Demented Agitprop: The Myth and Madness of Agenda 21 Conspiracy Theories
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the UN passed Agenda 21, a clarion call for all countries across the globe to stand together in the name of sustainable development, declaring that governments should save the future of humanity by curbing industrial pollution, eliminating poverty and disease, and implementing recycling initiatives.
As with most UN resolutions, the proposals were largely ignored—except in the world of online conspiracy theories.
In the world of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, the 1992 UN resolution is nothing less than a blueprint for global domination. Bicyclists are the shock troops meant to ready the populace for a New World Order ruled by environmentalist overlords where all property will be seized in the name of smart growth and climate change reduction. Reminiscent of Nazi Germany, people will be rounded up from rural areas and moved into concentration camps under the guise of urban living.
Power companies will use smart meters as Orwellian surveillance mechanisms; “death maps” will indicate where human existence is and isn’t allowed; and inanimate objects such as rocks and trees will be given the same rights as humans in the name of Gaia and communitarianism. Supposedly, this geopolitical transformation is already underway, led by Maurice Strong, former undersecretary of the UN, and Bono, the international Marxist leader of U2.
“Seems crazy, but it’s true” is the common tagline found across a ring of websites and letters to the editor that are dedicated to unraveling the conspiracy, then leading the user through a labyrinth of evidence—cherry-picked from out-of-context quotes and cynically interpreted legislation—alongside copies of the infamous death map.
Conspiracy theories and online culture seem to go hand in hand—from birthers to truthers, JFK to Area 51—and it’s easy to dismiss them as the paranoid rantings of those with too much time on their hands, but the Agenda 21 conspiracy groups actually affect public policy. They appear at local planning meetings, accusing the town council of trying to take away their land, and sometimes the council relents, giving in to the mindless tirades of the paranoid mob.
But there’s much more to these accusations than pure, raving madness. It is a largely contrived movement, supported by natural resource industry groups and land developers looking to block any legislation that restricts access to environmental resources. Groups like the John Birch Society use proponents’ fervent paranoid visions as a demented agitprop for their own interests. This incoherent ranting about a UN takeover of the United States has been going on for decades. It has deep roots in something called the property rights movement, which has long used outlandish global conspiracies to foment dissent against any regulation of their industry.
The Darkest Age of Human History
Michael Shaw, founder of Freedom Advocates, accountant, attorney, and owner of the Lockaway self-storage company outside of San Francisco, may be the marquee name for Agenda 21 because of his singular focus on the issue. In his worldview, statewide fire safety councils are America’s soviets, intended to institute communism by way of fire-prevention regulations. He posits that sustainability actually destroys the natural world by placing limitations on resource extraction. It is also intended to destroy our currency, massively reduce the population, create a one-world government, enslave humanity, and cause traffic gridlock.
He refused to be interviewed for this article, stating that he did not trust the press and did not agree to being labeled “anti-Agenda 21 or anti-anything.” He insisted that he is simply “pro-freedom,” even though he has previously mentioned that there is a battle to cleanse towns of Agenda 21, and that membership with a sustainability non-profit called ICLEI (the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) is treason.
His paranoid outlook may be traced back to when he attempted to run electricity to his La Selva Beach, California property, which was zoned for agricultural use. The electrical line was ostensibly being run to power a well, but he was denied a permit by the county because the amount of energy he was attempting to run could have powered an entire housing subdivision. He eventually took Santa Cruz County to court with the Pacific Legal Foundation as his counsel in an extended legal battle, declaring that the county’s restrictions on his property constituted a legal taking even though he never applied to have the zoning changed. He also accused the state of trespassing, planting non-native seeds, and leaving endangered long-toed salamanders on his property to sabotage his plans. Whether any long-toed salamanders existed on the property was never determined.
Shaw has since turned the land into Liberty Garden, an example of how private ownership can set a prime example for environmental preservation of native species without the need for big government, which somehow creates a monopoly on natural resource protection. His website is heavily dedicated to emphasizing the manual labor he has invested in maintaining the property’s vibrant display of native plant species while still being hindered from economically developing it.
Currently, visitors’ access to Liberty Garden is limited to invited guests only, with an entrance protected by gates, surveillance cameras, and signs threatening any government agents who try to enter.
