How the West Is Won: Astroturf Lobbying and the "Wise Use" Movement

The term "wise use" comes from Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, who used it to describe the conservation movement. Pinchot chose words that implied balance, not to mention a fundamental concern for the well-being of the environment. Today Pinchot's term has been turned on its head, appropriated by a corporate-sponsored campaign to roll back environmental protection in the West, where billions of dollars ride on decisions about the use of government-regulated property.

This is the story of how the "wise use" movement--a coalition of timber, mining, oil, and grazing interests--has skewed the debate over land use. It is a tale of political contributions, well-connected lobbyists, and, most important, corporate-financed grassroots organizing that has become a model for kindred political operatives around the country. This is also the story of how environmentalists in the state of Washington fended off development activists in one key battle, providing some hope that real strength at the grass roots may still be better than "astroturf" substitutes.



The public face of the development movement is the square-jawed individualism that recently graced the cover of Time magazine. It is a family version of the Marlboro Man--a movement that asks nothing more than to be left alone, free of meddlesome government regulation. The pitch sounds authentically American, rich with allusions to the spirit of the nation's founding. Yet if you trace the development movement's lineage, you'll find its roots not in the revolutionary ferment of the 1770s but in the corporate resentment that was simmering two centuries later.

American environmentalism had its breakthrough in the 1970s, the decade that witnessed not only the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency but also the enactment of such measures as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. At the state level and through the courts, environmentalists were also able to hold corporations more accountable for the pollution they created and to stop the overdevelopment of forests and wetlands. The movement's petition drives, ballot initiatives, and other forms of door-to-door campaigning were vital to its success.

Not surprisingly, environmental laws were particularly controversial in the West, where economic growth continued to depend on the development of natural resources: timber in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington; coal, oil, and minerals in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Montana; grazing land and hydroelectric power throughout the region. Many residents saw the new laws as the work of elite eastern outsiders who didn't care about local prosperity; industry lobbyists saw the laws as a threat to profits. This opposition helped blunt the environmental charge, as did the arrival of the Reagan administration.

Still, even in the early Reagan years there was substantial political support for environmentalists, so development interests set about building an intellectual foundation to support a more sweeping rollback--an effort that worked through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At universities across the country, a few conservative intellectuals like Richard Epstein were already making the theoretical case for more expansive interpretations of the Fifth Amendment, which protects citizens from government seizure of property. Groups such as ALEC, which received significant funding from the Coors Foundation and various development interests, were instrumental in moving those ideas from the classroom to the legislatures, where the campaign for "property rights" gained steam. The staff wrote sample "takings laws"--laws that require government to compensate owners whose profit potential was diminished by regulation--and forwarded them to sympathetic officials in federal and state government. Industry-financed think tanks churned out op-eds and briefing papers to bolster the case. Once dismissed as radically conservative, the takings laws began to gain legitimacy.

Of course all the intellectual currency in the world wasn't going to do any good if the voters perceived the takings laws and similar measures as attempts to poison the air and water, so the developers took a page from the environmentalists' playbook. In a series of articles for Logging Management magazine, strategist Ron Arnold proposed that the developers put citizens, not corporate spokesman, at the front of the parade. "Give them the money," Arnold advised resource companies at a meeting in 1988. "You stop defending yourselves, let them do it, and you get the hell out of the way. Because citizen's groups have credibility and industries don't."



Today the legacy of those efforts is the network of activist anti-environmental organizations that litter the western political landscape. Although these groups typically rely on donations from resource companies and developers, they specialize in rallies, petition drives, even T-shirt and bumper-sticker campaigns--anything that puts a workingman's face on the developers' profit motive. With innocuous, populist-sounding names, these organizations appeal directly to the economic frustration of blue-collar voters.

The appeal falls on receptive ears. Stories of environmentalist-inspired injunctions against logging and mining operations have been well publicized, making environmentalists a good scapegoat for slack times. The spotted owl ordeal left many timber workers in the Northwest frustrated with government intervention, particularly since attempts to limit the export of unmilled trees never got far. But is regulation really what's killing western jobs? More likely the real culprits are the forces that are fostering economic insecurity everywhere else in the country: globalization, technological advances, and reduced bargaining power of labor. (Weyer haeuser, a leading timber company in Washington, gets 26 percent of its profits from exporting raw logs overseas.) Of course the corporate-financed anti-environmental groups don't dwell on questions about free trade, corporate profits, or executive salaries.

