Wise Use Movement

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

The so-called "Wise Use" movement is an industry-front and anti-environmentalist organization founded by Ron Arnold in the late 1980s, primarily dealing with timber and mining issues in the western US. It is now seen as an evolutionary form of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion which helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the presidency. As with the Sagebrush Rebels, this movement was partly funded through the Mountain States Legal Foundation by its founder Joseph Coors

The original organisation inspired a number of spin-off groups, including the "Share" groups in the Canadian province of British Columbia (B.C.), which give the appearance of being grass-roots community organizations, but are in fact organized and funded by major corporations. (For example, the "B.C. Forest Alliance" was chaired for its initial period by an executive of Burson-Marsteller.) This type of "fake grass-roots" group led to their description of the advocacy as being an astroturf campaign.

"Wise Use groups are often funded by timber, mining, and chemical companies. In return, they claim, loudly, that the well-documented hole in the ozone layer doesn't exist, that carcinogenic chemicals in the air and water don't harm anyone, and that trees won't grow properly unless forests are clear-cut, with government subsidies. Wise Use proponents were buffeted by Bush's defeat and by media exposure of the movement's founders' connections to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church network (tainted by charges of cultism and theocratic neo-fascism), but the movement has quickly rebounded. In every state of the US, relentless Wise Use disinformation campaigns about the purpose and meaning of environmental laws are building a grassroots constituency. To Wise Users, environmentalists are pagans, eco-nazis, and communists who must be fought with shouts and threats."[1]

Documents & Timeline

The Demise of the Sagebrush Rebellion

1983 Nov This year the wheels began to fall off the Sagebrush Rebellion.

It had pursued a 'do-nothing' policy of environmental and health regulation.

More than a million Americans and all 125 American-Indian tribes signed a petition demanding the removal of the Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, and in November of that year he was forced to resign. Watt was then indicted on twenty-five felony counts of influence-pedaling. The Administrator of the EPA, Anne Gorsuch (who had by then married Robert Burford) was also forced to resign, as were 23 of her associates following a congressional investigation of sweetheart deals with polluters, including Coors. Gorsuch's first deputy, Rita Lavelle, who had been Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency at the EPA was jailed for perjury. (she lied to Congress)


Wise Use Revival

While the indictments and resignations cut the ground from under the Sagebrush Rebels for a few years, they eventually regrouped as the "Wise Use movement", led by a timber-industry lobbyist named Ron Arnold. This neo-conservative group argued that market mechanisms can best manage all natural resources and environmental problems, and Arnold's unabashed pledge was: "Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely."


1990 /E Dixy Lee Ray became Director of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in the last years of her life (she died 1994). She was the movement's enthusiastic spokesperson in promoting extremist property rights and anti-environmental legal activism. And with her funding and drive, the MSLF became the litigation factory of the Wise Use movement. [1]


1994 Wise Use helped propel Republican Rep, Newt Gingrich to the speaker's chair in Congress and he set about promoting a famous anti-environmental manifesto, "The Contract With America" (often called Gingrich's Contract ON America). Environmental policy in this movement was led by Rep. Tom DeLay, an ex-Houston pest exterminator with a biblical worldview of man's dominance over nature.

Gingrich and DeLay had learned from the James Watt debacle to conceal their radical agenda by avoiding frontal attacks and public debates. They mounted stealth attacks America's environmental laws, such as the popular statutes: Endangered Species, Clean Water and Clean Air acts. They tried to undermine these laws by attaching silent riders to must-pass budget bills.

Delay wanted to:

  • remove or modify restrictive pesticide regulations.
  • exterminate the Endangered Species Act
  • legalize DDT

He routinely referred to the EPA as "the Gestapo of government."


1995 Jan, DeLay invited a group of 350 lobbyists representing some of America's biggest polluters to collaborate in drafting legislation to dismantle federal health, safety and environmental laws.


1995 mid-year The activities and strategies of the Wise-Use movement was now well exposed and the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) were jointly able to raise public interest enough to generate more than a million letters to Congress. Moderate Republicans joined in with the objections, and this emboldened President Clinton.


1995 Dec President Clinton shut down the government rather than pass a budget bill that carried many of the Gingrich-Delay silent-riders. The tide had turned and even moderate Republicans now supported Clinton's actions. [2]


2001 Mar 9 The Wise Use movement wasn't dead. James Watt's protege, Gale A Norton was appointed Secretary of the Interior by the new President George W Bush. She announced that her top deputy would be a mining industry lobbyist, J. Steven Griles, who worked with her in the Reagan/Watt Interior Department (1981-1988) before setting up as an coal, oil, and gas eecutive turned lobbyis. He made it clear to the Denver Post ... "that champions of industry will be running the department that oversees most of the nation's public lands. and [that he would be staffing] the same federal environmental protection agencies with anti-environmental movement leaders." [3]



Case studies

Other SourceWatch resources

Books about the Wise Use movement

External links

Wise Use Movement

  • David Lavigne, The return of Big Brother, BBC Wildlife, May 2004, pages 70-72. (Not currently available online).
    • Shapers of the great debate on conservation: by Rache White Scheuering