WHILE the environmental movement surges through politics and policy in the United States today, a counter movement also grows in strength and influence.
This movement is much smaller than its ideological and political adversaries, the environmentalists. But with phone banks, computer hookups, and fax machines blazing, the counter movement has won some significant victories. It has caused the ouster of several government land managers seen as too pro-environment. It has blocked tougher regulation of mining and grazing. It has helped defeat several members of Congress who worked on behalf of such reforms.
Also called the "wise use" movement, it advocates for one thing resource extraction and other forms of economic activity with as light a government regulatory hand as possible. There is a growing grass-roots aspect to "wise use," especially among miners, ranchers, and timber workers. And it is strongly backed by (some critics say it is a "front" for) affected industries.
While centered in the West, this movement is growing in the East as well, in particular regarding the right to develop private property free of government interference in places such as the Adirondack Mountains of New York.
A second major element of this counter movement is the growing number of think tanks and lobbying groups advocating a free-market approach (rather than command-and-control regulations) to protecting resources and preventing pollution.
The third aspect of "wise use" includes those who question the scientific conclusions of much of current environmental policymaking - such things as global warming, ozone depletion, the loss of species, and the potential dangers of cases involving only minuscule amounts of toxic substances.
The roots of the wise-use movement sprouted in the "sagebrush rebellion" of the 1970s, which gave voice to Western economic interests and their friends in elective office. They were protesting federal government ownership and control of millions of square miles in the West. This time around, advocates and opponents agree, the movement is more widespread, more sophisticated in strategy and tactics, and more effective.
The Oregon Lands Coalition, for example, started out representing timber workers in spotted-owl country, but it has become an umbrella group for 61 grass-roots organizations totalling 81,000 members, including loggers, farmers, ranchers, miners, fishermen, and small-business owners. Its state coordinator, Jackie Lange, has debated environmental leaders on national TV.
Another example would be the Multiple-Use Land Alliance and the League of Private Property Voters. What started out as a small group of private landowners within national parks has evolved into a much larger network of 400 local groups. These include businesses that extract natural resources, commodity producers, recreationalists, and other landowners who have been increasingly impacted by state and local growth-management plans, wetlands restrictions, and endangered-species-protection measures. These um brella organizations operate a nationwide electronic network called "Multa-Net." And copying another tool of environmentalists, they issue a regular "Private Property Vote Index" to score members of Congress on their support for private property rights.
There are different points of view on what lies behind the counter-environmental movement.
"A lot of wise-use groups want their [government] subsidies protected," says Jonathan Adler, a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, a small think tank that advocates a free-market approach to resource protection and is generally critical of most environmental regulation.
On the other hand, says Robert Gordon, executive director of the National Wilderness Institute, "These people have been out there for generations and they feel threatened" by environmental activism.
Mr. Gordon's small research and education organization, based in Alexandria, Va., is similar to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Citizens for the Environment, and other research groups that are confronting the environmental movement on economic grounds.
"We promote common-sense environmental policy," Gordon says. "We believe we've got to use free-market forces, private property rights, the best science, and site-specific solutions rather than broad government mandates."
Such analysts stress the difference between "free-market forces" and the government manipulation of markets (through taxes and subsidies) to benefit the environment.
This latter approach - a method increasingly advocated by mainline environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund - is "being hailed as a great market solution, but it sets prices by government rather than by markets," complains Jo Kwong Echard, a research professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Some of the most aggressive "wise-users" have attacked environmentalism as a newly emerging and dangerous "nature religion." An "inholder alert" sent out from the headquarters of the National Inholders Association and the Multiple-Use Land Alliance in Battle Ground, Wash., says: "The Endangered Species Act has been used as a tool to erase large portions of rural America from the map."
But environmentalists' warnings about the counter movement have been equally strong in volume and tone.
Warns a breathless letter to members of the Sierra Club: "We are confronted by a super-financed, anti-environment juggernaut that is craftily masquerading behind a totally deceitful public relations `wise use' blitz to conceal their profit-driven designs.... They will stop at nothing to destroy us and the entire environmental movement." The letter also urges recipients to send an "emergency contribution... right away."
But in private, some environmentalists also concede a certain legitimacy to the wise-use movement's concern that some communities will lose jobs and a traditional way of life because of greater environmental protection.
"A lot of these are honest, decent people who are frightened," said a senior staff member with a national environmental organization. "There's no question that part of the trade-off with environmental protection is greater regulation.... You can't go out and save every single person, every single community. It's not possible."
Does the counter movement have any hope of prevailing?
"It's going to take a long time," says Gordon of the National Wilderness Institute, whose publications go to 3,000 recipients. "We're fighting 20 years of misinformation and misguided ideas, and you can't expect to turn that around overnight."
But the environmental movement is taking nothing for granted, even though it perceives the Clinton-Gore administration to be much friendlier than its two predecessors.
"One of the results of the election is that the wise-use movement is going to be bigger and meaner and better financed," says Ron Tipton of the Wilderness Society. "Now they have a bogyman in the White House."