'Wise use' advocates take on environmentalists

April 29, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

When Peggy Reigle checked out of corporate America, she thought she was leaving days of faxing and phone calls in her office at the New York Daily News.

She thought wrong. Instead, amid the osprey nests and duck ponds of her Eastern Shore farm, she found a battle of a different sort: Peggy Reigle took on those who saw fit to reclassify more than 20 acres of her property as wetlands -- after she had bought it.

The villains, as she sees it, are environmentalists.

"I'm a devout conservationist, but I would never use the word environmentalist. It's like being a criminal to me," says the 47-year-old founder of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee in Cambridge.

She is not alone. Though once widely perceived as being as American as flag waving, environmentalism is becoming the target of ridicule by some who believe the welfare of the spotted owl is being put ahead of human beings.

This loosely organized group of environmental backlashers -- sometimes known as the wise-use movement -- includes miners, loggers, developers and recreational vehicle enthusiasts. They claim roughly 3 million members and a reported budget of more than $5 million, according to Ron Arnold, one of the leaders.

Perhaps the one thing the two sides agree on is strategy. They fight lobbying with lobbying, protests with protests, letter writing with letter writing. And each side talks tough -- especially about the other.

"This is a war. We're trying to destroy the opposition," says Mr. Arnold, vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Wash.

Graham Cox, spokesman for the National Audubon Society, counters: "We like to call them resource abusers rather than the wise-use movement."

Call them what you will, wise users are a force to be reckoned with, acknowledges Mr. Cox, who says that Audubon is training environmentalists about how best to address the growing coalition.

So far, though, established environmentalists clearly have the edge. Fifty-six percent of the population favors going "full-speed ahead" in spending to clean up the environment, according to a CNN/Time magazine poll several months ago. (Thirty-seven percent preferred slowing down; 5 percent were unsure; 2 percent said work should continue at the same pace.)

What has also complicated the issue has been the mainstream success of environmental groups. No longer considered counterculture nature lovers, these forces are often as comfortable in posh boardrooms as wildlife preserves. And at times, they resemble industries unto themselves with XTC million-dollar budgets, slick marketing campaigns and leaders who take home six-figure salaries.

"It's a crock that these groups . . . tackle big business. They've become big business," says Ann Corcoran, a former Audubon lobbyist who now runs the Land Rights Letter in Sharpsburg.

Even the Conservation Fund's recent newsletter made reference these shifting attitudes. In analyzing last year's financial difficulties, a group member wrote: "Most observers say that any weakening in the finances of the conservation movement is entirely attributable to the recession. Others warn, however, that criticism of a movement increasingly seen as part of 'the establishment' may be taking its toll."

Evidence of the partnership between green groups and big business is illustrated by the National Wildlife Federation's Corporate Conservation Council. Fee-paying executives from Dow Chemical, Shell Oil and others have helped fund conservation projects, environmental textbooks and even a college course about environmental business management, says Lynn Bowerfox, spokeswoman for the federation.

"There's no way to extricate industry practice from the future of our environment, so the federation believes that sitting down at the table for open dialogue about environmental issues is a very good way to educate and inform," she says.

Ms. Reigle sees it as proof that these groups are not what they seem.

"People contribute to these groups because they think they're repairing the wings of birds. The average person doesn't know their money is going for lobbying and litigation and big salaries," she says.

Ms. Bowerfox says, "People have to respect the fact that sometimes litigation is the only way to save the wings of a bird. But that's always complemented with grass-roots action and public education."

The vanguard of the wise-use movement is the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Founded in 1976, the group didn't attract national attention until several years ago when it came up with its wise-use agenda.

Among its priorities are oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, increased logging and mining on public lands and amendments to the Endangered Species Act.

The group's goal, says former Sierra Club member Ron Arnold, is to find ways that "man and nature can live together in productive harmony. . . . Productive harmony has been ignored in favor of preservationism and environmentalism, which ignores the human factor."

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