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Sierra Magazine

Political Paranoia | Power to the People | Bugging Out

None Dare Call It Reason

Anti-enviros explore the political uses of paranoia.

by Paul Rauber

Some people apparently don't have enough to worry about.Like Michael Coffman, president of a misleadingly named outfit in Maine called Environmental Perspectives, Inc. "There is a well-funded, well-organized plan developed by the United Nations and environmental leadership to turn America into an eco-socialist state in which property rights and other constitutional protections are no longer inalienable, but subject to severe restraint, he warns audiences on the right-wing lecture circuit.

This plan, he says, "places priority on the salvation of plants, animals, marine life, and insects over human life, and could place 50 percent of American soil in "forever wild status--off-limits to humans. Those relocated, Coffman says, would be put "into communal bioregions controlled by a ruling elite.

In Washington state, meanwhile, Don Kehoe, founder of the equally misnamed "Committee for Environmental Justice, explains to rapt audiences that a proposed international park in the North Cascades is really part of a U.N. plot to take over a quarter of the state, drive current residents out, and build "a preserve for the world's elite guarded by the CIA and "electronic fortifications.

"We're talking about a conspiracy to create a one-world government, a one-world religion, and a one- world economy, Kehoe says. "This is a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

Some of these fantasies appear to be paranoid misinterpretations of regional approaches to conservation such as the Sierra Club's Ecoregion Program, or Club board member Dave Foreman's visionary "Wildlands Project. Others spring from more prosaic sources. Videotaped lectures by Militia of Montana leader John Trochman, for example, warn about black helicopters leading a U.N. takeover plot. His evidence is a map found on the back of a Kix cereal box showing the United States divided into ten regions.

Another Froot Loops rumor centered on Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was forced to respond with an article in its official visitors guide: "Park Is Not Run by United Nations. In Missouri, state and federal resource agencies were discussing ways to coordinate their efforts in the Ozark Highlands, possibly by having UNESCO declare the area a "biosphere reserve. According to Sierra Club staffer Ken Midkiff, the Wise Use group People for the West "went nuts, circulating a pamphlet throughout the region in which they accused the resource agencies of being pawns of the United Nations, out to create "wildlands with scattered human villages on the Ozark Plateau. "They even produced a neat map, says Midkiff, "showing where the wildlands and wildlife corridors would be and which current Žscattered human villages' would be permitted to remain.

"Just lighten up, okay? begs Midkiff. Not much chance of that. For as loony as these conspiracy theories may sound, anti-environmentalist leaders have found them remarkably effective in mobilizing opposition to innocuous international cooperation pacts in particular, and positive environmental initiatives in general. The idea that the world's sole superpower is in danger of losing its sovereignty to the underfunded and notoriously disorganized United Nations has become widespread; even Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole made fun of U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali's name as a standard feature of his stump speeches. In a time of increasing xenophobia and enormous economic dislocation in rural areas, stories about U.N. troops (variously specified as from the former East Germany, Russia, or Hong Kong) using unmarked helicopters to mass troops in national parks for an assault on Idaho or Colorado find a receptive audience.

For Wise Use leaders, these stories also help to popularize the idea that a "green menace is filling the vacuum left by the sudden dissolution of the "Evil Empire. Environmentalists become the external enemy, associated with a sinister foreign military threat rather than the friendly family down the street. "People love a conspiracy theory, says Dan Barry of CLEAR, the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research. "It's easier for them to be focused on their agenda if they have a common enemy.

While international recognition of wild places carries no force of law, it has on occasion had a valuable influence on conservation policy. For example, the naming of the Tatshenshini River region in northern British Columbia as a "World Heritage Site in Danger helped marshal public opinion against an enormous copper mine planned for its banks, and led to its designation as a provincial wilderness park. In the United States, anti-environmental members of Congress complained that the same designation for Yellowstone National Park helped scotch the New World Mine on its border. (Those who see the World Heritage Program as a sinister plot may have to expand their conspiracy theories to accommodate the fact that its regulations were written by James Watt, Ronald Reagan's first Interior Secretary.)

"Is Boutros Boutros-Ghali Zoning Land In Your District? read a letter circulated by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) to his colleagues late last session. "Our military personnel are giving up their uniforms for the baby blue berets of the United Nations, Young claimed. "Now we find out that an area on U.S. soil the size of the state of Colorado has been designated as part of the ŽUnited Nations Biosphere Reserve' program. . . . This, we are told by the Administration, is the New World Order.

Last September, Young's Resources Committee actually passed his "American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, which would have subjected any future international designations to congressional approval. "I do not believe we can wait any longer to address the U.N.'s insatiable appetite to interfere with U.S. land management policy, said Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) at the hearing on the bill. Young warned that "men and women from Third World kleptocracies decide what goes on in Americans' backyards, and their elected officials have nothing to say about it. Not to be outdone, then-Representative Wes Cooley (R-Ore.) called for President Clinton to be impeached for turning over control of the national parks to the United Nations. "Are we going to allow a one-world order or world government to begin to decide how we manage our lands? he demanded.

George Frampton, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks at the Interior Department, tried to bring a little reality to the proceedings. "There is absolutely nothing about world heritage designation that restricts sovereignty, he testified. The committee, however, was not disposed to listen to reason. When Nina Sibal, director of the UNESCO office in New York, tried to testify about why Yellowstone had been declared a "World Heritage Site in Danger, she was interrupted by Young, who added a new twist to the conspiracy: "Those words were written by the Sierra Club! he charged.

