Bill Grannell, the executive director and former Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the National Association of Counties, said the goal for the group, which has nearly doubled in size in a year - from 60 chapters in 14 Western states to 112 chapters - is to become a major political force.
Grannell said the group, which boasts a $1 million budget, is adopting the successful tactics of the environmental movement. One is to keep track of congressional votes and assemble a scorecard and rating system on how elected officials vote on public-lands issues.
Although the conference, the first ever for the four-year-old organization, was bypassed by New Mexico Gov. Bruce King because of criticism from area environmental groups, it was addressed by political supporters either in person or by video.
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., urged people to educate the public about how environmental controls hurt communities and industries. He said environmentalists use the Endangered Species Act mainly to halt development.
Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., likened Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to a communist for his support of stricter environmental controls over grazing, mining and timber cutting on public lands. Wallop also accused Babbitt and federal agencies of being "environmental storm troopers' who attempt to subvert the rights of private property owners in the West.
"Real environmentalism is not about taking people's property," Wallop said. "It is about good stewardship. If we acquiesce, the West we know will not be there. It will become an urban theme park where people come to watch the sunset and the last round-up performed by paid actors."
The conference, titled "Head'em Off at the Pass," was designed to teach members "how to hold politicians' feet to the fire," Grannell said.
Grannell said the nearly 20,000-member group feels threatened by what he called the "New West" philosophy that would restrict the public land to recreational use only. The conferees sported buttons that read "New West B.S."
Grannell denied that People For the West was a front for large mining, timber and ranching companies. He said he formed the organization in 1990, then approached industries for their support. He said the group now receives 75 percent of its funding from mining, timber and ranching interests and 25 percent from members and contributors.
People For the West can be reached at Box 4345, Pueblo, CO 81003.
* Peter Eichstaedt
The writer lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His book, If You Poison Us, about uranium mining on Native American lands, will be published this fall.