Overview - Property Rights and 'Wise Use'

During the 70’s a grassroots movement appeared in several western states fueled by simmering rage over “government regulation.” This movement, which came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, reached its zenith in the early 80’s during the Reagan years. In 1981 Reagan declared himself to be a sagebrush rebel. In most cases “government regulation” meant environmental protections on land held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Sagebrush rebels wanted unrestricted access to these lands for cattle ranching, agribusiness, mineral extraction, and various recreational uses and considered conservation management and publicly funded care of them to be an infringement of their “rights.” It was during this period that Reagan appointee James Watt was reigning Secretary of the Interior. Watt, who was well-known for bringing his fundamentalist “Christian” beliefs to bear on Interior policy, did more to roll back environmental protections than anyone to hold that office before him.

In later years Watt vehemently denied any antienvironmentalism in his faith (Watt, 2005). But during his tenure he decreased funding for environmental programs, restructured the Interior Department to decrease federal regulatory power, worked to eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund which had been created to expand the National Wildlife Refuge system and other environmental land protections, eased regulations on oil and mining companies, and suggested that all 80 million acres of undeveloped land in the United State be opened for drilling and mining in the year 2000. He favored opening wilderness areas and coastal shores for oil and gas leases and actively fought voluntary contributions of private land for conservation purposes by land owners. During his tenure the acreage leased to coal mining companies quintupled and he once proudly boasted that he had leased "a billion acres" of U.S. coastal waters for oil drilling, though only a small portion of that area was ever actually drilled (Wikipedia, 2007).

Watt once stated, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber” (Media Transparency, 2007). He has even gone so far as to openly advocate violence against environmentalists. Referring to Earth First! in a 1991 speech to the Green River Cattlemen's Association he said that,

If the trouble from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.

Hardly a sentiment most people would consider Christian! Contrast these words with those of Jesus, who even prayed for the Roman soldiers who were in the process of crucifying Him.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

(Luke 23:34)

Few would dispute the extreme nature of some Earth First! beliefs and activities, particularly during their early years. But even at their worst they engaged only in over-the-top political demonstrations and monkey wrench activities (environmental vandalism. The term is derived from Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang whose lead character is said to have been modeled after Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman). Even their encouragement of the potentially deadly practice of tree-spiking was qualified by a policy of informing timber companies of all such activity—the intent being to prevent logging of those areas rather than direct harm to timber workers.

Certainly, such activities are unjustifiable and few environmentalists encourage them. But they do not constitute direct, premeditated violence against human life that justifies being shot to death in retaliation. Though “Christians” like Watt may wish otherwise, last time I checked vandalism was not a capital crime in the United States. Watts remarks are even more revealing in that at the time he made them Earth First! had already publicly renounced monkey-wrench activities and adopted strictly non-violent practices (Wikipedia, 2007b). Like so many of his allies, he never was much for fact checking his remarks.

In the fall of 1983 Watt resigned from office in disgrace after a public speech in which he spoke of his staff saying,

"I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."
In 1995, he was indicted on 25 counts of felony perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from false statements made to a grand jury investigating influence peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He had lobbied there in the mid to late 80’s after his tenure at the Interior Department. On January 2, 1996, as part of a plea bargain, he agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of withholding documents from a federal grand jury. In 1996 he was sentenced to 5 years probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 500 hours of community service. He has since faded from public view, but has praised the Bush Administration (also guided by conservative fundamentalist values) for carrying his tradition forward (Watt, 2001).

The 'Wise Use' Movement

The Sagebrush Rebellion waned during the twilight years of the Reagan Administration, but the rage and paranoia that gave rise to it did not. In 1988 Alan Gottlieb (president) and Ron Arnold (vice-president) of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise CDFE helped organize a Multiple Use Strategy Conference in Reno, Nevada. There, Gottlieb and Arnold (who describes himself as an advocate of "the right to own property and use nature's resources for the benefit of mankind") brought together a loose-knit coalition of Property Rights groups, timber and extraction industries, ranchers, agribusiness, offroad vehicle use advocates, and other predominately rural Far-Right interests.

The conference produced a 25-point “Wise Use” Agenda which included initiatives that sought to ban commercial use of public lands for timber, mining, and oil, and open recreational wilderness areas for unrestricted access and use by the general public. Among other things the agenda called for,

  • Clear cutting old growth on national forest lands (Wise Use advocates characterize old-growth as ”decaying and oxygen using forest growth” which contributes to global warming).
  • Rewriting the Endangered Species Act to remove protection for such “non-adaptive” species as the California condor.
  • Immediate oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Opening all public lands—including national parks and wilderness areas to mineral and energy production, under wise use technologies in the interest of domestic economies and in the interest of national security.
  • Development of national parks under the direction of private firms with expertise in people-moving, such as Walt Disney.
  • Civil penalties against anyone who legally challenges economic action or development on federal lands.

