Rancher Rebels: the Rise of the Wise-Use Movement

Out in the high desert of Nevada’s basin and range country, down roads with names like the Extraterrestrial Highway that run off into the sky, and where the hardscrabble rancher and the miner still call the shots, a full-scale insurrection was born.

You drive through this sagebrush landscape for miles and never see another car. Then, suddenly, you come across a man sitting by the side of the road, staring off into the distance of a bombing test range, watching for the latest incarnation of the Stealth bomber or maybe a UFO. This is Edward Abbey country, home to loners and drifters, people on the lam, desert anarchists.

In the corner of a Tonopah coffee shop, called the Station, next door to the incessant cacophony of a casino, where old ladies play the slots and men gather in clouds of ambient smoke around the roulette wheels, sat Wayne Hage, a top icon of the Sagebrush Rebels. Three years after his death in 2006, Hage remains a heroic figure for Western traditionalists in their fight against the evil doers in Washington and the environmentalist menace.

Here at the Station House, Hage sat, day after day, drinking bottomless cups of bitter cowboy coffee and looking out the window at the rusting remnants of mining derricks strewn across the town. Trucks thundered past, and in the sky, the odd Japanese tourist teetered precariously with his camera from a hot air balloon that carried him past the wonders of the old mining world, being celebrated at the annual Jim Baker Days, a weeklong drunkfest in honor of the miner who, the story goes, discovered Tonopah’s silver load when his mule kicked at him and dislodged some rocks that glistened in the sun.

Wayne Hage was the man to see if you really wanted to know what motivated the Wise Use Movement’s battle against environmentalists and the federal government. Hage was reluctant to meet on this blistering day in early June. He said he’d been hammered by the press too often, especially by the liberal press with an ax to grind against the Wise Users.

The Wise Use Movement consists of more than a thousand local organizations across the country, representing roughly three million people—people who fear the infringement of their property rights, mostly by what they see as oppressive federal government regulations. These are Palin people– rural, gun-packing Christians.

Some of these groups are simply out for money: they want the federal government to pay them considerable sums in exchange for changing traditional uses of their property that have run afoul of federal laws or even in exchange for cutbacks in the commercial use of public lands or resources. Custom and culture, they call it.

Other Wise Use groups have congealed as a political force to demand unrestricted access to federal lands, whether it be to log, run cattle, or for less than environmentally friendly recreational pursuits, such as off-road motorcycling or snowmobiling.

Corporate America has also invested heavily in certain factions of the Wise Use movement, using them as a grassroots stalking horse in their efforts to the preserve the archaic system of laws and regulations that allow them heavily subsidized entry to the natural wealth of the public domain. With the active help of Republicans in congress and a weak, conflict-averse executive branch , the big transnationals are intensifying their efforts to exploit the land, notably through the revival of gold mining and wide-spread oil and gas drilling.

The federal lands are at the center of a growing political struggle over the concept of property rights. Making up one-third of the nation, the public domain is by federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and encompasses what remains of the nation’s valuable minerals, old growth forests, native grasslands and the extremely valuable oil and gas reserves—from the Rocky Mountain Front to the outer continental shelf.

Although shown as a lush green on road maps, much of this territory has been grotesquely transformed over the last half century by big companies into kind of industrial wasteland, consisting of atomic and other bombing ranges, ammo dumps, military and energy facilities, strip mines, clearcuts, dammed, dredged and scoured rivers, and leaching mounds of cyanide. Still, though victim to decades of abuse and neglect, the public lands also hold the last remnants of wild America, its salmon and trout, elk, grizzlies, spotted owls and wolves, its ancient forests, deserts and mountains—the American wilderness.

The Wise Use movement has created a profile of its enemy. They see themselves as being engaged in a high-stakes chess game with the elite legions of the environmental movement, who are covertly carrying out a sinister master plan, a vast socialist experiment to depopulate the rural West. As evidence they point to the Wildlands Project and to quotes from various greens calling for a 50 percent reduction in North America’s population by the year 2100. The Wise Use movement often suggests that the real goal of the environmental movement is to clear rural Westerners off the land, so the West can be turned into an “eco-theme park” for the pleasures of vacationing suburbanites.

In order to advance their socialist agenda, the Wise Users argue, environmental infiltrated the federal government. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the thinking goes, embedded key leaders into powerful positions inside the EPA, Interior and Agriculture Departments, and then, acting through their positions on government regulatory bodies, the environmentalists have set out to first reduce and then eliminate all grazing and logging on public lands and sharly curtail mining by driving up the cost of doing business.

Furthermore, Wayne Hage argued, through the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists have covertly turned fights over such seemingly innocent creatures as the coho salmon, northern spotted owl and gray wolf into national symbols of a broad land use planning instrument, a kind of bureaucratic club wielded against rural landowners.

