the burgeoning, broad-based movement known alternately as "multiple-use,wise-use," or "balanced-use." The group's fourth "National Wilderness Conference" in March was co-sponsored by more than 230 organizations totaling 25 million members. They include the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Mining Congress, American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers. They also include grass-roots coalitions of farmers, loggers, ranchers , off-road motorists, and hunters. "These people cannot be dismissed," adds Joan Reiss, California/Nevada regional director for the Wilderness Society. "Our battles have gotten more difficult as the other side has gotten more sophisticated." The new activism includes regular conferences, impact studies, and documentaries. Through networks of phones, fax machines, and newsletters, grass-roots organizations are learning how to muster defense for local fights: a Hungarian immigrant in Louisiana jailed after being cited for abuse of wetlands; local fishermen on the Niobrara River in Nebraska threatened by a "wild and scenic" designation; mill owners in the Pacific Northwest threatened by protection of the endangered spotted owl. "The feds want to put all our land into wilderness and we say they have enough," says Linda Hoag, president of Citizens Against Wilderness in North Carolina. "We're holding meetings, writing to editors.... You bet it's helping." Bruce Hamilton, director of field services for the Sierra Club, agrees. "At our field hearings we find the other side is turning out contingents so sizable they neutralize what we've done." Last month in two US Senate votes, "wise-use" lobbies helped defeat two bills: one that would restrict individuals' rights to mining claims, another raising grazing fees on public lands. "What's unique about this approach is that these people are affirming the environment and people, whereas the preservation movement as they see it now affirms nature but disaffirms man," says Robert Lee, a professor of forest resources at the University of Washington. "There is no question this is an environmental movement. They are out to utilize the ecosystem while perpetuating its integrity." The battle over the environment has become characterized by extremist statements on both sides. "Eco-freaks" and "bio-Nazis," cry some strident wise-users. "Wise-abusers" and "bug-eyed zealots," retort traditional enviromentalists. But such rhetoric obfuscates the debate, say more independent observers. "This movement is terribly serious and should be taken that way," says Mr. Lee. He compares current threats to resource-extraction industries to historical transfers of land in England's 16th-century enclosure movement. "Since we are not socialist, there is no national rhetoric of responsibility when we force people off the land," he says. Ultimately, the new environmental war is being fought to capture the minds of the electorate. Propaganda salvos are being fired from both sides. In a recent WIRF documentary, Alaskan Eskimos tout the benefits of civilization brought by oil development in Prudhoe Bay. Wise-users say such perspective is missing from environmentalist "scare tactics." But traditional preservationists say wise-users scare up membership by misusing legal definitions such as "wilderness," which allows activities like grazing and hunting. "They are going to fight to middle ground," says Lee. But the environment's "old guard should be aware of how far these people have already come in accommodating their ethic."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.