Although Shaw’s gripes sound like the simple frustrations of somebody eager to change zoning restrictions for his own benefit, he has aligned himself fully with the right wing of the property rights movement. At the Ninth Annual Freedom 21 Conference, Shaw joined other luminaries of the right-wing world to discuss property rights, the evils of Agenda 21, and the threat of NAFTA. Bob Barr, the very conservative ex-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, was banned from the proceedings for having previously met with Al Gore.
Cheryl “Rosa” Koire is different from other local activists typically drawn to the property rights battle. A self-described gay, liberal, anti-war Democrat who runs the Post Sustainability Institute, Democrats Against Agenda 21, and the Santa Rosa Neighborhood Coalition, she does not mince words when describing the UN resolution as a literal Nazi takeover, with bicyclists as shock troops. With her background as a real estate appraiser and her work for the California Transit Authority, she is able to lucidly describe how easement and eminent domain law will eventually lead to rural cleansing. The American countryside will be purged and its residents forced into urban hellholes.
Koire’s story as an Agenda 21 activist starts when property she owned in Santa Rosa, California was declared blighted and fit for eminent domain by the state in anticipation of the as-yet unannounced Sonoma-Marin train line. She fought the ruling by accusing the state of intentionally declaring properties blighted, not in preparation for the Sonoma-Marin train line, but as a part of a UN land grab.
She turned her plight into a book called Behind the Green Mask, which is essentially a rehash of Terry Anderson’s anti-environmentalist tome Behind the Green Curtain, but is focused entirely on the new threat imposed by urban planning and zoning boards rather than environmentalists.
In her view, the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision, which allows local governments to use eminent domain to take property with just compensation for private use as long as it fits within the public’s interest, is all part of the plan. Supposedly, local planners will use obscure social manipulation strategies like Hegelian dialectic and the Rand Corporation’s Delphi method to fake an open, democratic debate about the direction of their community. It is all Kabuki theater, as the decisions have already been made and community input is there simply to give the perception of democracy. Smart meters that record a home’s power output are actually there to report on those who oppose rural cleansing. Traffic circles are flawed for reasons that may or may not have something to do with a global UN conspiracy.
She frequently cites “Redevelopment: The Unknown Government,” by Chris Norby, a centrist Republican of the California State Assembly , as an influence, but “The Unknown Government” is by no means a wild-eyed conspiracy theory. In bland, legal detail, the book describes:
…the distortions caused by the fiscalization of land use, eminent domain abuse, and sales tax competition that results in big-box stores, car dealerships, and sports teams demanding special tax breaks from cities.
Or, essentially, how private companies abuse loopholes in land-use law to the detriment of the community.
But rather than accuse private redevelopment interests of false blight claims, Koire associates them with the overarching government interest in controlling people’s lives. She turns what would be a good example of property rights abuse in the interests of private industry into an argument in favor of less regulation of private industry, support for big-box developments, and an opportunity to rail against communitarianism—a sort of localized version of communism.
What she sees as Kabuki theater in action may simply be a description of how city councils tend to ignore her conspiratorial rantings when she shows up with bullhorns and video cameras to declare the whole meeting a masquerade.
How these ideas get uniformly promulgated can be traced to Tom Deweese at the American Policy Center, a small think tank out of Warrenton, Virginia, which previously worked to fund the Contras in Nicaragua and distribute a Philip Morris-funded newsletter that accused the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) of being controlled by environmental terrorists in the wake of the EPA’s 1992 decision to regulate secondhand smoke.
Deweese has been ringing a demagogic alarm about Agenda 21 since the ’92 UN Summit in Rio, but only with the Tea Party’s rise have his ideas really taken root. His Deweese Report newsletter, which he claims reaches over three million recipients by email and direct mail campaigns, is now solely focused on the threat of sustainable development and the UN’s slowly encroaching power. The issues covered range from the insidiousness of stakeholders in public-private partnerships to the looming threat of new urbanism.
According to Deweese’s book, Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, we are in the “darkest ages of human history,” ready to face a new Inquisition. The tactics the Nazis used to eliminate the Jews are the same ones being used “in every city council meeting, county commissioner meetings, state government hearing and Congressional hearing in this nation to impose Agenda 21.”
