THE Ozark Mountains are known for a striking variety of sights, from a hairy black tarantula's skittering foray on the forest floor to the exalting gyre of a soaring bald eagle.
But few images in the oak and hickory woodlands are as arresting today as the spectacle of environmentalists and their foes in political combat.
During the past nine months, a group called People for the West! (PFW) has enlisted more than 1,000 Ozark natives for its campaign against government attempts to restrict mining, logging, and other wilderness uses. The group expects by August to more than double its membership in the poor and sparsely populated highlands of southeastern Missouri.
PFW is allied with the Wise Use Movement, a broad coalition that represents groups fearful of environmental restrictions, including ranchers, farmers, mineral companies, and fanciers of guns, motorcycles, and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Environmentalists say PFW is a poorly disguised corporate forerunner of a blitz to win support for new lead-mining and timber ventures that could taint water supplies and spoil one of North America's finest examples of karst terrain. Throughout the mountains, water glistens from pristine springs and deep caves of porous limestone and rushes through pine forests into roaring rivers.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment hopes to thwart PFW with a grass-roots organizational effort funded by a $40,000 grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, a backer of environmental causes.
The coalition claims that the Missouri lead-mining industry has bankrolled and mobilized PFW to muster popular support for new mines for the highly toxic metal.
PFW is ``saying to people here: `If we don't protect our rights, we lose everything,' '' says Alan Peters, a real-estate broker in Eminence, Mo.
``But the people who fund [PFW] are making billions of dollars exploiting our resources; they're going to take the money and run, and it will hurt this country and our children for a long, long time,'' says Mr. Peters, of the Black River Alliance, an environmentalist group.
The PWF offensive in the Ozarks illustrates how the Wise Use Movement has intensified its nationwide effort to ensure ``multiple use'' of wild lands, environmentalists say. The group seeks to frustrate efforts by the Clinton administration to impose higher royalty fees and tighter environmental restrictions on miners, ranchers, and other businesses using federal land.
PFW has organized grass-roots chapters for aggressive activism. Based in Pueblo, Colo., the group has adopted the sure-fire tactic from its environmentalist foes. The push into the Ozarks marks the start of PFW efforts to launch local chapters east of the Rocky Mountains. The group aims to prove that its message could inspire chapters throughout the United States, says Tim Wigley, national field coordinator for PFW.
East of the Rockies the group has found ``significant interest'' in Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, Mr. Wigley says.
Appealing to mistrust
PFW has won adherents by appealing to widespread mistrust toward government and resentment toward regulation over the land. It rallied a new chapter in Eminence by joining a bitter public outcry against a National Park Service plan to remove wild horses from the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. (Wild-horse strategy, Page 9.)
Environmentalists say that mining companies led by Doe Run Co., the state's biggest lead producer, have enlisted PFW to build a diverse coalition of Ozark natives and agitate for mining interests.
Since 1983, environmentalists have opposed efforts by the company to win a government lease to the minerals beneath two drilling sites in the Mark Twain National Forest north of Greer, Mo., and the Eleven Point River, a National Scenic River.
National Park Service officials and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment recently called separately for the ouster of Doe Run from the sites. They alleged that two federal organs, the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, flouted regulations when they approved exploratory drilling by the company in 1992. The land bureau says the charge is unfounded. (Doe Run drilling, below.)
Doe Run could confidently call up the broad panoply of interest groups within PFW against environmentalists should it decide to mine at the controversial sites near the Eleven Point River.
``I can assure you the loggers, and ranchers, and recreationists will roll up their sleeves and write letters and send faxes on behalf of mining just as miners and loggers rolled up their sleeves and wrote letters on behalf of grazing,'' Wigley says.
Since its inception, PFW has been mainly funded by the minerals industry. Although PFW describes itself as ``a grass-roots campaign supporting western communities,'' it is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a trade organization.
Doe Run acknowledges a close connection to PFW. Walter Nowotny, the company's general counsel, is on the PFW board of directors and leads the group's steering committee in Missouri.
Doe Run has donated $40,000 to PFW, says Jeffrey Zelms, company president. In turn, PFW activists have shown an uncanny affinity to the lead coveted by Doe Run. A line on a map linking the towns where PFW has launched its chapters in Missouri roughly outlines the ``Viburnum Trend,'' the only known vein of lead ore with promise in the state.
Still, Mr. Zelms says PFW is a genuine popular movement and mining interests do not control its activities in Missouri.
Environmentalists aim to undercut PFW and the mining companies by informing people that lead mining near the Eleven Point River could poison the water supply for more than 10,000 residents in the area.
To get to the toxic heavy metal, Doe Run would have to bore through two aquifers. This might taint the water that runs to Big Spring and Greer Spring, the two largest springs in Missouri, say environmentalists and officials at the National Park Service.