Astroturf organizing

In Part 1 of this story (“On the waterfront,” Sept. 25 Xpress), we described how exaggerated fears about property rights sank the French Broad River’s nomination for federal American Heritage Rivers designation. Part 2 takes a broader look at the far-reaching effects of a coordinated campaign of anti-environmental propaganda.

How does a giant mining, timber, ranching or other natural-resource-exploiting corporation that sees environmental regulation as a threat to profits fight a nimble, decentralized, increasingly popular and influential foe like the environmental movement?

Answer: Use environmentalists’ own tactics against them.

Over the past two decades, scores of faux “grassroots” groups have sprung up that are actually heavily financed industry front groups. “The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations” calls this phenomenon “astroturf” organizing, because these groups are designed to look like the genuine grassroots groups they seek to spawn and influence. They’re also known as “wise use” groups, because they maintain that wise use of public lands includes exploiting the resources contained in them for private economic benefit. According to Public Relations Quarterly (cited at www.mediatransparency.org), “The use of such [corporate] ‘front groups’ enables corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern [in order to] oppose environmental regulations, and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability.”

Sporting names like Liberty Matters, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Environmental Perspectives Inc. and Environmental Conservation Organization (no connection with the Hendersonville-based Environmental and Conservation Organization), these groups project a very different image than what closer examination reveals.

Take Citizens for a Sound Economy, whose influential North Carolina chapter recently helped stymie an effort to get 12,850 acres of forest in Avery County designated as wilderness. CSE has also been helping spearhead opposition to stream buffers (which it maintains violate property rights). In addition, this self-proclaimed “grassroots” group pushed for North Carolina to withdraw from the multi-state lawsuit against Microsoft Corporation and lobbies Congress to approve President Bush’s judicial appointees.

CSE is run by Reynolds tobacco-fortune heir C. Boyden Gray and two members of the Koch family (one of the wealthiest in the U.S.). Gray, a Washington lawyer, lobbyist and former Reagan administration official who served as counsel to the first President Bush, numbers among his clients the Association for Competitive Technology, a group of Windows software writers who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Microsoft. Koch Industries, which is involved in oil, gas, plastics, chemicals, asphalt, financial services and a half-dozen other major industries, is the nation’s second-largest privately held company; their motto is, “You know us better than you think.”

According to internal documents cited in a Feb. 16, 2000 Washington Post report, in the late 1990s, CSE received $175,000 from Exxon to ridicule global warming, more than $1 million from Philip Morris to oppose cigarette taxes, and $700,000 from Florida sugar corporations to fight the restoration of the Everglades. And that’s just a few of the group’s many corporate donors. (The names of CSE’s donors are blanked out in its latest publicly posted tax form at www.guidestar.org).

Manufacturing conspiracy

Liberty Matters — the public-relations arm of Stewards of the Range — faxes anti-environmental “alerts” and “talking points” to local groups and independent media outlets across the country. Stewards of the Range, founded by Wayne Hage (the husband of ex-Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage), was in the forefront of the attacks on the American Heritage Rivers Initiative described in Part 1 of this article. “By delivering information and articles to rural and suburban newspapers, conservative campus publications, and hometown media, the people most likely to effect change will be informed. This ‘ground-up’ philosophy dominates the Liberty Matters team strategy.” (From www.libertymatters.org, “Feeding the Media.”)

Adapting tried-and-true advertising techniques to serve political ends, these front groups collectively deliver a message tailored to the economic, religious and patriotic beliefs of their predominantly rural, small-town audiences. Catch phrases — strung together into an oft-repeated anti-environmentalist, anti-government conspiracy theory — are broadcast with such insistence and from so many quarters that their hearers and readers soon come to believe the accusations must be true.

According to these groups’ Web sites, the “bio-terrorists” and “environmental extremists” are trying to take away property rights with zoning and environmental regulations. They are “Gaia worshippers” whose “pantheist” doctrines demand that the earth be ruled by “one world government.” They are traitorously scheming with the United Nations to violate our national sovereignty and turn half (some say 90 percent) of America into uninhabited wildlands.

“Property Rights Violated … Rural America Under Siege” ran a recent headline on Citizens for a Sound Economy’s home page, www.cse.org, juxtaposed with titles such as “The Cause of Freedom,” “Keep the Pledge” and “I Want My SUV.” An article by a CSE staff economist blamed the Enron and WorldCom scandals not on executive greed but on excessive federal taxation of corporations.

