In early October of 1983, I found myself at the old Weir Cook airport in Indianapolis awaiting the arrival of David Brower, the great environmentalist. Brower emerged from the plane, his face aglow with impish triumph. We hustled down the terminal to the airport bar where he imparted the momentous news that his nemesis James Watt, the messianic Secretary of Interior, had just been evicted from his post in the Reagan administration.
Watt had doomed himself by denouncing the members of the federal coal-leasing commission as “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” The commissioners had shown the audacity to resist Watt’s demented shale-oil scheme, which sought to transform the Great Plains into a moonlike landscape of craters and toxic slush ponds. So like Earl Butz before him, Watt’s political obituary was written with a racist slur. It’s probably fitting that he fell from such a self-inflicted trifle. After all, he was an instinctive and unrepentent bigot, just like his boss Ronnie. Ask any Apache.
Of course, the Christian fundamentalist and apostle of strip-mining from Wyoming nearly lost his job over another bone-headed misdemeanor: his attempt to bar the Beach Boys from performing at a 4th of July concert on the National Mall. Reagan had to intervene personally on behalf of that All-American band, whose music could have provided the soundtrack for the sunny brand of trickle-down utopianism the president was trying to force-feed the country in those days. The Gipper, who, if nothing else, always demonstrated a keen pr sense, may well have lost confidence in Watt at that precise moment.
But the Interior Secretary, who once declared that the end of the Earth was so close at hand that there was no reason to fret about conserving ecosystems for the long haul, had been on the ropes from the beginning of his tenure, due in large part to the Dump Watt campaign initiated by Brower and his group Friends of the Earth only weeks after Watt’s nomination was confirmed by the US senate. Within a few months, Friends of the Earth had gathered more than two million signatures on a petition calling for Watt’s removal. In those days, the right to petition the government still seemed to stand for something.
Brower loathed Watt, but viewed him as a comical figure, a corrupt moralist sprung from the pages of a Thackery novel. He reserved his real animosity for the appalling Reagan, the supreme Confidence Artist of American politics.
Unlike many liberals, Brower never wrote off Reagan as an incompetent and incoherent stooge. He knew better. Brower, the archdruid, and Reagan, the union-busting snitch, had sparred with each other across the decades– first in California over parks and wild rivers, pesticide spraying, nuclear power and the governor’s brutal attacks on the peaceable citizens of Brower’s hometown of Berkeley; and later around the globe over wilderness, endangered species, the illegal war on Nicaragua and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
During the pitched battles to save some of the world’s largest trees, Brower and his cohorts goaded Reagan into making his infamous declaration: “Once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” That Zen koan-like pronouncement pretty much summed up Reagan’s philosophy of environmental tokenism. Later, Reagan propounded the thesis that trees generated more air pollution than coal-fired power plants. For the Gipper, the only excuse for Nature was to serve as a backdrop for photo-ops, just like in his intros for Death Valley Days, the popular western TV series that served as a catwalk for the rollout of Reagan as a politician.
Brower viewed Reagan as a mean-spirited and calculating figure, entirely cognizant of and culpable for his crimes. He refused to allow the old man access to the twin escape hatches of plausible deniablity and senile dementia.
Born a year apart, the two men were part of the same generation and both had spent most of their lives in California. Yet, the tenor of their lives couldn’t have been more different. In World War II Brower served as an instructor for the famous 10th Mountain Division and returned home a pacifist. He didn’t talk much about his war experience, preferring to brag about the number of Sierran peaks he’d bagged (70 first ascents) or the wild rivers he’d floated.
Reagan spent World War II in Hollywood making racist propaganda films to inflame the fever for a war that tens of thousands of others would die fighting in. Years later he boasted (that is: lied) about liberating the Nazi death camps, even as he was forced to defend his bizarre decision to bestow presidential honors on the dead at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, final resting place for the blood-drenched members of the Waffen SS. Reagan possessed a special talent for the suspension of disbelief when it came to the facts of his own life. Perhaps, if the Earth in Simi Valley refuses to receive his corpse, the custodians of Bitburg could erect a cenotaph for Reagan on those chilly grounds.
After a couple of hours spent draining Tangueray-powered martinis at that airport bar in Indianapolis, some of the initial glow gradually dissipated from Brower’s face. “You know, Jeffrey, we may soon come to miss old Watt,” Brower predicted.
He was right, of course. James Watt proved to be the greatest fundraising gimmick the big environmental groups ever stumbled across, far outperforming panda calendars and postcards of baby Harp seals about to fall victim to the fur-trader’s skull-crushing club. During Watt’s tenure, the top 10 environmental groups more than doubled their combined budgets and for a brief time became the most powerful public interest lobby on the Hill.