When it came to a vote on the House floor, Young's bill was defeated 246 to 178. (These days, it has to be considered a victory when only a third of the House votes for a bill based on paranoid delusion.) Gravely needed international cooperation in environmental protection seems more remote than ever. In the Cascades, for example, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance Director Mitch Friedman says that plans for an international park with cross-border cooperation on habitat protection have had to be temporarily shelved. "It's still considered a good idea, he says, "but with a wink and a nod and a little bit of a giggle. It's tainted as something comical.

Whether sinister or ludicrous, delusions about black helicopters have proven able to sidetrack serious environmental policy. Coming soon: space aliens at the EPA!

The Environmental Working Group publishes a fascinating biweekly newsletter on Wise Use shenanigans called CLEAR View. Send a "subscribe message to or check it out at the group's Web site, To receive the newsletter by mail or fax, send $24 to the Environmental Working Group, 1718 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Power to the People

Are you willing to pay more for clean energy?

One evening last June, Traverse City Light and Power, a municipal utility serving 8,000 customers in northern Michigan, threw a party to dedicate its new wind turbine, which stands in a cornfield two miles from town. The festive ceremony had a giddy, populist feel. A ribbon was cut, refreshments were served, and as a lazy breeze spun the turbine's sleek white blades, the crowd mingled around the 160-foot tower that supports the $670,000 Danish wind machine.

What made the moment newsworthy was not the machine itself--thousands of similar windmills dot Europe, and 15,000 smaller turbines operate in California--but the innovative way it had been financed. This wind-power generator, the largest in North America, was being paid for with a novel approach called "green pricing. Such programs, now being developed by about 20 utilities nationwide, give consumers the option of clean power. In Traverse City, 145 families pay an extra $7.58 monthly for that option, or about 25 cents a day. Twenty businesses pay $10 extra a month.

The celebration was a landmark for the $200-billion-a-year utility industry. For the first time, a utility had given customers the choice of paying a premium for wind in lieu of coal power. And, for various reasons-- reducing pollution, forging a better future for their grandchildren, and saving fossil fuels--many people answered "Yes!

"We're here to meet our customers' needs, says Chuck Fricke, Traverse City's utility director. "Some of them want cleaner power, not cheaper power. Since the wind doesn't blow all the time, participants must rely on coal and hydro plants for backup. Still, the benefits of substituting wind for coal are profound. For example, the average Traverse City family is reducing its emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, by 14,400 pounds a year--the equivalent of taking a car off the road, or planting two acres of trees--a bargain for $90 a year.

Other utilities are starting green pricing programs as well. One of the oldest is in Sacramento, California, where the municipal utility has installed 350 solar systems on customers' rooftops. These "PV Pioneers pay $6 extra a month, which doesn't cover the program's full cost, but does demonstrate the appeal of solar. When Northern States Power in Minnesota offered to lease rooftop solar systems for a premium of $36 a month (purchasable for one dollar after ten years), it was swamped with applicants. And 1.1 million customers will soon be able to buy power from a new wind farm being planned by the Public Service Company of Colorado.

Sadly, existing green pricing programs also include a number of lemons that seem designed to fail. Wisconsin Electric, for example, was excoriated by environmentalists when it proposed to charge people extra to import power from Canadian hydro and Minnesota wood-waste plants rather than build renewable sources in-state. (The point of green pricing, after all, is to establish new, cleaner sources of energy--not just to reallocate existing ones.) And Detroit Edison offered solar power at a nosebleedingly high price of 56 cents per kilowatt-hour--and then wondered why it was so hard to recruit 200 participants.

The price of wind and solar power has fallen dramatically in recent years. Although not the cheapest forms of new power, they are increasingly competitive. Expanding on the Traverse City model, however, may prove challenging. Although most utilities have barely begun to tap their renewable energy opportunities, not all have a wind site, and many face considerable bureaucratic friction. ("Never underestimate the billing department's resistance to change, says one utility insider.) And with ownership stakes in fossil plants, coal mines, and nuclear stations, many utilities are fierce defenders of the status quo. "Some utilities have an internal conflict, says Ed Holt, editor of the Green Pricing Newsletter. "They aren't likely to take out ads saying, "Buy more renewable energy and help displace our dirty power plants!'

With green pricing in its infancy, existing programs have purchased just two megawatts of new capacity-- a tiny fraction of the nation's total. Skeptics wonder if it will ever amount to much.

"For some utilities, green pricing is just greenwashing, a public-relations gesture, says Randy Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "We support well-designed programs, but we don't think the free market or individual customers should bear the full burden of accelerating the commercialization of renewables. State and federal incentives are needed, too.

"As a society, we need to invest more of our money in renewable energy, agrees Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's energy program. "We now spend more to subsidize the export of walnuts than we do on wind and solar power. You can't solve the nation's energy problems by yourself, no matter how deep in your pockets you dig.

Individuals are likely to enjoy a wider choice in energy suppliers, however, as the industry moves toward deregulation and competition; the mere availability of "customer choice may drive change. Most planes and restaurants were full of cigarette smoke until consumers were given the choice of where to sit; now most flights and meals are smoke-free. In the future, buying dirty power may be as unthinkable as smoking in a hospital room.

By agreeing to pay more for clean power, the citizens of Traverse City have set more than a windmill in motion. Already, with their new machine performing beautifully and 80 people on a waiting list to purchase its power, there's talk in town of buying a second wind machine.
--James R. Udall

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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