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for people who care about the West

People for the USA! disbands

The wise-use movement’s shrillest voice goes silent, but the spirit lives on


For over a decade, the national nonprofit group, People for the USA!, has fought to block reform of the 1872 Mining Act, to weaken the Endangered Species Act, bolster extractive industry rights on public lands and generally represent the staunch army of the Sagebrush Rebellion (HCN, 10/30/95: Nevada's ugly tug-of war: A visit to the heart of the Sagebrush Rebellion).

"We brought the extremists that were taking over the environmental movement to the attention of the public, and, as a consequence, we were able to influence policy," says executive director Jeff Harris.

But in October, he says, due to a decline of funding and membership, the group's national board passed a resolution to close down shop. As of Jan. 20, 2001, much to the dismay of its 30,000 members, the group will officially disband.

Born from backlash

This quiet departure is a surprise from a group that was born amid controversy. Started in 1988, PFUSA!'s predecessor, the National Coalition for Public Lands and Natural Resources, began as a voice for "rural Americans" who were furious at the drive by environmentalists to curb logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

"Our members were people who were displaced, who were losing their livelihoods," says Harris, who remembers the "Hungry? Out of Work? Eat a Spotted Owl," bumper stickers - an early membership effort to get their point across.

By 1992, the group's membership had grown to include members beyond the Northwest region and so it became People for the West! Then, three years ago, it morphed into People for the USA!, boasting 120 chapters nationwide and high-profile members, such as Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho.

Recently, says Harris, membership has declined and the group's $850,000-a-year budget barely managed to cover basic expenses, leaving nothing for lobbying or legal defense.

But the bottom line, he says, is that the organization has lost its relevance.

"It's quite a challenge to bring together a large group when you are essentially opposing something that is wildly popular," explained Harris in a recent newsletter. "Americans have embraced the environmental ethic; it is part of our value system like motherhood and apple pie."

According to former staffer Dru Bower, the reason for the group's demise is basic: a lack of corporate funding. Bower, now vice president of the Wyoming Petroleum Association, says that increased environmental regulations on public lands have driven natural resource industries onto private land or out of the country.

"Why would they want to fund us if they have no interest in that fight?" asks Bower. "It's just a sign of our times."

Not dead yet ...

Some environmentalists were surprised and pleased to hear of the group's passing.

"I'm delighted and overjoyed to witness the demise of this ill-fated venture," says Phil Lambert of EarthFirst!, the radical activist group that had an exclamation point in its name years before People for the USA! "(The group) existed to spread lies about the environmental movement; this represents the fact that Americans are becoming more savvy about what these wise-use groups are all about."

The Sierra Club's conservation director, Bruce Hamilton, adds, "Our trend line is up, their trend line is down." The Sierra Club has 600,000 members, and more public and financial support than ever before, he says.

While this is a good sign for environmentalists, Hamilton says, he dismisses claims that PFUSA's departure signals the end of an era.

"This represents more than anything a change of strategy for corporate interests. Instead of buying rural representatives to make it look like popular sentiment for their causes, industry found it easier to go buy some politicians," he says. "Corporate interests threw $2 billion into this election."

Too, some members of the People for the USA! say they really aren't going anywhere; they claim they're about to become bigger than ever before.

In November, 25 chapter leaders from the PFUSA! met in Las Vegas, and six of them - representing Nevada, southern Oregon, Utah, Northern California, New Mexico and Wyoming - came away emboldened with a new plan: They would join forces with the national nonprofit group, Frontiers of Freedom, a political advocacy organization that lobbies to advance states' rights, protect private property and defend First Amendment civil liberties.

"We're extremely excited," says Bower, noting that Dick Cheney is a member of Frontiers for Freedom. "It has a D.C. presence -- something we never had for PFUSA!"

Frontiers of Freedom/People for the USA! plans to complete merger details by the end of January, says Bower. "We honestly believe, with this new merger, that we'll be three times as strong."

Heidi Walters is a staff writer for Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative news weekly in Las Vegas, Nevada. Rebecca Clarren, an HCN assistant editor, contributed to this report.

You can contact ...

  • People for the USA!, 301 N. Main St., Pueblo, CO 81003 (800/339-9450), www.pfw.org;
  • Frontiers of Freedom, 1401 Wilson Blvd. 10th Floor, Arlington, VA 22209, (703/527-8282), www.ff.org.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Heidi Walters