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The Perversion of “Wise Use”

Excerpted from Divine Destruction: Dominion Theology and American Environmental Policy

In 1845, New York journalist John O’Sullivan editorialized that “it was the nation’s manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given.” With this O’Sullivan coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” an expression that would remain shorthand during the late nineteenth century for the belief that Americans had an obligation to settle the western territories. Indeed, the phrase “Manifest Destiny” implied that America’s expansion was predetermined, undeniable, and—most importantly—inspired by God.

The ideas that precipitated talk about and belief in Manifest Destiny, however, were not necessarily the most important cause for America’s population expansion in the west. Rather, throughout the late 1840s, Manifest Destiny was taken up and used as a rallying cry by those in government who had already wanted the entirety of the North American continent settled. A religious rationale that echoed this aim was a convenient and useful way to ask Americans to go west. Quite simply, arguments about Manifest Destiny provided only the rationale for Westward expansion, not its impetus.

Today, large, well-organized, and powerful groups of anti-environmental activists are using similar tactics. The anti-environmental philosophy known as “Wise Use” has gained a large audience, and many of its advocates and thinkers hold a menacing influence over government. A frightening fact in its own right, the widespread acceptance of anti-environmental thinking in the guise of Wise Use is made more troubling in that there are increasingly close ties between those who subscribe to the ideas of Wise Use and members of fundamentalist Christian churches and organizations. The Wise Use movement’s influence over religious conservatives mirrors the traditional relationship between religious and political conservatives in that Wise Use advocates are increasingly adapting their own agenda to include the concerns of religious voters. In so doing, they have gained an army of god to promote their own agenda.

Although many credit the modern day right-wing activist (and timber industry consultant) Ron Arnold with having coined the term “Wise Use,” the phrase actually originated a century before with the man appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot. He used the term in his 1903 book A Primer of Forestry, partly in response to intense pressure from railroad companies to use Forest Service lands.∗ Pinchot believed that a balance should be struck between caring for the forests and man’s interests. Wise Use, as it was originally conceived, allowed the western territories to prosper, and continue doing so, while preserving many forests and other natural environments for future generations.

While Ron Arnold did not originally coin the term Wise Use—he maintains, however, that he has coined other terms such as “ecoterrorist” and “rural cleansing”—he has come a long way in redefining the concept from the way it was initially used by Gifford Pinchot. Indeed, Arnold is generally considered the “father” of this modern-day incarnation of Wise Use, and he is particularly well-known for a series of sophisticated writings about the environment in which he has, since the mid-1980s, conceptualized a combative critique of the environmental movement that is deeply ideological. He is currently executive vice-president of a think tank that, although a non-profit, un-ironically calls itself The Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and which, according to its website, monitors “threats to free markets, property rights and limited government.” It also serves as a key center for anti-environmental activism.

Arnold argues that, since the 1980s the environmental movement has moved into the mainstream and become “the Establishment;” he describes his own Wise Use movement as a “competing paradigm” to the environmental movement as he understands it. Arnold proclaims that the solutions to the world’s environmental problems, whatever they may be, will be found by leaders in technology, industry, and trade—not by the environmental movement, as he believes is widely assumed. In short, Arnold declares that we need natural resources to survive and prosper and can survive any side effects of their use. “Our limitless imaginations can break through natural limits to make earthly goods and carrying capacity virtually infinite,” he writes.

∗While Arnold’s aggressive conceptualization of the Wise Use movement was not codified until the publication of his 1989 book, The Wise Use Agenda, as early as 1979 he was giving the logging industry advice that revealed his innovative tactical thinking in its early stages. In a series of articles for Logging Management magazine, he wrote:

“Citizen activist groups, allied to the forest industry, are vital to our future survival. They can speak for us in the public interest where we ourselves cannot. They are not limited by liability, contract law or ethical codes…industry must come to support citizen activist groups, providing funds, materials, transportation, and most of all, hard facts.”

A few years later, while addressing representatives of the Canadian logging industry, he bluntly restated these tactics that he would go on to develop to great effect: “Give [the pro-industry groups] the money. You stop defending yourselves, let them do it, and you get the hell out of the way. Because citizen’s groups have credibility and industries don’t.”

David Helvarg, perhaps the leading authority on Arnold and the Wise Use movement, has detailed in numerous reports from the field—and particularly in his landmark book, The War Against the Greens—that the modern Wise Use movement really kicked into gear in the late 1980s, in response, says Helvarg, to “the perceived threat that George H. W. Bush would follow through on his pledge to be ‘the environmental president.’ ”

Helvarg notes that in the battle against groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, Wise Use activists not only used Arnold’s idea of forming fraudulent citizen activist groups that were actually funded by industry, but they also used “vigilante-style tactics ranging from telephone death-threats to arson and shootings.” According to Helvarg, “In Washington, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico, a number of wise-users even united with the militia movement.” But it was a tactic that backfired, Helvarg thinks, after the 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by militia associates Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, when much of the movement’s industry funders backed away.