Watt’s approach to the plunder of the planet seethed with an evangelical fervor. He brought with him to Washington a gang of libertarian missionaries, mostly veterans of the Coors-funded Mountain States Legal Foundation, who referred to themselves as the Colorado Crazies. Their mission: privatize the public estate. Many of them were transparent crooks who ended up facing indictment and doing time in federal prison for self-dealing and public corruption. They gave away billions in public timber, coal and oil to favored corporations, leaving behind toxic scars where there used to be wild forests, trout streams and deserts. These thieves were part of the same claque of race-baiting zealots who demonized welfare mothers as swindlers of the public treasury.
Watt, who was himself charged with 25 felony counts of lying and obstruction of justice, never hid his rapine agenda behind soft, made-for-primetime rhetoric. He never preached about win-win solutions, ecological forestry or sustainable development. From the beginning, James Watt’s message was clear: grab it all, grab it now. God wills it so. The message was so high-pitched and unadulterated that it provoked a fierce global resistance that frustrated Watt at nearly every turn. In the end, he achieved almost nothing for the forces of darkness.
Soon, Watt’s divinely-inspired vigilantism against nature would be replaced by a more calculating approach, a kinder and gentler path to exploitation, that reached a terrible crescendo under Clinton and Gore, a team which, according to Brower’s expert calculation, did more damage to the American environment in their first four years in office than Reagan and Bush I accomplished in 12 years.
Still there’s reason to miss Watt and Reagan. Their brazen contempt for the world inspired ordinary people to rise up against the leaders of their government on behalf of the spotted owl and Yellowstone grizzly–rise up, and on occasion, actually rout them. Today even Watt’s minions, like Steven Griles and Gale Norton, who are now directing the berserker environmental policies of the Bush 2 administration, don’t ride nearly as tall in the saddle as Reagan and Watt did in the early 1980s, when it seemed that real demons stalked the earth.
Fade to black.
What follows is an excerpt on the Reagan years from my book, Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press).
The corporate counter-attack on greens began with the rise of the Sagebrush Rebels, an amalgam of ranchers, corporate executives, free-market economists and right-wing politicians who decried environmentalism as socialism-by-another-name and as a backdoor assault on property rights.
The Sagebrush Rebels were ignored until the election of Ronald Reagan, who bowed to the enthusiasms of Joseph Coors-the leading money dispenser of the far right and owner of substantial mineral claims on federal lands-and selected a suite of Sagebrush Rebels to fill important posts in his administration. These Reagan rebels, headed by James Watt (who ran Coors’s Mountain States Legal Foundation) and Anne Gorsuch, called themselves “the Crazies on the Hill.”
Watt, a millennialist Christian and rabid anti-Communist, was given the Department of Interior, which oversees the management of nearly 500 million acres of public land. He proclaimed he would make the “bureaucracy yield to my blows” and got off to a galloping start. Within a matter of months Watt proposed the sale of 30 million acres of public lands to private companies, gave away billions of dollars worth of publicly-owned coal resources, fought to permit corporations manage national parks, refused to enforce the nation’s strip mine law, offered up the Outer Continental Shelf oil reserves to exploration and drilling, ignored the Endangered Species Act and purged the Interior Department of any employees who objected to his agenda.
Rebel Watt defended his actions as being divinely inspired, arguing that conservation of resources for future generations amounted to a waste of “God’s gift to mankind.”
“I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” Watt warned. Use it or lose it.
In spite of his ravings Watt held on. He even survived his bizarre attempt to block the Beach Boys (in his fevered mind they represented the incarnation of the counter-culture, even though the group did fundraisers for George Bush) from playing a concert on the Mall, a stance that provoked an amusing rebuke from Reagan, who reminded Watt that the boys were all-American-and, more importantly, Californian. But like Earl Butz before him, Watt was undone by the racism that welled up invincibly within him. Attacking affirmative action, Watt complained that he couldn’t set up a panel without finding “a black, a woman, a Jew ]and a person in a wheelchair.” Although Watt was later indicted on charges that he bilked the Department of Housing, Education and Welfare out of millions, it was this remark that did him in.
Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Watt’s counterpart was Anne Gorsuch, a rough-hewn and ignorant Colorado legislator. Gorsuch, who later married Robert Burford, the rancher and mineral engineer Watt tapped to head the Bureau of Land Management, surrounded herself with a coven of advisors from the pollution lobby, including lawyers from General Motors, Exxon and DuPont. Her objective was to cripple environmental laws passed in the 1970s which, she argued, had created an “overburden” of regulations that “stifled economic growth.”
To lead the toxic waste division of the EPA Gorsuch chose Rita Levelle, a public relations executive with the Aerojet General Corporation, a defense contractor with potentially vast hazardous waste liabilities. At news of her appointment many of the EPA’s top scientists and administrators promptly quit.
