Wise-users try to whip up a recipe for their own salvation

  • Michael Coffman holds up UN Biodiversity Treaty

    Environmental Defense Fund photo
  • Met Johnson, founder of Western States Coalition

    People For the West! photo

Casper, Wyo. - Utah House Speaker Melvin Brown tells the audience that he doesn't want to end the evening on a negative note. But he does want to make you "mad enough to come back tomorrow recommitted."

To get their blood pumping, Brown conjures up an enemy - Thomas Michael Power - a University of Montana professor whose economic theories have convinced many environmentalists that they will inherit the West. Those to be disinherited include the 300 ranchers, loggers and miners who are staring up at Brown in a hotel ballroom this hot evening in June.

To make sure they come back for the third and final day of this convention, he reads to them from a Salt Lake Tribune article on Power. Power told the Tribune that resource-based economies are "becoming a thing of the past ... There is something fundamentally flawed in the way a lot of people ... look at the local economy... It is an exercise in nostalgia."

Brown lets that sink in, then continues: "Power said his studies show the benefits of resource industries have been exaggerated to benefit a few hangers-on ... 'It's the last gasp of an era that's gone by.' "

By now, the audience, full of fellowship, food and wine, is snorting and laughing. They hadn't thought of themselves as a last gasp. These "hangers-on' - mostly men, age 50 plus, white, a third of them elected state representatives and county commissioners - made the pilgrimage to Casper from their Western towns to celebrate the industries Power dismisses as "dysfunctional."

I made the same pilgrimage expecting to find a depressed wise-use movement. After all, the ground it had won in the 1994 elections has eroded. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, Enid Waldholtz, John Shadegg and company failed to dismantle 20 years of environmental law, instead setting off a national backlash that threatens to sweep them from office.

Worst of all, Power's service and amenity economy seems to be taking over the West town by town, even as cattle prices plummet.

But now I sit spearing steak among men who seem very much alive. I find a movement not so much dead as scrambling, unsure how to regain momentum.

Melvin Gustin, a miner who lost his job in Riverton, Wyo., explains: "There are forces moving in this world beyond the comprehension of the average citizen to realize. There is basically an evil-type force working against us. The elites of the world ... They'll lie straight cold in our faces."

This is the sixth meeting of the Western States Coalition, founded four years ago by former Utah Speaker of the House Met Johnson (HCN, 5/27/96). The coalition has a response for Power: The rural economies are in trouble because Western states don't own their land. And because even the private land is subject to controls on wetlands and endangered species. If the West were in charge, miners would get off food stamps, resource industries would boom, and people from small towns wouldn't have to choose between burger-flipping jobs at home and moving to cities.

"Our common goal is to get the land back in the hands of the state, in the hands of the people," says Gustin. "If they disagree with you, great! You're standing face-to-face."

So the big picture is clear. The devil is in the details. Amid the conference's festive Americana - the piped-in patriotic hymns, the red, white and blue tablecloths, and the oh-so polite ranchers carrying mini-copies of the Constitution in their breast pockets - something is missing. There is no plan. Or rather, there are too many plans. And they are all being announced at the same time. To hear them all, you have to walk from room to room of the plush hotel.

In the ballroom, Albuquerque attorney Lana Marcussen is delivering the latest sue-the-bastards strategy.

"Are you tired of being second-class citizens?" she asks.

"Yes!" cries the crowd.

"When we talk about territorial land status, that's what we're talking about. Well, what I have the pleasure of saying is I think we have the way to fix the problem."

Marcussen offers a magic legal pill - an alchemical mix of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions that promises to take Western lands from federal control. She thinks Karen Budd-Falen, who also preached judicial salvation to this congregation for about a decade, failed because she depended on ranchers.

"If we leave it to the ranchers to fund all this huge litigation it will kill us ... When you see someone like Karen who wants to keep this to a rural movement, who talks about preserving your culture - well, I'm sorry, but the West is majority suburban."

Bold, tall, hair flying, Marcussen looks out of place next to the petite Budd-Falen. She is. She's a direct descendent of George Mason, an author of the Bill of Rights. Her 10 or so generations in the East give her clout with ranchers who brag of five generations on the land. She's a rising legal star, constantly booked for wise-use events.

Environmental attorneys in New Mexico tried to figure out Marcussen's argument and finally decided all she had was an incoherent pastiche of laws and rulings. But she's arguing within a framework of law. And if she can raise the money, she will get a hearing in some court.

But almost literally next door, we're in another world. Far-right militias, held at arm's length by wise-users in the past, have a place at this convention. Michael Coffman, who has spoken at milita events, runs a three-hour session on how biodiversity treaties threaten U.S. sovereignty and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The audience is receptive, following along in their three-inch-thick binders of United Nations documents sold in the hallway. U.N. Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali and the U.N. itself come up in strategy sessions as well as in evening conversations by the bar. Eyeing my notepad and tape recorder, a man stops me in the hallway. "Where're you from?"

