Professor Warns Against Anti-Environmentalists

By Scott Richardson, The Pantagraph Staff

Harvey M. Jacobs, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is a modern-day Paul Revere.

His warning? Environmentalists should be more aware of a growing anti-environmental movement that is flexing its political muscle throughout the United States.

Jacobs told a crowd at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington last week the antis raise the banners of "wise land use" and "private property rights" to argue that the scales should favor land owners over environmental goals, such as clean water, clean air, more green space and preservation of endangered species.

What should worry environmentalists, as well as passive and active consumers of outdoor recreation, is that the antis' message is finding sympathizers at the state and local level. Twenty-six states and about 300 counties passed laws and ordinances favoring private property rights over environmental agendas since 1990, he said.

"That is scary," Jacobs said.

According to Jacobs, the anti-environmental movement was born at a conference held in 1988 and hosted by a think tank called the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in response to a decade of environmental victories in the areas of pollution and species preservation. Led by a disgruntled member of the Sierra Club and an expert in direct-mail fund-raising, a loose coalition of organizations from mining and other mineral interests and recreation clubs promoting use of snowmobiles and off-road vehicles devised a "wise-use agenda."

Joined by other organizations like the American Farm Bureau, their mission sounds innocent enough - find ways to use the earth wisely. But, among other things, Jacobs said they seek the surrender of more public land to mining and oil exploration, clear-cutting forests, liberal restrictions for snowmobiles and off-road vehicles and privatization of public parks through corporate sponsorships. The well-funded movement blocked a much-heralded integrated environmental management plan for land bordering Yellowstone National Park. They watered down the national inventory of biological resources. Laws were enacted on their behalf from New York to Florida to the West Coast.

Seventeen states passed assessment laws. They require state departments and agencies to do studies anytime they propose actions which may impact private property rights. They are modeled after a failed effort to pass similar legislation at the federal level during the tenure of President Reagan. Six states have compensation laws, which require the state to pay landowners whenever they lose a certain percentage of the value of their property from a state law or regulation. That may include such things as protection of an endangered species or a zoning law that seeks to halt urban sprawl or promotes green space by inhibiting their right to collect large profits by selling land to developers. Two states have conflict resolution laws which force state agencies to mediate differences whenever any citizen objects to enactment of new regulations.

The ideas may sound valid on the surface. As Jacobs said, they are based on American principles born when the first immigrants boarded tiny ships to make the dangerous journey to the New World. They came on the promise of free land. They believed that if they owned their own property, they controlled their own destiny. Democracy, liberty and land-ownership were all linked. Erode one, erode them all. The antis echo language contained in the Bill of Rights; "...nor shall property be taken for public use without just compensation."

It's a message that sells. For years, polls have shown a majority of the American public favor a green agenda. But, Jacobs said, support wanes when people are asked what personal sacrifices they are willing to make or how much they are willing to change their daily lives to achieve specific environmental goals.

So, the task falls to the environmental movement to point out that property rights have never been absolute, Jacobs said. They have always given way to advances in technology or changes in social policy, such as when white restaurant owners were forced to serve minorities.

Jacobs thinks the antis will continue making strides no matter who winds up in the White House in November. But, he sees hope, too. For example, the wise-use movement convinced law-makers in Arizona and Washington state to pass their legislation. But, the laws were later repealed by referendum after environmentalists took their case directly to the voters. Although Americans may believe strongly in property rights, they apparently fear a world without an environmental agenda and environmental regulation, Jacobs said.

Early allies of the anti-environmentalists, the Christian Right, backed away when leaders realized government restrictions on land use often work in their favor, such as when zoning ordinances block a pornography shop from opening in a residential neighborhood.

"The knee-jerk reaction is, 'Hey, that's my property,' " Jacobs said. "It takes a moment of thought to see that laws are not only a burden, but a benefit."

No doubt, future dialogues will be heated as scientists, administrators, politicians and citizens seek ways to balance property rights with environmental objectives on behalf of the public interest. For example, on-going discussions over the issue of total maximum daily loads will determine how far the government has to dictate farm practices to reduce water pollution from agricultural runoff. Environmentalists must be ready at every opportunity to take the lead and voice their vision clearly and effectively, Jacobs said.

"The environmental movement has been playing catch-up," Jacobs said. "They are finding themselves always one step behind. Instead of initiating action, they are reacting. ...The environmentalists need to recapture this debate."

After all, everyone has a right to own land. But, everyone has a right to clean air, water and the preservation of bio-diversity, too.