Gorsuch and Burford left a miasma of suspended regulations, secret meetings with industry lobbyists, waived fines, and suppressed recommendations of agency scientists. In one piquant case Levelle refused-at the behest of Joseph Coors-to enforce new rules which prohibited dumping liquid hazardous waste into community landfills. Coors’s breweries disposed of millions of gallons of such wastes near Denver.
The climate of cronyism that infected the EPA in those days had its source in the highest levels of the Reagan administration, which encouraged agency heads such as Gorsuch to pander to its political allies: Coors, Browning-Ferris Industries, Westinghouse and Monsanto.
Gorsuch’s downfall came after congressional investigators requested records of her warm chats with companies under EPA’s jurisdiction. At the advice of a White House counsel she refused to give over the documents and was duly cited with contempt of Congress. When she was called to defend herself, the Reagan Justice Department refused to accompany her. Gorsuch resigned in disgust.
Meanwhilee, the insipid and grossly naïve Levelle, took the fall for the entire corrupt regime. She was eventually convicted on charges of lying to Congress and spent six months in federal prison.
Less heralded, though equally sinister, was Reagan’s appointment of John Crowell as assistant secretary of agriculture, a critical position overseeing the operations of the Forest Service, which is one of the largest agencies in the federal government. As the former general counsel for Louisiana-Pacific, the nation’s largest purchaser of federal timber, Crowell knew his duty. One of his first schemes was to suppress an internal investigation of his predatory former employer. Forest Service investigators had concluded that Louisiana-Pacific may have bilked the government out of more than $80 million by fraudulent bidding practices on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Crowell then commanded the Forest Service to double its annual offering of subsidized timber, much of which was destined for mills owned by Louisiana-Pacific. He temporarily halted designation of new federal wilderness areas and squashed scientific reports suggesting that the relentless clearcutting in Washington and Oregon would wipe out the northern spotted owl.
Such useful objectives quickly accomplished, Crowell departed the Reagan administration for a more lucrative tenure at a Portland law firm, which specialized in clients such as the National Forest Products Association, which have a profound interest in exploiting the natural resources of the public domain.
The raw ideologues of the Sagebrush Rebellion over-reached, but their core message took hold: environmental regulations sapped economic growth. Environmental overkill became the excited talk of Washington’s PR houses such as Burson-Marsteller and lobbying firms such as Akin, Gump and Patton, Boggs and Blow, which plotted a strategy of containment.
Often all that was needed was a kindlier visage. Take the case of James Watt’s replacement at Interior, Donald Hodel. Shortly after Hodel took up his new duties he was hailed by several environmental CEOs, as an “honorable man.” Yet Hodel’s policies at Interior were as pro-industry as Watt’s, and far more effective. During his time there, Bureau of Land Management timber sales hit record levels, as did subsidies for the grazing and mining industries. Hodel was the man who objected to the Montreal protocol for restricting ozone-shredding chemicals, suggesting that to avoid skin cancer from increased ultraviolet radiation, people should simply wear sunglasses, hats and sunscreen.
Watt, Gorsuch, Levelle and Crowell were magnificent villains for fundraising: direct mail revenues for the top environmental groups exploded tenfold from 1979 to 1981. Green became the color of money, and the rag-tag band of hard-core activists who populated the Hill in the 1970s gave way to a cadre of Ivy League-educated lobbyists, lawyers, policy wonks, research scientists and telemarketers. Executives enjoyed perks and salaries that rivaled those of corporate CEOs.
By the end of the 1980s, Jay Hair was pulling down a quarter of a million dollars a year for overseeing the National Wildlife Federation’s $80 million budget, and kept his limo engine running at all times, the air-conditioner grinding ozone at full-tilt against the moment he emerged from his office on an eco-mission or deal-making sortie.
Over at the Audubon Society a lawyer named Peter Berle commanded $200,000 a year. As he trimmed away at the muscle of the conservation staff, he gloated, “Unlike Greenpeace, Audubon doesn’t have a reputation as a confrontational organization.”
The Wilderness Society meanwhile passed into the grip of William Turnage, a Yale-educated manager, after the board of directors ousted Stewart Brandborg. Turnage vowed to transform the Wilderness Society into a “mainstream organization” devoted to policy analysis. Within three years, 37 staffers, denounced by Turnage as “young, radical, crusader types,” had been kicked out the door, including Dave Foreman, who went on to found Earth First! The greens were replaced by Harvard-educated lawyers, such as Peter Coppleman (who went on to serve as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration), conservative economists such as Alice Rivlin (tapped by Clinton to head the Office of Management and Budget), and industry foresters such as Jeff Olson, who formerly worked for timber colossus Boise/Cascade.
The big environmental organizations were by now well pickled in the political brine of Washington, with freshness and passion largely gone.
Perhaps Reagan and Watt had triumphed after all.