Sustainable development is the cornerstone of all government and the root of all our problems. Bono is a Marxist that is not actually interested in helping Africa, since debt relief would be disruptive to the continent’s economies. Bill Gates wants to depopulate the planet with vaccination initiatives. The White House Rural Council is here to create a land czar dictatorship over the countryside. The $4 billion-dollar environmental non-profit world controls the government and big business. The Department of Homeland Security categorizes extremists as “anyone concerned about the economy,” and smart growth will construct inescapable, walled cities that nobody can escape.
He cites Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem as a major influence; the book envisions a dystopian future where we will all be nameless hordes contained to controlled palaces of mating and die in the “home of the useless,” all overseen by the Elders.
Deweese also sells an anti-Agenda 21 kit on his site (for $195), which includes packets of information on how you too can fight sustainable planning in your neighborhood, and introspections into how the U.S. education system and the Affordable Care Act are all part of the same diabolical plan. The infamous Agenda 21 “death map” is on the back cover.
A Loud, Unpopular, Yet Influential Minority
As demonstrably ridiculous as it all sounds, these paranoid visions have infiltrated planning meetings across the country, resulting in the abandonment of large-scale development projects like oyster bed restoration in Virginia, highway construction in Maine, and high-speed rail in Florida by small yet vocal protests demanding that the UN cease their dictatorial power grab. An attempt to protect manatees in Citrus County, Florida with boating restrictions was considered an abomination because “[placing] animals above man is against the Bible and the Bill of Rights .” Alabama recently banned sustainable development as a practice outright. Other states like Tennessee, Minnesota, and Arizona have tried similar resolutions. Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz called Agenda 21 a “globalist plan that tries to subvert the U.S. Constitution and the liberties we all cherish as Americans.” Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both called it a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
In particular, the anti-Agenda 21 movement has focused on ICLEI—a non-profit that helps communities by providing software to identify greenhouse emissions—as the subversive element that has infiltrated every local government on behalf of the UN.
The organization was started a few years before the ’92 UN Rio Summit as a way to coordinate with atmospheric scientists on the successful battle to rein in ozone layer depletion and has since moved on to focus on climate change. Although it certainly works off of the same sustainability concepts found in Agenda 21, ICLEI is not part of the UN. This is a relatively easy fact to discover, but there is really no easy way to absolutely prove that a seemingly harmless NGO dedicated to encouraging energy efficiency is not part of a global conspiracy simply because they adhere to a similar philosophy.
So far, 21 communities across the U.S. have dropped ICLEI to the delight of anti-Agenda 21 activists everywhere. To say that 21 cities in the U.S. are living in fear of a UN takeover is not completely accurate. Dan Knapp, a representative of ICLEI, mentioned that there are often debates over whether jurisdictions can afford the annual membership fee and that sometimes the vote to drop out simply coincides with anti-ICLEI protests.
A vocal minority can also overrun planning commissions, and a number of the anti-Agenda 21 groups have advocated anonymous representation, so an accurate measurement of the dissent can be difficult to determine. A recent survey by the American Planning Association showed that few respondents knew what Agenda 21 even was. Gary Wysocky, a member of the Santa Rosa city council who is often harangued by Cheryl Koire’s particularly vociferous group as part of the “bicycle Taliban,” described it as “a loud minority, but not particularly influential—they don’t win over many adherents.”
There is also the unspoken cultural battle afoot that underpins the whole debate. Any money spent on smart growth and urban centers is money not spent on rural areas. Developers hoping to win over the locals at the town council meeting with a preview of their new mixed-use apartment complex replete with computer-generated urbanites are often met by waves of boos and accusations by those unfriendly to their metropolitan lifestyle vision. Combine all of this with a misunderstanding of community planning, a fear of urban living, a fear of technology, and a fear of change, and one could see how certain individuals could fall prey to the allure of an all-encompassing conspiracy by a distant, monolithic, international organization.
An apprehension towards change might be understandable if it were not for the same extreme mindless rhetoric, same feared plot of international socialism, same techniques, same organizations, and some of the same voices from the anti-environmental Wise Use movement twenty years prior.
A Secret Society to Bring About Economic Collapse
How exactly did a dry policy document on recycling initiatives get interpreted as a blueprint for world domination? After all, Agenda 21 is a non-binding resolution on best practices for sustainable development. It is more of an instructional pamphlet on how not to waste resources than anything resembling international law.
Why any of this would be a threat to U.S. sovereignty is unclear. It doesn’t mention abandoning single-family homes, social justice, redistribution of wealth, rural cleansing, or eliminating private property. Smart growth—an innocuous term equivalent to development planning but commonly denounced as Orwellian Newspeak—is nowhere to be found in the text.