Occupying a ranking position on the Wise Use movement’s enemies list is former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who initiated the National Biological Survey in 1993—known in the ominous parlance of the Wise Use movement as the NBS. “The NBS is fascist, man, it’s socialist,” proclaimed Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, based in Battle Ground, Washington. “These guys map your property with infrared satellite photos, looking for plants, you know, then they can actually come on your property without your permission. If they find one of those plants, you know you’re screwed worse than if they found dope.”

But, of course, in the minds of many of these Sagebrush populists, the real menace lies not with the environmentalists, but with the political and financial powers that prop them up. It is the big East Coast foundations who now provide the principle financing of the big green organizations that are pulling the strings. And who is behind these foundations? The Rockefellers, the Pews, the Mellons and other titanic American families made rich through the Standard Oil trust and the like. Through their securities portfolios, naturally, these foundations are interlocked with the multinational corporations that run the world, and who eye the public estate as a source of cheap wealth when times get hard. And thus it is, according to Hage and his followers, that the small rancher in the Interior West is driven off the land by Forest Service and BLM rangers who are nothing more or less than federal agents of the Rockefellers.

“It’s not some deep dark conspiracy,” Hage told us in 1994. “The information is out there for anyone to see. Most people don’t pay attention to economics. And when they do, they say, ‘My god, it’s one of those conspiracy theories.’ No, it isn’t. It’s just the record. So you have the environmental movement as a stalking-horse, used to carry out the transfer of property rights of individuals over to the hands of government and multinational corporations, which serve the interest of the old nobility under the monarchists. And look at who owns these damn gold mines out here in Nevada … foreign corporations.”

In 1991, Hage’s cattle were impounded and sold off by Forest Service agents after the rancher blatantly overgrazed his allotment on the Toiyabe National Forest in central Nevada. Hage promptly closed down his cattle operation and filed a $24 million suit against the Forest Service in federal claims court The suit, which became a cause celebre for the property rights movement, alleged that the seizure amounted to a “taking” of his property rights.

Hage wrote a manifesto titled Storm Over Rangelands, which presented his historical overview of the political economic of the western United States. Hage and his book have become part of a carefully crafted legend that occupies center stage in the Wise Use movement.

According to Hage’s interpretation of western history, the public lands were always meant to be sold off to private ownership—and even though they never were, the actual ownership at the end of the 20th century has become a mélange of various tangled interests, both public and private: the so-called split estate. In fact, Hage argued, there’s no such thing as “public” lands. Of course, that didn’t stope the government from expropriating them, nationalizing the lands over and over again.

As an example of this kind of thought lurking in the shadows of American history, Hage pointed to the career of Carl Schurz, Interior Secretary under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Hage wrote in Storm Over Rangelands that “Schurz’s efforts to prevent the establishment of private property rights on the public lands may have sprung from his socialist background. Schurz was a controversial German immigrant who had fought along with Karl Marx in the Revolution of 1848, came to America, was elected senator from Missouri and supported the radical Republican’s reconstruction plans.”

So, argued Hage, with the nation deeply in debt after the Civil War, the European banking houses, led by the Rothschilds, conspired with the federal government to use the western lands as collateral against repayment of the war debt. The government reneged on the Spanish land grants and sent the cavalry out to kill off the Indians, who had real and justifiable land claims, to clear away any obstacles to this loan repayment scheme. The European financial interests joined forces with the big East Coast families to build the railroads, control the new towns and farms and, through the American Cattle Trust, turn the livestock business into a huge monopoly.

It was, after all, that great hero of environmentalism, geologist Clarence King, explorer of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the father of the Smithsonian Institution and Geological Survey, the very father of federal science, who secretly sent his geology students from Ivy League schools to rustle cattle for his own profit on the western plains during summer vacation, abetting his huge cattle operation.

As time went on, according to Hage’s history, western lands were set aside through the conservation movement, starting with Yellowstone National Park, then Yosemite. These shrines to conservation were, according to Hageian theory, part of a vast project of “nationalization,” the equivalent, Hage wrote, of the “crown lands” in England.

Hage also contemptuously cites how the Taylor Grazing Act, which organized and regulated public land grazing during the 1930s, “created the collateral base for funding of Roosevelt’s New Deal.” According to Hage similar expansions of federal authority over western lands coincided with the Vietnam War (Wilderness Act).

Hage was one of the leaders of a group called Stewards of the Range, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, and founded by Hage’s attorney Mark Pollot, a former assistant secretary of the Interior under James Watt during the early Reagan years. During his tenure at Interior, Pollot authored Executive Order 12630, which required the federal government to attest that all federal agencies compensated landowners if federal regulations or actions infringed on property rights. Pollot’s group, Stewards of the Range, became a legal battering ram in the ranchers’ running resistance against federal authority, backing, for example, Cliff Gardner’s willful trespass of his cattle on lands of the Humboldt National Forest in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.