“A Bioterrorist Caught — But Not Punished” complains the headline to an article in ECO’s online journal (http://www.eco.freedom.org/2002toc.shtml) about “the terrorist aspect of deliberate misrepresentation of scientific studies to advance an environmental agenda” — one of a flurry of “eco-terrorist” pieces that appeared on property-rights Web sites after 9/11. Internet news journal WorldNetDaily.com helped promote an increasingly popular anti-environmentalist scare tactic aimed at churchgoers when it warned its readers in August about an insidious conspiracy for world domination by “green religion”: “America’s Christian churches are being invaded by radical environmentalism, goddess worship and global government … the paganization of America’s churches — already well under way — is consciously intended to usher in a ‘new age’ of global government, with the United Nations as the global ‘brain’ of a new world order.” Apart from the fact that most actual Pagans and Goddess worshippers are, by the nature and history of their long-persecuted religion, very much against involuntarily imposed authority, this conspiracy tale is eerily similar to the still-circulating “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the supposed Jewish plan for world domination that the Russian Tsarist secret police originally invented to justify their pogroms.

Local timber-industry lobbyist Steve Henson, director of the Waynesville-based Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, stressed similar themes in an April 26 attack on a report advocating permanent protection from development and logging for 2.8 million acres of federally owned forest lands, as well as voluntary land purchases and conservation easements on surrounding private lands. “The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition’s recent unveiling of their ‘Return the Great Forest Campaign’ reveals nothing new about what these environmental extremists really want for our region,” Henson said in his editorial, reprinted by the forest-industry front group treekeepers.org. “Granted, it’s packaged in an expensive, high-tech wrapper and has been ceremoniously blessed by the pantheist clergies within our diverse community. But when you peel the wrapper off, it’s the same old Southern Appalachian Wildlands Project these fanatics published in 1992.”

Once you get past all the name-calling, however, the whole argument for the radical-environmentalists/one-world-government conspiracy theory appears to rest on a single article published in 1992. “The Wildlands Project: Plotting a North American Wilderness Recovery Strategy,” whose most influential co-author was Conservation Biologist Reed Noss, laid out a long-term goal of restoring enough undeveloped habitat so that large carnivores crucial to the planet’s food chain — such as wolves, bears and cougars — could once again roam unhindered.

According to descriptions of the article repeated on countless Web sites of both the astroturf and genuine grassroots varieties, the “plot” includes forcibly evicting the human population from vast buffer zones and corridors that would encompass and connect existing national parks and forests. It is also said to include shutting down major freeways and forcing humans to live in urban “islands” surrounded by the 50 (or, some say, 90) percent of the North American continent that would be turned over to the wild animals. But every one of the score or more of Web sites surveyed by Xpress reports only the same one or two brief quotes from the text of the article (now long out of print), making it difficult for readers to tell whether these proposals are being accurately described.

Similarly, the alleged link between radical environmentalists and the United Nations touted by these Web sites appears to be based on a single piece of evidence: a reference to the Wildlands article in the last chapter of the Global Biodiversity Assessment (a document published following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) that ostensibly laid out the land-grabbing agenda for the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity. The threat to American national sovereignty, many property-rights groups claim, comes from two U.N.-sponsored programs fostering environmental and cultural preservation: “biosphere reserves” and “World Heritage Sites,” both of which allegedly set aside large tracts of land within which the U.N.’s authority supersedes that of national governments. (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is both a biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site. The Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal are also among the 730 World Heritage Sites — only 18 of which are in the United States.)

The “buffer zones” surrounding biosphere reserves are said to be subject to harsh land-use regulations (read: zoning) and to property seizures by government authorities. Such claims inflamed local resistance in 1995 when an environmental group in New York’s Catskill Mountains tried to enroll the region in the U.N.’s “Man and the Biosphere” program. The same thing happened a year later in the Ozark highlands and about the same time in Kentucky.

Closer to home, biosphere fears fueled the anti-U.N. arguments heard by Asheville and Buncombe County officials when the American Heritage Rivers Initiative controversy first erupted back in 1997. These same fears resurfaced in Avery County last April, during hearings on the proposed wilderness designation. (Conservation Director Lenny Kohm of the environmental group Appalachian Voices particularly recalls one speaker insisting to the Avery County commissioners that the U.N. is “trying to create a world mind.”)

Reality check

There are kernels of truth in this massive disinformation campaign. The Wildlands Project (an outgrowth of the original proposal) does advocate “the recovery of whole ecosystems and landscapes in every region of North America” through the establishment, over the next century or two, of a connected series of “wildlands” as the only way to “stem the disappearance of wildlife and wilderness.” (www.twp.org) Environmentalists and some government officials have indeed been working hard over the last decade to connect isolated “core zones” (wilderness preserves and national parks) with development-restricted “buffer zones” and corridors (usually along river or stream banks), so that wildlife can migrate unhindered. (One example is the Yukon-to-Yellowstone corridor.)

And though the Global Biodiversity Assessment was, in reality, only an advisory document whose concluding chapter simply surveyed a number of then-current proposals for rescuing the earth’s environment, it is true that environmental organizations have successfully used the U.N. World Heritage Site designation in recent years to shame national governments into halting large-scale mining projects near Yellowstone, in Kamchatka and in British Columbia. (The designation didn’t prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamian Buddha statues in Afghanistan, however.)