Maurice Strong, ex-Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, is accused of being the mastermind behind it all for stating that “the only hope for the planet is for industrialized civilization’s collapse” and that it is “our responsibility to bring that about” at the opening statement of the 1992 UN Summit, but those words never appear in his speech. The words are taken from an interview where he discussed the plot of a sci-fi novel he hoped to one day write where “world leaders form a secret society to bring about an economic collapse.”
Agenda 21 is sometimes referred to as an ominous precursor to actual international law, much like the Montreal Protocol’s standard on chlorofluorocarbon emissions, but even those agreements are little more than soft law, as there are no repercussions for those who break them. And even if a country did break them, they would be breaking a treaty that they themselves were interested in enacting for the sake of environmental concerns. And the Montreal Protocol was a highly successful environmental agreement that stopped ozone depletion and has yet to implement international socialism.
Of course, there is no evidence that Agenda 21 is a plot for world domination. Most of the conspiracy claims are denounced with a cursory Google search, and the rest require a heavy amount of hyper-pedantic cynicism to interpret phrases like “credit schemes for the poor” as a plot to divest the poor of credit. Other comments by Maurice Strong about the wasteful air-conditioned, fossil fuel-using, meat-eating lifestyles of Western nations may be the closest thing to a social engineering smoking gun, but even that quote seems tepid in retrospect.
Somehow the UN, which is often denigrated as useless and ineffective by the same actors, will organize and convince a large mass of people to abandon their homes and move into concentration camps against their will. Tempting as it might be to label these threats as simply distributed mass hysteria, the movement is a largely contrived extension of the natural resource industries’ battle for property rights called “Wise Use.”
Similar to the anti-Agenda 21 and Tea Party protests of today, Wise Use has a parallel history of fomenting dissent at the behest of private industry’s interests with overblown, nonsensical, and apocalyptic language against any and all environmental regulations. It is the same international, socialist, enviro-Nazi conspiracy rhetoric and coordination tactics, and the same names that are seen today. Rather than battles over stream restoration and endangered species, the focus has now turned toward urban planners and zoning regulations.
Also known as “Multiple Use,” or “Shared Use” in Canada, the Wise Use movement is a collection of private interests—mining, timber, ranching, construction, agriculture, chemical manufacturers, and oil and gas companies—who have been battling with the federal government over natural resource rights and regulations since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.
Ever since the Mining Act of 1872, private resource industries have had free use of federal lands in many locations to mine, log, and graze cattle with little or no payment to the government. When the government tries to regulate access to those federal lands—be it by blocking stream access to ranchers, closing off mountain roads to loggers, or regulating pollution in the vicinity of a mining operation—legal, political, and sometimes physical conflicts have erupted over whether these actions constitute a “taking.” If an environmental regulation is defined as a taking, rather than the EPA fining polluters for not regulating their emissions properly, polluters could sue the government for the loss of potential income from said restriction. Such a decision would set a precedent that, applied across many mining operations, oil refineries, and chemical plants, would mean billions in government payouts.
In the seventies, this dissent against government control of public lands led a number of ranching groups to form the Sagebrush Rebels. The Sagebrush Rebels were allied to fight the implementation of the growing environmental movement who had won numerous legislative victories in the late sixties and seventies: the Wilderness Act, Roadless Area Review and Evaluation Act (RARE), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and National Forest Management Act. These policies were put in place to restrict access to government-owned lands and resources that were being used for free or for far below market value while being maintained by the government. The Sagebrush Rebel alliance was able to push their pro-ranching, logging, and mining agenda into the White House with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The story of Wayne Hage is the prototypical example of this battle over government land regulation. A public lands rancher, he grazed his cattle on government-owned lands until the government blocked access to a water source used to feed his cattle. Hage sued the government under takings law for their restriction and eventually won. His twenty-plus-year legal struggle won him $14 million in damages plus interest, and he became a late symbol of the Sagebrush Rebellion and ranchers’ rights.
Because there is so much at stake, any struggle over government regulation anywhere in the country—from an easement used to create a bike lane, a zoning regulation on housing construction, or an attempt to designate a river as “wild and scenic”—could become legal precedent or a rallying point about the injustices of governmental interference and therefore a front line in the conflict over property rights. Throughout the nineties, natural resource industry interests took to this fight by funding front groups to help foment dissent against park rangers, environmental activists, or anybody that stood in the way of anything but one hundred percent private use of park lands.