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A thousand miles north in the posh Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington, are the officesof the group that published Hage’s manifesto: the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The group is run by Ron Arnold, the man who coined the term “eco-terrorism,” and his business partner Alan Gottlieb. Together they served as the field managers and media packagers for the property rights movement.

Arnold was a former draftsman for Boeing, a public relations man for different companies, a writer and film-maker, while Gottlieb made his money (lots of it, too) from direct mail operations for Republican candidates, and most significantly, from gun groups, including the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Bear Arms. Gottlieb also published a magazine called Women and Guns.

The Wise Use movement is a significant popular grouping. “There are 1200 to 1500 groups we can identify,” said Arnold. “Few of these groups ever got any real money from big corporations. Neither are they especially aligned with small business. In fact, probably a third of our members are housewives.” Altogether, Arnold and Gottlieb estimated that there are as many as three million people on their mailing list.

Much of the Wise Use movement has a strong, though peculiar, libertarian bent. “There’s a strain that runs through it that is upset with government interfering in their lives,” said Gottlieb. “Not just libertarian or conservative, but an awful lot of people who are to the left of center and they are very upset with the government telling them what to do.”

These people are the proto-tea-baggers, a strange mix of populists, anarchists and libertarians. “It’s a diverse collective,” Arnold said. “For example, I’m pro-abortion and Alan is not. I’m for legalization of marijuana. We never got into immigration. We did try to see if there was a bridge between the Wise Use groups and the gun movement. But, no. Wise Use people pretty much support gun right. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Gun rights people don’t do much for the property rights movement. And that’s the part that pisses me off.”

Even though the Wise Use movement may attract people form diverse political and ideological heritages, it was also lustily embraced (and some might say co-opted) by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey’s anti-government revolution of the 1990s. Today the Wise Use movement nestles among the rightwing organizations and tendencies of the post-Bush Republican party on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the south and the mountain West. But it can be an uneasy alliance.

It is a world that Ron Arnold knows very well. During the early 1980s, Arnold was brought in by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation to write a glowing authorized biography of James Watt, then viewed by the media and most of America as a kind of neo-fascist, born again lunatic from Wyoming.

Watt, of course, was the messiah of the Sagebrush Rebellion, the precursor of the Wise Use movement, which helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Once installed Reagan began talking about privatization of public lands and Watt soon had people thinking he would sell them off to the highest bidder.

But, according to Arnold, shortly after Watt took over at Interior, he told the more radical factions of the Sagebrush Rebels (folks like Wayne Hage) to knock it off. Privatization was scrapped,” Arnold recalled, “because Watt and the others discovered that you can’t sell off what you don’t own. If you try to auction off pieces of ‘public’ property, you can’t do it because the ownership is split. There are so many stratifications you could never figure out who really owned what. So notions of ownership looked more and more like a commons than a capital asset.”

Among many in the Wise Use movement, however, there is a deeper feeling of betrayal associated with Watt’s abbreviated tenure, a belief that Watt came to be entranced by the corridors of power, that he was seduced by the sense of control he had over the public lands. As an example of this, hard core rebels like Hage pointed to the “good neighbor policy,” developed by Watt, which allowed the governors of the western states to work with the Interior Department in developing policy for federal lands, a gutless retreat from the core principles of private property rights.

The administration of George W. Bush also proved to be a disappointment to the aspirations of the Wise Use ultras. While giving lip service to the Wise Users, his Interior Department, headed by Watt protegé Gale Norton, rapidly began cutting one sweatheart deal after another with the big oil and gas companies and mining operations and the property rights agenda stalled once again on the doorstep of power.

* * *

Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Wise Use movement was building a great deal of political momentum. Then suddenly it had to backpedal furiously to get away from both the militia and county supremacy movements, which threatened to drag them onto the dangerous edges of the anarchist right.

Political investigators, such as Tarso Ramos and David Helvarg, linked some elements of the Wise Use movement to both the racist Posse Commitatus and the militias. Ramos and Helvarg highlighted the role some of the Wise User leaders have played in the National Federal Lands Conference, headquartered in Bountiful, Utah. Ron Arnold, for example, once served on the board of advisors of the Conference and Wayne Hage served as its former president. The Conference was a leading force behind the county supremacy movement in the West.

More to the point, the Conference enthusiastically endorsed the creation of the militia movement in its October 1994 newsletter, urging interested individuals to get in touch with, among others, MOM, the Militia of Montana. The article argued that militias are needed to defend states from an overbearing federal government poised to enforce “seizure orders which can be enacted with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen,” plunging the nation into “an absolute, marital law mode of repression.”

Arnold bristled at questions about the Conference, saying he cut all association with it years ago. He had a right to be concerned. With this one article, investigators, journalists and opponents of the Wise Use movement have been able to tar them as little more than a collection of pistol-packing whackos, aligned with the most paranoid and dangerous elements of the far right.

A version of this article was published by the Village Voice.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch and author of Born Under a Bad Sky. James Ridgeway is a journalist living in Washington, DC.