Typical of these organizations is People for the West!, which describes itself as "a grassroots campaign supporting western communities." The ongoing interest of these people is the preservation of an 1872 mining law that gives mining companies cheap access to mineral-rich public land. In 1992 about 96 percent of the organization's $1.7 million budget came from corporate donors, led by NERCO Minerals, Cyprus Minerals, Chevron, and Hecla Mining, according to Audubon Society researchers. PFW!'s corporate members include such timber and power companies as Boise Cascade, Potlatch, and Pacific Power and Light; the group also includes cattlemen and woolgrowers associations, as well as mining interests. The chairman of PFW!, Bob Quick, is the national director of state legislative affairs for Asarco, a mining company.

While these groups don't exactly advertise their corporate sponsorship, their close relationship with development companies provides crucial access to workers. Companies have been known, for instance, to stuff payroll checks with propaganda inserts from anti-environmental groups. The Oregon Lands Coalition, a timber-dominated coalition, has used its newsletter to publish flyers labeled "PAYROLL STUFFER" in bold typeface. In Montana, the Plum Creek timber company broke state election law by stuffing paycheck envelopes with a flyer urging workers to attend a rally against Representative Pat Williams, a Democrat who supports environmental causes. The offending item included some suggested slogans to put on placards: "No more Williams, wilderness or wolves," and "You'll need a job Pat."

The development activists have also reached out to other conservatives, cementing an ideological alliance that those nice-sounding names tend to obscure. Ron Arnold and his boss, Alan Gottlieb, president and founder of the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, are products of right-wing political circles, not the timber or construction industries. Both have ties to Reverend Moon's Unification Church: Arnold was president of the Washington state chapter of Moon's American Freedom Coalition from 1989 through 1990, while Gottlieb was a director of the group. Gottlieb was also a board member of Young Americans for Freedom, national director of Youth Against McGovern, and a gun lobby leader who founded the Second Amendment Foundation and founded and chaired the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.


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Organizing and networking have not supplanted the more traditional means of influencing politics, namely giving money to campaigns through both individual donations and political action committee contributions. According to public records (compiled in part by the organization Iwork for, the Western States Center), political donations from developers are on the rise, providing an invisible--but very substantial--helping hand to the more public efforts at the grass roots.

In Oregon, pro-development money accounted for 14.7 percent of the money statewide candidates accepted in 1990; in 1994 that number grew to 16.4 percent, with the winners on average receiving 21 percent of their campaign cash from developers. Perhaps that fact helps explain why in 1995 the legislature proposed scores of bills that would weaken water quality or destroy environmental enforcement programs, passing several. Only Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber, who vetoed more than 50 bills in that session, stood in the developers' way.



In Wyoming, development interests accounted for 26 percent of all campaign contributions in 1990 and 27 percent in 1992 (1994 figures are still unavailable), the highest of any state. In 1995 the state legislature passed a takings bill and voted to allow the dumping of nuclear waste inside the state. Polls showed that 70 to 80 percent of the voters opposed the latter, but four members of the conference committee that wrote the bill were beneficiaries of large industry donations. One of them, state Representative Jim Twiford, got three-quarters of his campaign money from the development-resource industry; two other representatives, Bob Peck and Eli Bebout, are founders of and major stockholders in the New Corporation, which according to the Outdoor Council Legislative Report is the only Wyoming company that has publicly expressed interest in the high-level radioactive-waste business.

Last year the Wyoming legislature also passed "audit privilege" legislation. Audit privilege laws, which have been introduced in 41 states, allow a company to audit its own environmental violations; in return, the state grants immunity from penalty and promises to keep information about violations confidential, even when the violations were intentional. The Wyoming bill limited polluter liability for lawsuits and took away citizens' rights to obtain information about pollution that may have harmed public health or property. How did the industry get such a plum? By writing it, of course. Greg Schaefer, a lobbyist for an ARCO subsidiary called the Thunder Basin Coal Company, took public credit for the bill when it was introduced to the legislature.