Groups with innocuous-sounding names like “Friends of the Rivers” worked with right wing think tanks like the John Birch Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the Heartland Institute under the philosophy of Lyndon Larouche to claim a grand socialist plot by the UN. Calling environmentalists “watermelons” (green on the outside, red in the middle), they declared all EPA gestapo regulations to be part of an interconnected global hippie conspiracy aimed at destroying U.S. industry and a new paganism that “sacrifices people and worships trees” in order to recruit members and make money. In their view, ozone depletion was a concocted myth meant to justify land seizures. According to these groups, climate change is also a myth, trees cause smog, and toxic waste cleanup is a misuse of public financing.
Those same think tanks, funded by the natural resource industries, provided boilerplate legal language for politicians to employ across different states and local governments. Pro-bono legal organizations, like Pacific Legal Foundation and Mountain States Legal Foundation, were funded by the same natural resource companies and would seek out and represent individuals with disputes against the government over takings law. A 1984 Yale Law Journal analysis criticized them for not actually serving the public interest as required for 501(c)(3) designation. More often than not they were found to be serving the interests of their oil and ranching industry board members in lawsuits against environmental regulations.
The tactics of Wise Use are thoroughly documented in David Helvarg’s groundbreaking book The Battle Over the Greens. In it, Helvarg details the same ideology and tactics at the heart of the Tea Party and anti-Agenda 21 movements to come. In many ways, these later groups are merely an extension of Wise Use being led and reinforced by the some of the same actors. It is the same technique of strategic fearmongering at the local level for private interests. Or as Helvarg explains, “the strength of anti-environmentalism is not in its membership rolls but in its ability to mobilize a network of core activists to intervene in and politicize local conflicts, creating a perception of power that they hope can be used as a springboard for further expansion.”
Long before the Tea Party accused Obama of being an “Alinsky radical,” groups like Bill Grannell’s People for the West!, Charles Cushman’s National Inholder’s Association, and Ron Arnold’s Center For the Defense of Free Enterprise used the techniques of Saul Alinsky to blame the preservationist elite for the ills of rural Montana. Bill Grannell even took Alinsky’s classes in Chicago before going on to use Alinsky’s tactics for the interests of ranching groups. Instigating instant riots at town meetings, spamming government fax lines, phone lines, and talk radio call-in shows, and threatening a UN takeover of all private property were some of the common tricks of the trade.
Financial backing for Wise Use would decline because of associations with militias in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the election of a pro-industry president in George W. Bush, but it didn’t disappear. It would eventually make a new resurgence with the Tea Party and its short-lived attempt to alter the 2010 Congressional elections while denouncing the looming threat of Agenda 21.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The Wildlands Network, a small non-profit aimed at protecting native fauna on the verge of extinction by connecting habitats across the U.S., is often invoked as Agenda 21’s guideline for mass human relocation, but the project has been misinterpreted to the point of absurdity. They are often denounced as the architects of rural cleansing, where, in the interest of biodiversity and urban development, people in rural communities across the country will be forcibly moved out of their homes and into cities by the government through eminent domain.
Kim Vacairu, a representative of the Wildlands Network, responded plainly that the non-profit does no lobbying, does not work on policy, does not purchase land, does not work with eminent domain law, and “has never received a dime from the federal government.” They mainly work with private landowners, almost exclusively in the West, to create wildlife corridors between national parks so that mountain lions are not turned into roadkill.
Considering the amount of invective the Wildlands Network gets for being near the heart of the global conspiracy, Vacairu says that they rarely get any inquiries. “It hasn’t come up in the last two years.” Yet the group supposedly produced the “death map” (found across almost every Tea Party website rallying against Agenda 21), which lays out a plan for mass relocation of the human population.
The map shows all federally-owned lands combined with all state and county-owned lands, with restricted pathways interconnecting them. All of it is classified as off-limits to human activity. On the map, whole towns are designated as uninhabitable; the Adirondacks are a 9,375-square mile exclusion zone.