    (Canadian Library of Parliament, 1992)

The term Wise Use was co-opted from Gifford Pinchot, who first coined the term in 1910 to describe the very sustainable forestry practices the movement wages war against. The name stuck and was eventually adopted as its formal title. Pinchot, who first headed the U.S. Forest Service under Grover Cleveland was a strong advocate of conservation and would turn over in his grave if he knew how the Far-Right was abusing his name and the Wise Use moniker.

Gottlieb and Arnold continue to be the driving force behind the Wise Use Movement, which has since grown to include over 1000 Far-Right interests. Gottlieb has also been active in the pro-gun movement and is director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA). Both are prolific writes with numerous books and contributions to Far-Right periodicals as well as mainstream news and print outlets. Among their many books are Undue Influence: Wealthy Foundations, Grant Driven Environmental Groups and Zealous Bureaucrats That Control Your Future, Ecology Wars: Environmentalism As If People Mattered, Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature, The World of the Unabomber(Arnold), The Wise Use Agenda, Politically Correct Guns: Please Don't Rob or Kill Me, The Gun Grabbers: Who They Are, How They Operate Where They Get Their Money (Gottlieb), and books they have co-authored like Politically Correct Environment and Trashing the Economy: How Runaway Environmentalism Is Wrecking America.

Few antienvironmental zealots bring as much malice to their activities as Arnold and Gottlieb. For instance, speaking of environmentalists Arnold has said,

”We're out to kill the f**kers. We're simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all” (Yes, he really did say that, and publicly).
”Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement... We're mad as hell. We're not going to take it anymore. We're dead serious—we're going to destroy them”.
”We want to destroy environmentalists by taking away their money and their members.”
"Facts don't really matter. In politics, perception is reality."
"People in industry, I'm going to do my best for you. Environmentalists, I'm coming to get you."

In 1993 Arnold was interviewed by CNN. He described himself and other Wise Use members as “warrior[s] wielding a sword" which, according to him “has two purposes: to carve out a niche for your agenda, to reshape the American law in your image; and, kill the bastards" (SourceWatch, 2007).

Arnold and Gottlieb are also widely known as masters of direct-mail campaigns and mobilizing anger—skills neither of them denies. Gottlieb’s holdings include the direct-mail house Merril Mail Marketing, the Merril and Free Enterprise Presses (which publish most of his and Arnold’s books), and the Service Bureau Inc. which handles the telephone fund raising and accounting for most of their lobbying and organization efforts. With this juggernaut of resources they have been frightfully effective at blocking environmental and public safety legislation on many fronts.

In their book Trashing the Economy Arnold and Gottlieb write with chilling frankness about their tactics;

"The message of the direct-mail letter must appeal to three base emotions: Fear, Hate, and Revenge. . . . "[The] fund-raising mailer must present you with a crisis—a problem won't do. . . . That crisis must frighten you. . . . If you are not frightened, you won't send money. . . . Then the direct-mail letter must present you with a bogeyman against whom to focus your anger. . . .“

"Once you've been frightened and made to hate the bogeyman, the successful direct-mail appeal must offer you a way to get revenge against the bogeyman—the payoff for your contribution. The more soul-satisfying the revenge, the better the letter pulls.“

"All this must be dressed up in an appeal that appears to have a high moral tone, but which—without you realizing it—works on your lower emotions." Gottlieb and Arnold are describing environmental direct-mail pitches, but Arnold, in an interview on the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, also tells us that "in direct mail, fear, hate, and revenge go a long way."

(Arnold & Gottlieb, 1993)

So does another time-honored Wise Use tactic—deliberate deception. In June of 1995 Gottlieb conducted a nationwide anti-gun control mass-mailing campaign that was carefully crafted to appear as though it had come from then-Rep. Philip M. Crane (R) of Illinois. The letter came in an envelope bearing a replica of the congressional seal and claimed to be from “the Honorable Philip M. Crane, Member of Congress” and even bore his signature. Congressman Crane had not sent, or authorized the letter, whose return address was Bellevue, WA, not Illinois. Such tactics not uncommon for Wise Use fronts. In 1984 Gottlieb was convicted of $17,000 worth of income tax fraud and served 10 months in a federal work release program (Halpin & de Armond, 1995). Arnold ran the CDFE during Gottlieb’s prison term.

