Exposing the Astroturf



Conference targets anti-green activists and corporate backers

There's a conference happening in Missoula this weekend focused on illuminating the vast right-wing conspiracy which has threatened the integrity of both national and regional political campaigns-especially when it comes to environmental issues.

But don't think for a minute that attendees at the Montana Human Rights Network's "Wise Up to Wise Use" meeting will be looking for lipstick traces. This effort to disseminate information about who's behind the wise use movement won't involve strict partisan politics either.

According to Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, the seminars on Saturday and Sunday aim to show community organizers how to contend with activists ranging from corporate-funded groups on environmental deregulation to self-proclaimed militia members to the religious right.

The conference, he says, had its inception following a series of unrelated community meetings he attended in Helena. When the same people showed up time and again at school board hearings, land-use planning sessions and the like, Toole says, he realized "the property rights wing of the wise use movement was turning out because of propaganda.

"At first, we didn't see it as grassroots. But wise use is really much more than a group just supported by corporate cash.

"In Montana, it's all there, from the wacko right to the religious right, and so on. Going to those meetings, I kept seeing the same faces, and we began to see how local control overlaps with the militia movement, and how that connects to grassroots, anti-environmental activity."

Toole has found co-sponsors for his meeting among many of Montana's best known environmental groups: The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and several others have all signed on.

The network also enlisted the help of some heavy hitters from the national wise use tracking scene. Among those who will attend to preside over various panels are Daniel Barry of the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) from Washington, D.C., and Tarso Ramos, with the Western States Center's Wise Use Exposure Project out of Portland, Ore.

(Sheila O'Donnell, an investigator who was involved in the case of the car bomb which injured the late Earth First! activist Judi Bari, canceled at the last minute.)

In an interview this week, CLEAR's Barry explained that since his group started researching the anti-environmental lobby in 1993, the number of groups discovered with ties to the wise use movement has increased tenfold. Though he's careful to point out that much of the growth stems merely from improved tracking-as opposed to large membership gains-the CLEAR database has exploded from 250 to 2,000 organizations.

"The majority of the growth," Barry explains, "has been in political networking."

Despite this growth, Barry adds, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, many groups have begun to tone down their violent rhetoric. And in places like Montana, he says, where the voice of un-reason continues to hold sway, many "ordinary folks" have dropped out.

Regionally focused, Ramos' work as a self-proclaimed "public interest watchdog" dovetails closely with Barry's. The non-profit Western States Center has been involved in research and training projects for a decade. And throughout the West, he says, he too has seen "a growing level of convergence between the so-called wise use movement, the far right and the religious right."

The intermountain West, Ramos says, from Missoula across the Idaho panhandle to Spokane, continues to be a likely place to find some of the most nation's most volatile anti-environmental activists. Still, Ramos says, those sympathetic to the work of the Montana Human Rights Network, must be careful not to vilify their opponents willy-nilly.

"We have to be careful about guilt through association," he says. "A lot of good and honest people have been associated with what we call the anti-environmental lobby."

A lot of the challenge in this sort of work, Ramos continues, is to figure out how to reach across the divide that often separates working people worried about their jobs and local economies from those seeking to restrict the use of natural resources. It's a problem exacerbated by well-heeled and/or politically savvy interests-not just corporate players, but also charismatic leaders such as Noxon militia-man John Trochman-who work those fears, he says.

"There are a lot of folks parasitically organizing with people who are legitimately concerned about how their livelihood," Ramos says. "We need to incorporate the needs of working people, so they can see that many corporations who are backing anti-environmental campaigns are also union-busting corporations who don't have their best interest at heart."

Breaking out these sorts of associations, Ken Toole agrees, is a necessary step to take, and one that will help to clarify what and who exactly drives the wise users. The multi-issue approach of the far right, he says, has stolen a lot of fire from the progressive camp, which has relied on factionalized constituencies for organizing purposes.

"We're all so focused on the fight of the moment," Toole says. "But the powerful movements have always been so issue-based, and that's why these arguments about individual freedoms have brought together so many different people, whether they're simply into private property or white nationalism."

Wise Up to Wise Use begins Friday evening, April 17, and runs all day Saturday. Call 442-5506.


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