What to do when opposition to planning turns ugly

  When the numerous and vocal opponents of the Flathead plan suddenly came out of the woodwork last summer, it was a shock to many people. But it was probably no accident.


"That's a typical strategy," says Tarso Ramos of the Western States Center, a Portland-based nonprofit. "Agitators whip people up for a short time but at a very strategic juncture."


How can communities prepare for this? High Country News asked the experts. Here are their tips:


* Say no to violence, intimidation and any tactic that subverts public process, says Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network. Write letters to the editor; give commentary to local radio stations and encourage public censure of harassment and bullying.


* Involve yourself in broader-range issues than just environmental protection, such as poverty, class, labor and education. "The right's been doing it, and doing it effectively," says Ramos. "Push for serious engagement in defining and designing sustainable economic development and social justice. Environmentalism isn't just about wilderness. Reach out to different people and different interests."


* Don't dismiss the arguments and paranoia of the radical right as silly or crazy. "People need to confront the Big Lies of the radical right," says Toole. "The lies get thrown on the table and never debunked. For some listeners, they become reality." Example: some opponents of the Flathead plan believe that it is bankrolled by big money from out of state, and that its purpose is to force landholders out in order to "make room for the rich and famous," as one put it. "You can't just roll your eyes or truth will go out the window," adds Toole. "Challenge these statements. As tedious as it gets, we have to ask, "What's your documentation? Show me." "


* Develop expertise in communicating about "takings' (when regulations devalue property) and other complex, emotional issues. "The right has appealing, hot-button phrases. We need to challenge those slogans and counter them in language that's also simple and appealing," says Craig Fiels, government affairs associate with the American Planning Association.


* Form an organized opposition group, a local human rights chapter or an active planning support group. "We need to get information out about how planning helps communities and protects private property," says Fiels.


For more information, contact the Montana Human Rights Network, P.O. Box 1222, Helena, MT 59624 (406/442-5506), or the Western States Center, 522 S.W. 5th, Suite 1390, Portland, OR 97304 (503/228-8866).





- F.W.