Wise Use movement comes to Wisconsin


Fact sheet compiled by Al Gedicks, executive secretary, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council

The Wise Use Movement developed out of the timber conflicts in the Pacific Northwest. The term "Wise Use", as applied to land and resource use, came out of the Multiple Use Strategy Conference in Reno, Nevada in August 1988. The conference was sponsored by the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), a conservative educational foundation based in Bellevue, Washington. Among those in attendance were Exxon Corp. and several right-wing extremist groups such as the American Freedom Coalition and the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), a national alliance of anti-Indian groups.

Ron Arnold, executive vice president of CDFE and a leader in the Wise Use Movement, said that "Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all."

Wise Use believes that the Earth's resources were meant to be exploited for human gain and profit. The Wise Use Agenda, a movement handbook that was published after the Reno conference, lists 25 goals including the immediate development of oil resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the opening of all national parks and wilderness areas to mining, and the systematic harvest of "decaying" (read "old growth") trees on national forest lands.

One of the most important Wise Use groups is People for the West (PFW), a Pueblo, Colorado-based organization that has professional organizers in five Western states supported largely by mining corporations. Although PFW describes itself as a "grassroots" organization, this is quite misleading. In 1991-92, twelve of the thirteen members of PFW's board of directors were mining industry executives (O'Callaghan, p. 85).

The early supporters of PFW included Nerco Minerals, which donated $100,000; Cyprus Minerals, which donated $100,000; Chevron, $45,000; Hecla Mining, $30,000; Bond Gold, $30,000; Pegasus Gold, $15,000; Homestake Mining, $15,000; Minerex Resources, $15,000; Energy Fuels, $15,000; and the American Mining Congress, $15,000. All told, PFW collected $1.7 million from the mining industry for its organizing work (Helvarg, p. 163).

PFW has proven to be an effective organizational response to the broad environmental coalition to reform the 1872 Mining Law, which gives mining companies access to federal land for as little as $5.00/acre without having to restore it or pay royalties. By preaching the "continued multiple use" of public lands, the industry has appealed to some ranchers, loggers, miners and anti-Indian groups in a backlash against proposed environmental reforms of this antiquated law. Others have not bought the propaganda and understand that their future livelihood depends on sustainable development.

John Wilson, former chairman and president of the Western States Public Lands Coalition (WSPLC)--the parent organization of PFW--is the chief executive of the Washington-based mining company, Pegasus Gold. Mr. Wilson said that "no mining association or other organization should think it can go it alone."

WSPLC's incorporation papers say that the group was set up to create "a permanent coalition between industry and local government officials in the western U.S. to protect their mutual interests, ensuring that timber, grazing, ranching, oil and gas, and mining activities continue on public land."

The initial impetus for PFW's move into Wisconsin came from Ed May, a former chief geologist for both Kennecott and Exxon in Wisconsin. It was May who said that "Discovery of the Flambeau deposit far exceeds in importance the size of the ore body as it has opened the way to the development of a new domestic mining district" (May, p.39). Widespread citizen opposition to Kennecott's exploration in western Wisconsin now threatens this corporate plan.

PFW Public Affairs manager Cathy Jewell came to Osseo in western Wisconsin in the spring of 1997 to help form a chapter of "People for Wisconsin." The initial expenses for meetings, post office boxes and other expenses were covered by unnamed "corporate sponsors."

At the first meeting of the Wisconsin Mining Association (WMA), Jeffrey Grade, chairman and chief executive officer of Harnischfeger Industries, the world's largest mining manufacturing company, located in Milwaukee, pointed to a hopeful development in the growing grassroots effort of such groups as "The People for the West," and pledged his company's support and resources "to help shape opportunities for this industry (mining) in our home state." Harnischfeger was one of the companies Bill Grannell, founder of People for the West, approached for funding (Helvarg, p. 189).

The Wise Use movement in the West has had little success in attracting large numbers of members. Their limited success, says David Helvarg, in The War Against the Greens, lies in their ability "to mobilize a network of core activists to intervene in and politicize local conflicts, creating a perception of power that they hope can be used as a springboard for further expansion. (p. 9)"

People for Wisconsin has imported a Western U.S. model to Wisconsin. However, replacing "for the West" with "for Wisconsin" does not change the fact that Wisconsin has a very different culture where rural people support environmental protections, because of the tourism industry and the high value placed upon clean water and a clean environment.

Sources consulted for this fact sheet:

  • Kate O'Callaghan, "Whose Agenda for America?" Audubon (Sept./Oct.) 1992
  • Carl Deal, The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-environmental Organizations. Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press 1993
  • People for the West, "PFW Organizes first chapters in Wisconsin!", 1997
  • Jeffrey T. Grade, "Speaking Out for a Strong Mining Industry," Keynote address to the Wisconsin Mining Association, December 1, 1994
  • David Helvarg, The War Against the Greens: The 'Wise Use' Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994
  • William Poole, "Neither Wise nor Well," Sierra magazine (Nov./Dec.) 1992
  • Rudolph Ryser, "Anti-Indian Movement on the Tribal Frontier," Occasional Paper #16, Kenmore, Washington, Center for World Indigenous Studies, 1991.
  • Robert W. Shilling and Edwarde R. May, "Case Study of Environmental Impact - Flambeau Project," Mining Congress Journal (January, 1977).

For more information:

For more information on the national Wise Use movement, see the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR).
Join the picket against the Wise Use conference at the Concourse Hotel in Madison (1 W. Dayton), Wednesday, September 17, 10 am.

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