Independent of motive, the map would be damning evidence of a non-profit’s overreach if it did not show the copyright of the map’s actual creator, an organization by the name of Environmental Perspectives, in the lower-right corner. Environmental Perspectives had the map drawn up as a prop for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 1994 debate over the UN Convention on Biodiversity. Anyone can purchase a copy from the Environmental Perspectives website for $10 apiece.
The ire against Wildlands seems to be aimed not at that particular NGO, but at a nebulous “Wildlands Project,” which is used as a catch-all for any federal policy or NGO that attempts to protect National Park lands or endangered predators. At one point, environmental research professors Reed Noss and Michael Soulé outlined a Wildlands Project that would protect areas of biodiversity for endangered animals in the West, but Noss addressed the controversy in an interview with RANGE magazine, stating that:
There are unethical people out there perpetrating ridiculous lies in an attempt to discredit us. The Wildlands Project has never proposed relocating people to accommodate our reserve designs. [...] Nevertheless, certain folks in the Wise Use Movement have fabricated maps, attributed them to us, and circulated them to rural newspapers, websites, and so on, apparently intending to frighten local people and turn them against conservation. [...] Those relatively few private lands identified as core areas are lands belonging to The Nature Conservancy, land trusts, conservation-minded ranchers, and other folks who voluntarily manage their lands for conservation.
As it turns out, Environmental Perspectives is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Coffman. Although Coffman does not specifically work on Agenda 21, he does preach a Larouchian worldview that takes aim at international paganism, claiming that climate change is a hoax used to bring forth a biblical end times. With a background in forestry and previous work as a representative for the paper industry, he offers what he calls a Judeo-Christian stewardship of the environment that integrates free markets, private property rights, and traditional values, but mainly encourages industry to use as many resources as they want.
For someone threatening that a pantheistic cult is about to drive all of us off our property in preparation for the end times, Coffman’s tone is very reasonable. When mentioning the struggle for logging rights in the Adirondacks during the 1980s and 1990s, he strongly chided that, “the people there fought hard for economic use of their land all while being insulted by the New York Times,” framing it almost as a labor issue. This would be a compelling argument if not for the details of that struggle, which include an organized campaign of arson, gunfire, and death threats against the Adirondack Parks Agency, all for the sake of the timber industry, which had clear-cut the majority of the forest, risking the Hudson Valley watershed.
Coffman also runs the Local Environment and Resource Network (LEARN), which aims to inform localities on how to sidestep federal environmental regulations by establishing local policies. According to LEARN, an obscure loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) indicates that if a local or state government establishes their own unique environmental conventions, the federal government must cooperate with the locality. The LEARN success stories provided are the same battles of natural resource industry versus environmental regulations on national monument land seen during the Wise Use movement: mining road access, stream restoration easements, and timber salvage limits.
Coffman is also executive director of Sovereignty International, the organization founded in 1996 by Henry Lamb (with members of the National Federal Lands Conference and the cattle industry) that is dedicated to fighting global governance. Almost immediately after being created, Sovereignty International used their newfound existence to claim that the UN was looking to establish an international “blue hull” Coast Guard. Threatened by this attack on U.S. autonomy, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma immediately stepped in to help stop U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, asserting national security concerns.
Sovereignty International’s Henry Lamb is the linchpin for all things Wise Use and Agenda 21. He is ex-vice president of the Land Improvement Contractors Association and former head of the Environmental Conservation Organization—an umbrella group for over 300 smaller Wise Use organizations founded by developers to oppose wetlands protection. He also worked to defeat the UN Convention on Biodiversity from ratification in the U.S., founded Freedom 21 with members of ranching groups to organize anti-Agenda 21 conferences, and writes the occasional article for WND (formerly World Net Daily) on how Agenda 21 is not merely a conspiracy theory but an actuality happening right before our very eyes. He also appears in Tom Deweese’s anti-Agenda 21 planning toolkit, and Deweese sits on the advisory council of Sovereignty International.
Both Deweese and Lamb appear at property rights conferences funded by the same resource industry-funded think tanks from the Wise Use era: the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, and the John Birch Society. The speakers at these conferences are often the same stellar names found within the Wise Use movement—e.g., Michael Coffman and Dan Byfield of Stewards of the Range (a group created by the son of Wayne Hage)—but also include those dedicated to the anti-Agenda 21 movement, like Rosa Koire, Orlean Koehle, and Michael Shaw. Those same think tanks, along with right-wing legislation mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provide boilerplate legal documents that municipalities can use to ban sustainable development and any environmental restrictions on land use.