Such extensive industry involvement in the legislative process has become even more common since the Republicans swept into power. At the federal level, it is no coincidence that the anti-regulatory provisions of the legislation endorsed in the Contract with America were well suited to industry; their lobbyists had drafted much of the language. Those bills would have required federal agencies to use quantitative benefit-risk studies as the sole basis for evaluating regulations and would have provided a host of new opportunities for industry interests to influence those evaluations and take the agencies to court.

At the state level it has been the same story. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which is part of the Idaho Private Property Coalition, was the prime mover behind an audit privilege bill. It was one of several in 1995 to pass the Idaho House, where legislators received 25 percent of their campaign money from resource companies and developers. Among the more notorious new laws were measures that weakened water-quality protection and created a $1 million "constitutional defense fund" to be used by state officials in court cases asserting state control over federal natural resources. Bowing to the strength of the grazing lobby, legislators even passed a bill to grant grazing leases only to ranchers, in order to prevent environmentalists from buying up the leases first.



Given this history, it would be easy to write off the environment as just one more policy area hopelessly in the grasp of big money. But activists in the state of Washington proved otherwise over the last few years, as they took on the timber industry and other development interests in a series of high-profile political battles.

Like most other timber-rich states, Washington has been the scene of an ongoing dispute between logging companies and environmentalists. The timber companies, which have cut down trees faster than they can grow back, want the state to release more public lands for logging; if such access is not provided, they say they will need to lay off workers. Environmentalists oppose such measures, while calling on the state to slow down development with comprehensive land-use planning--a measure particularly troubling to the many timber companies that owned real estate subsidiaries.

When one environmental group, 1000 Friends of Washington, finally succeeded in putting a land-use measure on the ballot in 1990, the developers met the challenge. An alliance of corporate interests--not just timber companies but also such corporations as Boeing, Darigold, and U.S. West--spent nearly $1.8 million on advertising and grassroots organizing to block the measure, which promised to affect both real estate and logging. Groups such as the Washington Contract Loggers Association organized rallies of angry timber workers; the American Pulpwood Association provided public speaking and lobbying training to potential activists. Meanwhile, the development interests poured more than $2.5 million into the campaign coffers of state legislature candidates; nearly 70 percent of that money went to eventual winners and much of it was directed at a group of 20 candidates particularly friendly to industry.

The industry coalition won their initiative fight, but ironically their failure to dislodge a Democratic legislature gave the environmentalists an opportunity to achieve through legislation what they could not through the ballot measure. Sure enough, the legislature adopted a growth management act while defeating four property rights bills--three dealing with wetlands and one takings measure--that had strong industry backing.



But the story does not end there. Heavy lobbying had already neutered some of the act's more ambitious provisions anyway: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that developer pressure frightened the legislature into cutting $4.5 million from the program's funding and stripping some key provisions. Now, the industry groups concentrated on organizing at the county level, where the planning would actually take place. Organizations such as the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance began to crop up and make their presence known at local meetings. The Snohomish group billed itself as "a grassroots group concerned about environmental regulation" while taking money from construction interests, such as the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Jim Klauser, the director of Seattle Master Builders, became the alliance's director.

Against this backdrop, the developers increased their investment in state races for 1992--a total of $3.2 million in contributions, up from the $2.5 million in 1990. Again, the results were mixed. Thanks in part to a strong turnout for Bill Clinton's presidential bid, the developers' candidates lost several key races and only 36 percent of industry money ended up in the pockets of winners. Industry sponsorship had actually become a liability for some candidates. One such candidate was land commissioner hopeful Ann Anderson, a conservative Republican legislator who had collected more than half a million dollars from various development interests. Eight timber companies alone gave her more money than any candidate for that office had ever collected. Anderson blanketed the state with television and radio ads accusing her opponent, Jennifer Belcher, of being an "outright environmentalist." Yet despite outspending Belcher by a nearly three-to-one margin, Anderson lost, in no small part because Belcher convinced voters that Anderson's logging ties constituted a conflict of interest.

But despite these losses, the Republicans--and the developers--won a crucial victory in the form of a new campaign finance initiative that imposed $500 limits on campaign contributions. Although purportedly designed to limit the influence of big money on campaigns, the measure disproportionately affected candidates dependent on donations from organized labor. PACs in general were hard hit by the contribution limits, but those PACs with well-heeled contributors were able to make up the difference with individual contributions. Labor PACs, with tens of thousands of $35 contributors, could not call on the rank and file to fill the gap. The new law also made it more difficult for labor to raise the money by payroll withholding.

