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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The War Against the Greens

Air Date: Week of

Author David Helvarg discusses the violence against environmentalists documented in his book titled The War Against the Greens. Helvarg suggests that leaders of the Wise Use Movement use the rhetoric of violence to inflame passions against people working in natural resource protection.


CURWOOD: David Helvarg is a licensed private investigator and an award-winning journalist who has written for public television and the Associated Press. Mr. Helvarg's most recent work is entitled The War Against the Greens, published by Sierra Club Books. The book documents 60 of what he says are hundreds of cases of violence and harassment against environmental activists.

HELVARG: Unfortunately, it's become increasingly common in the last several years; this kind of activity has grown in parallel with an organized anti-environmental backlash in the country. Assaults, arsons, dog killings, rape, bombing, possible homicide and several serious attempts at murder. A lot of the violence takes place in rural and low-income communities where often there's a single resource that provides the livelihood for the community. California, for example, Michael Jackson's environmental attorney in a logging town, the night of the first pro-logging yellow ribbon rally in this town, his office front was shot up and a death threat left on its answering machine. Pat Costner, Toxics Director of Greenpeace, a few days before she was going to release a national report on hazardous waste incinerators, her home of 17 years in Arkansas was burned to the ground. They lifted the roof off the remnants of her building and found the gas can that was used to start the fire.

CURWOOD: Is there any evidence whatsoever that the leaders, the architects of the wise use property rights movement are linked, personally, to any of this violence?

HELVARG: No; I think the leadership distances itself from the direct violence, although certainly they use the rhetoric of war in encouraging confrontations at the local level. I mean, Ron Arnold, who came up with the term wise use, for example, told me, "When I say we need a sword and shield to kill the bastards, I mean politically, not physically." And they certainly say that they don't want to see the violence; but at the same time they speak of a national uprising and a potential civil war. They're intelligent men and I think they understand what they're encouraging when they come into communities where people really are hurting. As one of them jokingly said, "If we got a fire going let's add some light fuel and see what happens."

CURWOOD: Now, we know that the wise use groups have a broad-ranging agenda. So where does violence fit into this picture, in your view. I mean, are you saying that violence is the means by which they intend to achieve their larger goals?

HELVARG: No; I think their larger goals are deregulation of industry and access for extractive industry to public lands in the west. In that sense, violence sometimes serves a political purpose. But the larger agenda is to eliminate 30 years of environmental legislation.

CURWOOD: What strategies make the wise use property rights network so powerful? I mean, how do they do what they do?

HELVARG: I'd say their real effectiveness is their ability to organize angry, militant demonstrations, to focus on public meetings, to organize fax and phone campaigns that are very directed. Chuck Cushman, who's one of their leaders on this technique, brags about how out of his farmhouse offices in battleground Washington, he can, with his fax modems on his various computers there, generate 12, 14,000 faxes overnight. They have also bragged about retooling his fax machines to make them look like they came out of Indiana at a time that they wanted to go after an Indiana Congressman. So effective combinations of what traditionally have been called dirty tricks campaigns, and industry lists for phone and fax calls, can give the impression of a much broader response to a particular political issue than really exists out there. It's a technique that's now, even has a name; it's called astro-turf, because it's not genuine grass roots.

CURWOOD: Can you give us some examples of how the wise use movement has been able to be translated into political power on the national level?

HELVARG: At one point I interviewed Carol Browner, director of EPA. She told me that she was very intrigued by wise use, but it didn't affect her directly. Three weeks later, elevation of EPA to Cabinet rank was shot down. If you look at the Congressional Record, you find it was the wise use rhetoric that was very influential there. Similarly, you recently had the biodiversity treaty, which was expected to sail through the House and Senate. It was initially signed off at the Rio Earth Summit in '92. It was killed in the Senate because of a report that was put out by Rogelio Maduro, who's a follower of Lyndon LaRouche. He wrote a report saying, essentially, biodiversity meant a loss of US sovereignty through the UN. It would give equal rights to animals and insects as to humans. This report was picked up by the wise use groups and taken to the Republican leadership in the Senate, and used to kill the agreement.

CURWOOD: Who are the biggest funders of this?

HELVARG: The biggest funders, in terms of direct funding, is the mining industry. In terms of in-kind services and support it is certainly the logging industry. You have tremendous political support from a whole network of New Right think tanks centered around the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. You have the, as I say, major players include the Farm Bureau Federation, the NRA, the Cattleman's Association, the various resource industries. So it's essentially, it's a very well-funded and well-structured element of the Right Wing backlash. And with the new Congress have a lot of support. You've had Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich and other leaders of the new majority using wise use rhetoric, saying that all environmental legislation in the future will be determined by property rights and sound science, which from my investigations I take to mean industry science.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. David Helvarg is author of The War Against the Greens, published by Sierra Club Books. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

HELVARG: Thank you.



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