Founding father challenges his movement

  • Chuck Cushman

 

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - On the surface, everything seemed under control at the Western States Coalition Summit VII held here last November. The wise-use movement's leaders delivered the sermons, and the crowd of 300 responded with well-timed murmurs, hand-clapping and even outright whoops of delight.

Yet, behind the scenes, the cracks of a movement under stress were beginning to show.

At Summit VII, the cracks were revealed not so much by the people who attended as by those who were absent.

Previous summits have been marked by an eclectic mix of property-rights activists, ranchers, industry flacks and militia types (HCN, 10/14/96). But no one-world-government doomsayers or militia recruiters hawked literature in the hotel lobby at this event. A handful of young, clean-cut kids ran the registration table, and just one group, the industry-powered People For the West, had an information booth.

One of the movement's most outspoken senior leaders was also missing. Chuck Cushman, who heads the American Land Rights Association/National Inholders Association, decided to bag the event after he was told his group could not set up a booth.

For Cushman, who has earned the nickname "Rent-A-Riot" for his ability to drop into economically stressed communities and whip up sentiment against government and environmentalists, the snub was the final straw. Just as the conference ended, he dispatched a fax alert from his office in Battle Ground, Wash., to his followers in the field: "ALERT! TAKEOVER OF WESTERN GRASSROOTS!"

"People For the West has begun to take over as many grassroots organizations as they can," the alert warned. "PFW feels that private property and multiple-use grassroots ... should have a better structure and speak with one voice. That's the oldest pitfall in the movement ... We will lose everything if we become one big centralized bureaucratic organization instead of a feisty, many-voiced, truly representative grassroots movement."

Cushman claimed that People For the West, which was founded in 1987, had begun setting up unhealthy "partnerships' with several influential groups, including the Western States Coalition, whose members include conservative county, state and federal lawmakers. He noted that PFW had given the coalition $20,000 in sponsorship money to put on Summit VII, and that Utah state legislator Met Johnson, the coalition's director, recently accepted a position on the PFW board of directors.

Cushman also said that PFW "makes no bones about the fact that it has plenty of money because it is funded by big mining," and that it uses this leverage to bring cash-starved "chapters" - the group has well over 100 - under its wing.

"Even though no one at People For the West is evil," Cushman concluded, "what they are trying to do will result in a catastrophic loss of rural culture and heritage."

A response

Cushman's fax set the phones ringing at People For the West's Pueblo, Colo., office, and executive director Jeff Harris sent out a four-page response in late November to mollify members and supporters.

Harris defended his organization as a supporter of grassroots groups and called Cushman's attack an unwarranted and vindictive "grenade launch."

"The whole thing could just as easily have been written by Earth First!" he wrote. "The only new angle was that it was coming from someone on our side of the fence and someone who damn well knows better."

Harris said Cushman should have contacted him before the Summit because there was a table provided for "interested attendees' to distribute literature. The Western States Coalition meeting was "carefully screened to ensure that no radical groups took advantage of the opportunity," he said. "Radical viewpoints do not reflect the opinions of the Western States Coalition or 99.9 percent of the attendees, but when they appear they have been used by the media covering the Summit to destroy our credibility."

He suggested that Cushman's attack may have had more to do with PFW's success in fund raising - the group has a $2 million budget, with significant contributions coming from mining companies and other businesses that use public lands. PFW is successful in attracting money, he said, because contributors "have no fear that any of our actions will cause them embarrassment."

Cushman acknowledges that his group has struggled financially and that he has had some run-ins with PFW. Last year, when he organized a rally in Colorado against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, he says, PFW leaders called him on the phone and chastised him for failing to contact them first. "I told them, 'I didn't know you owned Colorado,' " Cushman recalls.

But Cushman claims his dispute with People For the West is more than a turf war. The model of having bigger, industry-funded organizations, such as People For the West, speaking for hundreds of smaller groups is fundamentally flawed, he says.

"We should learn from what has happened to the green groups," says Cushman. "They began to have real success when large numbers of new groups popped up in the 1970s. They grew a whole new generation of leaders from the grass roots. It wasn't just (the Sierra Club's) David Brower calling the shots anymore."

PFW public affairs director Cathy Jewell says her group forges "working relationships" with local grassroots organizations. The local groups are free to take any position on an issue they want under their own name, she says. "But if they use our name, their statements must agree with our positions." PFW also provides the groups with services, such as help with tax returns and a fax network for distributing alerts.

"It's not anything like a hostile takeover," Jewell says. "The groups want our help."

In his memo, Harris, who used to work in the oil industry, called Cushman's model of activism outdated. "We have passed the point where we have to function as a band of independent guerrilla fighters hiding behind rocks and sniping at targets of opportunity. That's excellent strategy when you're weak and facing a formidable force, but we don't believe that's the situation anymore."

Peeing on boots


The philosophical split between Cushman and People For the West was beginning to widen long before the November fax war.

In the winter of 1996, with less than a year left to enact their national agenda - including private property "takings" bills, a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, grazing reform and a bevy of public-land transfer bills - the leaders of the wise-use movement held several strategy meetings in Washington, D.C.

One participant, Kathleen Marquardt, the director of a Montana group, Putting Liberty First, recalls "one large faction" deciding to focus efforts on Capitol Hill rather than whipping up support in the field.

That was a tactical blunder, Marquardt believes. "I don't like to march and wear T-shirts. It's much more fun to go to Capitol Hill and meet with members of Congress and committee staffers," she says. "But our people don't have the money to sit at the table with those folks. We only have people power.

"Our leaders were sitting at the table being marginalized while we were losing in the bigger picture of politics."

Cathy Jewell says she considers the 104th Congress a success. "We were very effective in Congress," says Jewell, ticking off a list of bills that passed at least one house. "Our hurdle is the White House."

Some environmentalists see the apparent rift in the wise-use movement as a sign that it is losing influence. "It seems they're starting to pee on each other's boots now," says Rob Smith, who heads the Sierra Club's southwest field office in Phoenix, Ariz. "They're pushing an agenda that is out of date and unpopular."

But Daniel Barry, director of the Clearinghouse for Environmental Advocacy and Research, says talk of the movement's demise is premature.

"The rifts have been under the surface all along," says Barry, who has monitored the wise-use movement for the past three years with funding from foundations. "They're not throwing in the towel, they're just going through growing pains."

While Barry sees the need for the wise-use movement to broaden its appeal and develop a message more palatable to the general public, he says Cushman has a legitimate fear about corporate control. "He knows that people like me are out there ready to draw the connection between groups like People For the West and industry," says Barry.

As for Kathleen Marquardt, she says her group, Putting Liberty First, will never become a member of People For the West. "I'm not going to condemn people for joining People For the West, but when groups become too big they get top-heavy and ineffective. I always swore that if there comes a time when our group gets too big, we'll just shut down and start all over again."

David Brower couldn't have said it better himself.

Paul Larmer is associate editor of High Country News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.