Thus the new fundraising law helped lay the groundwork for the stunning Republican gains of 1994. Total labor contributions to campaigns fell 40 percent, while money from pro-development groups--most of them pro-Republican--increased slightly. Democrats, who once enjoyed a 16 percent funding advantage over Republicans, fell into a dead heat. With financial parity and Newt Gingrich's long coattails factored into the equation, the Washington House went from a 65-33 Democratic majority to a 60-38 Republican majority. Republican gains in the Senate brought them to within one vote of control (and because one Democratic senator was absent for health reasons during much of the 1995 session, the Senate was effectively split).

There was still Democratic Governor Michael Lowry with his veto, but the developers found a way around him. Earlier in the year a pro-development group, the Washington Property Protection Coalition, had tried unsuccessfully to put a takings measure on the November ballot. But with friendlier faces in the state House, the group had another option--the citizen's initiative. Under Washington law, citizens can petition to send a measure directly to the state government where it needs only a majority approval from the legislature--not a signature by the governor--to become law. Although the measure had only 12,000 of the required 182,000 signatures a month before the deadline, industry groups--including the Building Industry Association, the Association of Realtors, and Plum Creek Timber--raised $200,000 in three days and hired American Petition Consultants of California to run the signature-gathering effort.

The effort succeeded. The measure sailed through the Republican-dominated House, then passed the Senate with the support of several Democrats. On April 18, the toughest takings bill in the country became law in Washington.



Environmentalists countered with their own ballot initiative to bring the new takings law up for reconsideration. They pulled together a broad coalition that included the League of Women Voters, the Association of Washington Cities, and the Association of Washington Churches, as well as labor unions and environmentalists. In less than three months they managed to collect 231,122 signatures.

Once again, the builders, realtors, and timber industries opened their checkbooks. Altogether, development interests spent $1.5 million, not including undocumented independent expenditures by the Republican Party, building associations, and the Farm Bureau. The Building Industry Association of Washington was the single largest contributor, spending $212,959, but the national and state realtor PACs together contributed $270,000. An assortment of timber companies, lead by Plum Creek, Simpson, Longview Fibre, and Boise Cascade came up with nearly $244,000.

The developers' appeal, as before, targeted ordinary folks with anecdotes about how environmental regulations had eliminated jobs and destroyed personal assets. A centerpiece of the campaign was a story of an elderly couple, the Powells, who, according to the industry advertisements, owned some land but could not build on it or even walk on it, all because of a wetlands law. Environmentalists, they said, were destroying their nest egg.

It would have been a sad story, except it wasn't true--and this time environmentalists were able to use that information as ammunition. Investigations by the environmentalist campaign showed that there were no building or walking restrictions over the Powells' land. As for the nest egg, it turned out the Powells had recently put their property--which they purchased years before for $13,000--on the market for $400,000. More digging produced contributor lists for the pro-takings law campaign. It demonstrated who really stood to gain from the takings law, and environmentalists hit hard on the $300 million to $900 million per year the measure would cost the taxpayers.

The muckraking helped energize the environmentalists. They organized an effective speakers bureau to engage the developers on the local level, blanketed events with volunteers and pamphlets, and raised money for advertising. Previous anti-regulatory actions had threatened to streamline and outsource government work--thus eliminating public-sector jobs. This allowed environmentalists to find common ground with the state's labor unions, thus undercutting the developers' would-be base of blue-collar workers. In the latest Washington battle, environmentalists and unions again joined forces.

On November 7, the voters of Washington voted down the takings law by a 60 percent to 40 percent vote. "The vote shows the state is not for sale," said Dee Frankforth, manager of the anti-takings campaign.



Whether this story offers hope for other progressive organizations frustrated by the hegemony of political money is, of course, a whole other question. Environmentalists represent perhaps the best organized movement in the left-liberal corner of the universe, with the possible exception of organized labor (which has surely seen better times but seems to be attempting a comeback). It might take a leap of faith to imagine activists toppling the corporate interests that have stalled national progress on such issues as education and health care. Yet it is instructive to see that an investment in grassroots organizing can pay dividends. Progressives could do worse than to take a closer look at how the Washington environmental movement took on big money and won.

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