Arnold’s self-proclaimed “biography” has its own creative embellishments and omissions. Over the years he has made much of his previous affiliation with the Sierra Club. As he tells it, "I was a board member of the Pacific Northwest chapter [of the Sierra Club]… I took Brock Evans' seat when . . . he went out to Washington, DC, to become their lobbyist and I was elected to occupy his seat, which I did until I resigned in 1971” (Halpin & de Armond, 1995).

Not surprisingly those who worked with him tell a different story. When told of Arnold’s claims, chapter founder Pauly Dyer reported that they had no board members during that period. Nor was his resignation the towering example of selfless martyrdom he makes it out to be. According to his co-workers, Arnold had tried to sell the chapter a slide show of Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness and became enraged when they did not have the funds available to purchase it (contrary to popular Far-Right mythology, few Sierra Club chapters are as wealthy as they love to believe). According to Evans, “We said, 'Ron, we'd love to, but we can't pay. Everybody here just works for nothing. Why don't you just give it to us?' And he got really pissed off and left. So the next thing I know there he is giving speeches to the Logging Association saying how awful we are and how he knows because he's one of us." Arnold’s antienvironmental career began almost immediately after this altercation took place.

In other words, though he makes much of having left the Sierra Club for “moral” reasons, Arnold actually left the organization… because he couldn’t make a quick buck off one of their less well-funded chapters.

How noble of him!

Like most Far-Right lobbies, Wise Use advocates rarely display any scientific literacy. According to Arnold, the northern spotted owl favors regrowth forest habitat rather than old-growth, and global warming is a myth (a claim he sticks to despite the stated Wise Use Agenda of promoting old-growth clear-cutting as part of a global warming mitigation plan (few Wise Use advocates are known for their consistency). Arnold also believes that the ozone hole has always existed (SourceWatch, 2007). "If chlorflourocarbons really destroy ozone,” he asks, “why isn't there a hole over chlorflourocarbon factories?" Wise Use fronts have spearheaded many global warming and environmental disinformation campaigns, and almost never rely on published science to defend their claims.

Numerous Far-Right special interests operate under the Wise Use banner. These interests range from grassroots extremist groups to major timber and extraction industries and Far-Right foundations from which nearly all of the movement’s funding is derived. Sponsors include Exxon-Mobil, Boise Cascade, Bloedel Timber, DuPont, Coors, Louisiana Pacific, the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and more. During its history it has also had a fringe element with ties to organizations like the John Birch Society, followers of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, and the now-defunct Sahara Club (which unlike Earth First! actually did advocate violence directly targeting human life).

They have also been involved in episodes of slander and even open misrepresentation during legal proceedings. One notorious example involved Ron Arnold’s attempt to fabricate a link between a New Zealand environmental group and ecoterrorist activities in the United States, which was eventually exposed when the court investigated his sources. He also failed in another attempt to tie environmentalists to the murder of a U.S. Forest Service employee (SourceWatch, 2007).

Though still dangerously strong, as of this writing the Wise Use Movement is losing ground. Recent scientific advancements in environmentally relevant areas such as global warming and endangered species have received more media attention then they have in previous years, as have the activities and tactics of many Wise Use fronts. This has rendered their disinformation campaigns increasingly ineffective and difficult to organize. Much of their core financial support has also been indirectly eroded by increasing discontent with the Bush Administration. Today, they remain a force to be reckoned with, and environmentalists still have reason to fear them. But their days are numbered—a fact they seem to be aware of given the increasingly shrill nature of their rhetoric.


Arnold, R. and A. Gottlieb. 1998. “Trashing the Economy: How Runaway Environmentalism Is Wrecking America”. Free Enterprise Press, 2nd Edition, October 1998. Available online from at

Canadian Library of Parliament, Political and Social affairs Division, Research Branch. 1992. "The Share Phenomenon." Forest Planning Canada, 8, No. 4.

Halpin, J. and P. de Armond. 1995. “The Merchant of Fear”. Albion Monitor, August 19, 1995. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Media Transparency. 2007. Recipient Profile: Mountain States Legal Foundation. Media Transparency Online. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Halpin, J. and P. de Armond. 1995. “The Merchant of Fear”. Albion Monitor, August 19, 1995. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

SourceWatch. 2007. “Ron Arnold”. SourceWatch Online. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Watt, James. 1991. “The Earth’s Storm troopers”. Phoenix New Times, August 7, 1991. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Watt, James. 2001. “Watt Applauds Bush Energy Strategy”. 2001. Denver Post, May 16, 2001. Available online in PDF format at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Watt, James. 2005. "The Religious Left's Lies". Washington Post, May 5, 2005. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Wikipedia. 2007. James G. Watt. Wikipedia Online. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.

Wikipedia. 2007b. Earth First! Wikipedia Online. Available online at Accessed June 3, 2007.


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