Wise Use and the green elite

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Apr 19 07:54:41 MDT 1996


The Wise Use movement runs the gamut from powerful corporations
at the top to small ranchers and workers at the bottom. The goal of this
movement is to drive back the environmentalist movement and open
up American natural resources for maximum exploitation. The growth
of this movement is partly attributable to the mainstream
environmentalist movement's reliance on the very same ruling class
that has been funding the Wise Use movement.

The west has been changing radically over the past several decades
and many of these changes are threatening to those involved in the
traditional economy such as cattle ranching. Places like New Mexico
and Arizona have become a new home to the petty-bourgeoisie fleeing
large, decaying cities like Los Angeles. These professionals are
interested in open spaces and a clean environment and little else. They
provide a solid base of support for the mainstream environmental
movement which in turn relies on handouts from big corporations to
stay in business.

Cattle ranchers gave the initial impetus to the movement that became
known as the Wise Use movment when they spearheaded the
"Sagebrush Rebellion" in the early 1980s. This movement grew out of
fear that the federal government would restrict the use of cattle
grazing on federal land either through raising grazing fees, which
were extremely low, or through laws designed to preserve the
"wilderness" status of these lands.

The "Sagebrush Rebellion" manifested itself in Nevada through the
passing of a law in the state legislature in 1979 which wrested
ownership of federal lands and put them under state control. The act
was largely propagandistic since the federal government did not
recognize the new law. What the law did do was provide impetus for
harassment, to the point of physical violence, against Bureau of Land
Management employees.

It is important to understand that the Reagan administration, while
giving lip service to the small rancher, had no interest in protecting
their livelihood. James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior at that time
and an arch-reactionary, had no sympathy for the rank-and-file of the
Sagebrush Rebellion. His goal was to privatize federal land and sell it
to the highest bidder which naturally would be big agribusiness
companies. These sorts of companies are the natural enemy of the
small rancher since the tendency in American agriculture is to squeeze
the small proprietor out of business.

The mainstream environmental groups made no distinction between
the small rancher and the big capitalist firms. They were all "the
enemy." The Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and others focused on
getting rid of James Watt and Ronald Reagan rather than linking up
with those who would be vulnerable to a land grab.

The Wise Use movement emerged out of the Sagebrush Rebellion and
similar anti-environmentalist activism in the Pacific Northwest
designed to give logging companies free rein. The founder of the Wise
Use movement is one Ron Arnold, a very capable and smooth operator.
I'm sure that Doug Henwood can back me up on this on the basis
of an interview he did with the wily Arnold some time ago on his radio
program.

The Wise Use movement is backed by large donations from extractive
corporations such as Boise Cascade. It also receives donations from
small ranchers, logging companies and some workers. It has replaced
James Watt as the primary bogeyman of the mainstream
environmentalist movement. The Wise Use movement has received
backing from rightwing figures such as Rush Limbaugh who has said,
"With the collapse of Marxism, environmentalism has become the new
refuge of socialist thinking. What better way to control someone's
property than to subordinate private property rights to environmental
concerns." Limbaugh, of course, is correct in his demagogic way.

The Wise Use movement is growing while the mainstream
environmental movement is shrinking. Groups like the Sierra Club are
dismayed by this state of affairs. It must be particularly dismaying
when it discovers that many of the companies they have negotiated
with to preserve wilderness are providing back-door support for the
Wise Users.

However, it is the class bias of the mainstream green movement that
has given the Wise Use movement its base of support. This movement
would not be as powerful as it is with corporate support alone. The
tendency of the mainstream environmentalists to regard the small-
scale rancher, logger and miner as some kind of "ecofascist" allows
people like Ron Arnold to whip up resentment against the green elite.

The environmentalist message has never been easy to sell to working
people like cowboys, lumberjacks and fishers who live at the edge of
destitution. It is somewhat harder to sell to small proprietors such as
the cattle rancher who had been threatened by James Watt's land-grab.
What compounds this problem is the isolation of the green elite from
the daily lives of such people. It is entirely possible that many of these
small ranchers have the same love of the environment as does the
Volvo-driving Sierra Club member in Santa Fe. The fact that they
have not been able to unite is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the
American left: its continuing inability to develop a class orientation
politically.

In my next post I want to talk about the impact of cattle-ranching in
Central America in the 1970s and 80s. I will then conclude with some
thoughts on a possible class-oriented approach to the environmental
crisis, one that would be inclusive of those who are tacitly part of the
problem, the small cattle rancher of the American southwest.


Louis Proyect


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