"Colorado," I reply.

He's disappointed. "I thought you were from the press here. I've got pictures of black helicopters landing in Casper." He pulls out snapshots of helicopters. Landing. In flight. Parked. Evidence to many in the audience that the country is on the verge of a fascist takeover.

This is not just low-level paranoia. During Coffman's speech, we receive a hot-off-the-press bill written by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska; it would limit the government's ability to enter into international land-use treaties. Young writes, "Now we find out that an area on U.S. soil the size of the state of Colorado has been designated as part of the "United Nations Biosphere Reserve" program? Doesn't this make you feel all warm and fuzzy? ... The lid is about to come off on this One World Zoning enterprise."

The person at the meeting working hardest, and with least effect, to keep the lid on, to keep the group attached to where most of America lives, is an industry lobbyist. Environmentalists are always charging the wise-use movement with being financed by industry. No doubt. But financing is one thing; control, even influence, is another.

Take Donn Zea's plight. As Coffman leaves the podium, Zea sets up his charts on the overhead projector. Twenty years younger than most attendees, handsome and sharply dressed, Zea lobbies for the California Forestry Association. He took over after his superior, Gil Murray, was murdered. The Unabomber has been indicted in his death. But Zea never mentions it. If he wants to cut more trees, he must tame and focus this unruly movement, not rouse emotions. So in a quick patter, he tells them what works and doesn't work with most voters:

Don't whine about your dying community. Don't make spotted owl jokes. Use the words "safer, cleaner, healthier." Above all, stress local control. Our opponents' dependence on the federal government is their biggest weakness.

But Zea, the pragmatist, has no formal place at this conference. He's forced to repeat his spiel between the scheduled speeches - speeches by militia types like Coffman and pie-in-the-sky legal theorists like Marcussen. While people chat in the aisles after talks about black helicopters and the U.N., Zea ends up trying to distract attendees from the anti-environmental schemes being discussed.

He's swimming upstream. At breakfast, People for the West's executive director Bob Quick compliments me on High Country News' "consensus' issue (HCN, 5/13/96) and says that his group is "strictly mainstream ... We don't want the far-right nuts." But next to the tray of muffins is the Jubilee newspaper, upholding the rights of the Freemen and "white Christian Israelites' while spitting malice at Jews and blacks. And speaker Henry Lamb tells us, as if his mouth were full of bile, "(The U.N. is) building sustainable communities."

The audience recoils.

Leaving the hotel, I ask Gustin, the laid-off miner, who the "elitists" are that are destroying his hometown?

"Your Sierra Club people who have three homes in three different locations and a yacht boat and a Mercedes and all those fancy cars ... (A CEO of a timber company) is not as elite ... He actually has a bunch of employees he has to pay."

It's easy to dismiss the group as disorganized, prey to far-right paranoia, easy marks for crackpot legal schemes. But outside by the pool, midway through the meeting, sociologist Thomas Greider cautions against such a conclusion. Small and professorial, the University of Kentucky professor came to Wyoming to witness "a revival of community' - down-home activism not burdened by lawyers or lobbyists. Whatever the failings of the movement at this time, or at this meeting, Greider says not to count it out.

"It does seem to be a time when we're coming into this battle between local communities and the nation-state - the whole progressive notion of experts deciding what's right and what's wrong," says Greider. "Now we're seeing local people coming together, saying: Wait a minute, we live here."

As a sign of what's coming, Greider points to the 5,800 square miles of rural Rio Arriba County, N.M. There, Hispanics collecting firewood clashed with environmentalists who had halted logging in the Carson National Forest to protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl (HCN, 12/25/95). Local people were outraged that they couldn't cut wood on land given to them by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. People for the West!, the wise use's largest grassroots group, courted the local Hispanic activists, giving them bravery awards for confronting environmentalists.

That, says Greider, is what a nationally focused environmental movement hasn't learned to cope with. While the lastest upsurge of the movement may have failed, so long as wise use has a monopoly on local control, he says, it will always be a threat.

But Greider's example of that threat - the rural, Hispanic West - may not be ready to overlook certain differences it has with the mainly Anglo people who gathered in Casper. Rio Arriba County Commissioner Lorenzo Valden did not go to the convention; he says he's hesitant to join forces with a group that has traditionally resisted people like himself.

"Some of those movements have other agendas (with) which we are not involved - white supremacy ... I'm leery of management going to the counties. We're not concerned about local in the same sense."

Heather Abel reports for 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 [email protected].

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