Together, they have found a common ground—property rights—with which to rail against the government.
Species protection, such as the infamous struggle over spotted owls in protected forests, was a large Wise Use battleground in the ’90s, and anti-Agenda 21 groups have taken up that torch by lambasting protections for long-toed salamanders, Delta smelt, shortnose suckerfish, and Mexican wolves as part of the same UN plot. The same goes for the rural fire safety councils that were lamented by Michael Shaw. Those fire safety councils have long been called socialist plots because they stand in the way of letting forests burn, which would leave the land ripe for plunder by salvage logging companies.
Any use of eminent domain or control of private property by the government is anathema to both groups. Rick Perry is demonized as part of the Agenda 21 plan for his involvement in the Trans-Texas Corridor highway project, not because of questions about the project’s funding or usefulness, but because it was a “massive private property land grab,” according to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Similar arguments likely stopped the highway project in Maine and the oyster bed restoration project in Virginia; both were accused of being Agenda 21 schemes.
But more often, the anti-Agenda 21 aim is to remove any restrictions on subdivision developments. Sometimes, this means Tea Party groups working directly with local homebuilder associations against wetlands protections. Septic tank regulations are usually a touchy subject for anti-Agenda 21 activists in places like Florida, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and southern California, where development companies are looking to build in rural areas devoid of sewage systems, while local governments are looking to make sure septic runoff does not affect streams, estuaries, and drinking water.
Orlean Koehle, California chapter president of the staunchly anti-feminist Eagle Forum created by Phyllis Schlafly, is very active on this front. She often speaks at conferences alongside Rosa Koire and Michael Shaw on stopping Agenda 21 and ending smart meters because of the potential health concerns from “electro-smog.” She also heads the Sonoma Land Rights Coalition, which vociferously argued against septic tank regulations to prevent sewage runoff and against the idea that those regulations constituted a legal taking.
In their view, any support for higher-density living—mixed-use development, bike lanes, public transportation—becomes a proxy war over rural development. Eventually, anything that might be pro-environment is also considered part of the plot. Attempts to prepare for sea-level rise in Northern Virginia were considered a tacit agreement that climate change is real and therefore part of Agenda 21.
And in that sense, all of the paranoid visions of Agenda 21 blend into the doctrines of Wise Use. Ron Arnold, the originator of the Wise Use movement and creator of the term “rural cleansing,” has also proselytized against Agenda 21, which he calls “a pantheistic altar,” “socio-economic Armageddon,” and an “action plan for...taking away hunters’ and anglers’ guns and curtailing their access to land that is held in the public domain.”
One begins to wonder why somebody would risk their legitimacy and perceived sanity for such paranoid fearmongering, yet there is a method to their madness. The grandiose accusations of UN conspiracies sound ludicrous, but they form an internally consistent theory. This ideology unifies the interests of various industries under one philosophy, grabs people’s attention, and demonizes their enemies. It justifies the personal grievances of those unwilling or unable to understand and debate the environmental consequences perpetrated by irresponsible actors on the larger community, even if the presumptions it makes about reality are patently absurd.
But it still may not make complete sense. Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm once described the Sagebrush Rebels (the ranching groups that contested government regulation of public lands and led to Wise Use) as:
A murky fusion of idealism and greed that may not be heroic, nor righteous, nor even intelligent. Only one certainty exists—that Sagebrush is a revolt against federal authority, and that its taproot grows deep in the century’s history. Beyond this, it is incoherent. Part hypocrisy, part demagoguery, partly the honest anger of honest people, it is a movement of confusion and hysteria and terrifyingly destructive potential. What it is no one fully understands. What it will do no one can tell.
- Aaronovitch, David “Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History” , Jonathan Cape, 2009, ISBN 978-0-224-07470-4
- American Stewards of Liberty. “Our History.” http://americanstewards.us/about-us/our-history/
- Center for Media and Democracy. http://www.alecexposed.org/w/images/d/df/3H4-Granting_the_Authority_of_Rural_Counties_to_Transition_to_Decentralized_Land_Use_Regulation_Exposed.pdf
- Coffman, Michael. “Returning to Earth Worship, Part I.” September 29, 2003, NewsWithViews.com. http://www.newswithviews.com/Coffman/mike4.htm
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