Still, despite the tactical and political setbacks experienced by the Wise Use movement during the Clinton administration, the current movement has been reinvigorated. In particular, it has reached new constituencies and found a sympathetic executive. The recovery came about largely under the guidance of Arnold (who quickly tempered his habit of inflammatory language, such as when he said “We want to destroy environmentalists,” and that he wanted to “kill the bastards”). Also important to that recovery was the leadership of the man who had been Ronald Reagan’s “notoriously anti-environmental Interior secretary,” James Watt (who, after being fired by Reagan, told a group of ranchers that “if the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”) Many current and recent government officials who oversee the environment, such as George W. Bush’s current Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and Bush’s former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, were protégés of Watt, and worked for him at his Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has billed itself as the “litigation arm of Wise Use.”

But what may have contributed most to that recovery is the connections the Wise Use movement has made with the New Christian Right. In a strategy seemingly modeled on Ron Arnold’s directive to “stop defending yourselves” and “get the hell out of the way,” some leaders in the Wise Use movement reached out to collaborate, especially in the late 1980s, with the newly re-politicized Christian Right. As this collaboration has become more substantial, Wise Use activists have had increasing access to local, region, and national Christian grassroots organizations. Such collaboration between religious and political ideologues recalls, in many ways, the mobilization of Manifest Destiny more than 150 years earlier.

A clear example of Wise Use influence on the New Christian Right can be found by looking at the peculiar evolution of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), a group that was founded in the ashes of the 1986 electoral defeat of Joe P. Lutz. Lutz was a fundamentalist minister trying to wrest the Republican nomination for Senator away from incumbent Bob Packwood, whose moderate and pro-choice stance angered many fundamentalists; Lutz barely lost, garnering 42 percent of the vote.

Much like the impressive conservative mobilization after the presidential defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the conservative Christian mobilization after the presidential defeat Pat Robertson in 1988, Lutz’s supporters created OCA as an ultra-right-wing pressure group, one that the ACLU has called “the most militant anti-gay organization in the northwest.” In 1988, the group advocated a statewide vote to overturn an order protecting homosexuals from discrimination in state government. The group has also threatened to run ultra-conservatives third party candidates, forcing prominent Republicans to compromise on key issues of importance to far-right voters. Despite the collaboration of many conservative groups and political agendas, the Washington Post has noted that the OCA’s organizing strength really comes from the group’s “conservative Christian activists.” Under a banner of “traditional family values,” the OCA continued such activism, including measures to force a vote on an initiative that would prohibit protection of homosexuals against discrimination and harassment. The OCA claimed 150,000 members in 1992.

Even though the OCA was founded to advocate issues of importance to religious voters, the group’s funding stream seems to have significantly broadened its ideological platform, according to a 1993 report by Dave Mazza, currently editor of he Portland Alliance. After years of subsidy by anti-environmental groups, the OCA drafted a statement of principles that not only reflected their New Right agenda, but it also, according to Mazza, included “several articles which dovetailed with the philosophical direction the nascent Wise Use Movement was going: privatization of government where possible, free market economy, nearly absolute private property rights and the conviction that the environment was primarily for the use of man.” Mazza goes on to note that the “religious right, Wise Use, industry and other forces are tapping the same population pool, and that ties between these various factions are being created at the grassroots level.”

It is this kind of complex relationship that defines much of the Wise Use movement’s activist work. In exchange for funding, resources, or connections, the Wise Use movement has gained a large base of committed conservatives, even if such conservatives would not have initially identified themselves as anti-environment. However, having already made an impressive connection to fundamentalist Christian organizations, the Wise Use movement stands to gain considerably as the current political administration panders to Christian voters.

Dominionists believe that the Bible is to be taken literally, and that the world is to be governed by what they call not a theocracy but a theonomy—that is, ruled not by God but by the law of God set forth in the Bible. While it is difficult to determine to what extent dominionist thinking actively concerns the environment, a few central points are clear. For one, the Wise Use movement has actively courted, and organized alongside, Christian fundamentalists of all varieties. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to determine why certain religious groups oppose environmental protections. It seems certain that some fundamentalists oppose these protections because of a dominionist understanding of the “End Time.” Perhaps the real point to be made, however, is that America today remains a breeding ground for extremist versions of Christian fundamentalism. Even for many devout Christians, widespread Fundamentalist teachings about the Bible seem extreme. It is a problem, especially as reconstructionist and dominionist ideas continue to be promulgated, that will only get worse with time. Indeed, as Glenn Scherer has pointed out, Christian children are often reared on Reconstructionist textbooks, among them America’s Providential History, which teaches that:

“The Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s Earth. The resources are waiting to be tapped…. The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie … that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece”

This belief alone—which is being fed to an unknown number of schoolchildren—teaches that the world’s resources are sufficient, that there is no need to protect or fret about the environment. The dominionist paradigm talks of “limited resource mentality,” as if environmentalists lacked a proper imagination. As the textbook explains further: “While many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.”


Stephenie Hendricks

Stephenie Hendricks is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist with a 35-year career working for mainstream and progressive media. She has worked for ABC Radio, CBS TV San Francisco, and, most recently, a a producer with Pacifica Radio.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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