But the “wise use” groups’ conspiracy theory ignores some crucial facts. One is that both U.N. programs specify repeatedly that the countries in whose territory the biosphere reserves and World Heritage Sites are situated retain all sovereignty and regulatory control over those areas. Biosphere reserves are intended to be “living laboratories” for studying how to “reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.” (www.unesco.org/mab/) The Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program, headquartered in Knoxville, lists three primary concerns: community sustainability, watershed conservation and invasive pest plants/native species.

A search of the program’s Web site (www.samab.org) and recent press releases found that all the SAMAB projects involve coordinating educational and information resources, not regulation.

But all the anti-U.N. rhetoric obscures a key fact that is central to the fight between environmentalists and industrialists. The only new regulations that these projects would impose involuntarily are restrictions on logging, mining, drilling, grazing and other environmentally destructive activities. And these restrictions — which would apply only in existing national park and forest lands that the government already owns — are vehemently opposed by the very resource-extraction industries that fund the “wise use” groups.

Many environmentalists believe that forestalling new environmental restrictions on corporations — which might benefit the public but would cost corporations money — is the real motivation behind these front groups’ “grassroots” campaigns.

When Republican congressional representatives led by Helen Chenoweth filed their 1997 lawsuit to block the American Heritage Rivers initiative, they charged that President Clinton was “attempt[ing] to exercise [unauthorized] control and authority over rivers and their associated resources located on federal lands,” according to a Dec. 23, 1997 Hendersonville Times-News report.

In all of the wilderness and corridor projects we examined — including such targets of property-rights wrath as the Yukon-to-Yellowstone Corridor, the defeated Darby Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and the recently announced Southern Appalachian “Return the Great Forest” project — the proposed property acquisitions that would be used to create buffer zones and corridors are purely voluntary. Landowners are never required to sell their property to these projects if they don’t want to, and Xpress couldn’t find a single instance in any such project in which involuntary takings had ever been used or even proposed to force unwilling farmers or ranchers to sell or relinquish their property.

Every environmental and governmental group — from The Wildlands Project to the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — tries to make it clear that these projects rely entirely on existing federal lands, lands bought from willing sellers, and voluntarily granted conservation easements on owner-retained lands. Riled-up grassroots opponents, however, rarely seem to hear these earnest assurances over the loud hue and cry about “government land grabs.” And time and again, local officials who initially supported these projects seem to back off quickly when their chambers fill up with angry voters — regardless of how far-fetched the allegations are or how effectively conservation groups and legislators disprove those charges.

Tarring and feathering local candidates

Brownie Newman, executive coordinator of the regional environmental group the WNC Alliance, was the target of a wise-use smear campaign when he ran for Asheville City Council last year. Citizens for New Leadership, a conservative political action committee that made donations to the campaigns of four candidates who now serve on Council (three were elected, the fourth was appointed), sent out a mass mailing to Asheville voters that fingered Newman as the “lead author of the Southern Wildlands proposal” [sic] and accused him of wanting to close the Blue Ridge Parkway to motorized vehicles and tear down the Nantahala and Fontana dams.

Newman was, in fact, a co-author of the groundbreaking 1992 Wildlands article. When asked about it, he told Xpress: “I wrote the article when I was 18 years old, and it had a bunch of things in it that I do not agree with today and I think were wrong-headed and foolish. But if the worst thing anyone can ever accuse me of is taking extreme views on environmental issues as a teenager, I don’t think that’s something to be too ashamed of.”

To Newman, fear campaigns waged by industry front-groups are “just a sign that they don’t feel like their ideas can really compete around the issues that are relevant to the community today.” Most of the public, he points out, thinks that national forests should be protected for their ecological, recreational and scenic value, and timber-industry lobbyists know that. “So, rather than them continuing to make the case for why they think that members of their industry groups should be able to log national forests, they use distraction tactics and scare tactics: ‘The government’s going to come get your land.’

“[The WNC Alliance's] general philosophy is that we understand that property rights are real important to people in WNC,” adds Newman. “We want to develop conservation strategies that are consistent with maintaining property rights,” such as the Rural Lands Conservation Trust being developed in Buncombe County to encourage landowners to adopt conservation easements.

That’s the same approach Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recommended to a large gathering of WNC environmental leaders at the Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock last April 13, according to the Hendersonville Times-News. He cited a 1997 plan he helped a coalition of government-wary sportsmen, environmentalists and landowners in the Catskills pass to protect New York City’s drinking-water supply by limiting development in watershed areas and providing financial assistance to farmers and foresters. The group succeeded in overcoming intense, even potentially violent, initial opposition to the plan from poorer dairy and tree farmers in the area. “We did that through negotiation and incentives rather than regulation,” said Kennedy. “I was against that in the beginning, because I thought we needed regulations. But it’s actually worked out better for us, because now we have a community up there that is really on our side.”

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