Environmental rebels assail focus on 'birds and bugs'

September 25, 1991|By Liz Bowie

They are rebels with an unpopular cause.

They include a Texas shrimp fisherman, a Maryland landowner, a Colorado farmer and an Oregon logger, and their fight is with the environmental movement. They say it has gone too far.

They are tired of losing their jobs to the spotted owl and the sea turtle, and their land to the federal government. The members of Americans United for Environmental Balance want Congress to listen to their side of the story.

So, just as the environmental movement gains legitimacy in mainstream America, these rebels have flown to the capital to announce their intention to launch a war on what they say is imbalance in environmental protection.

They are spending this week lobbying members of Congress, hoping to influence votes on environmental legislation involving such issues as endangered species, wetlands and the Clean Water Act.

"We continue to put birds and bugs above people. The whole emphasis is to let Congress know that people are part of the environment too," said Peggy Reigle of Cambridge, president of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, an Eastern Shore-based group that is fighting wetlands regulations.

Even though they managed to turn out 370 "lobbyists" for the Washington effort, they are unlikely to engage the powerful environmental groups, some of whom barely know of their antagonists' existence, in more than a skirmish.

They are a loose group with no headquarters and no official letterhead. They keep in touch by weekly fax exchanges and newsletters.

But they say that they represent thousands of Americans who produce food and timber, and that their movement will gain momentum because people who work the land feel they are not getting the respect they deserve.

"A lot of it has to do with callousness and lack of respect for people who are hard-working Americans," said Ann Goos, director of the Washington Commercial Forest Action Committee.

Take Ross Stirling, a 35-year-old shrimp fisherman from Port Bolivar, Texas, who says his production fell 25 percent in the past year after regulations to protect the endangered sea turtle took effect.

"I don't see myself being in business in the next five years," sai Mr. Stirling, who has a degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University. "This is a group of people that have gotten together because our government is legislating us out of jobs. I used to call myself an environmentalist, but that is almost becoming a dirty word."

One of the rebels is an environmental turncoat. Ann Corcoran was a lobbyist for the Audubon Society from 1976 to 1980 and has a degree in environmental studies from the Yale Forestry School. But now, as the owner of two farms next to the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland, she has a different perspective.

She said federal officials might try to grab her land at any moment, despite the fact that she has no plans to develop it and wants to pass it on to her children.

Ms. Corcoran publishes the Land Rights Letter to try to nurture what she says is a rapidly expanding network of private-property owners whofeel assaulted by the government.

"My view is that the real environmentalists are the people who are cleaning up their backyards. I think the national environmental groups . . . are a bunch of extremists, and I think they are out of touch with their membership," Ms. Corcoran said.

Michael Wiedeman, an Oregon logger and rancher, is concerned that by trying to protect the forests of the Northwest, the federal government is killing them.

Out of his front window, he said, he can see a 10-mile landscape that goes from desert to alpine forests.

"What used to be one of the most beautiful panoramic vistas looks terrible," he said, because the diseased trees are dying but cannot besprayed because they are protected.

"We should manage the forest," he said. "We can't just lock it up and expect to have something."

Environmentalists say they do not think Americans United for Environmental Balance represents the populist view in the country.

"We derive our strength from mainstream America. I have no question in my mind about that," said David Alberswerth, director of the public lands and energy program for the National Wildlife Federation.

And the environmentalists say that some of those who have come to Washington this week to lobby Congress have been to town before and are bankrolled by mining, logging and other industries that want a grass-roots front to protect their interests.

But Mr. Stirling says he paid his own way to Washington and that his family's first vacation in 12 years has amounted to two hours in the Smithsonian Institution with his son and many hours in congressional offices.

"All we are fighting over is degrees of conservation," he said. "The environmentalists want it all."

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