SHE WAS “A STRONG ADVOCATE for the wise use and protection of our nation’s natural resources” said George Bush of Gale Norton the day after she resigned from her post as Secretary of the Interior. It was a statement written in code, aimed at those who understand that “Wise Use” means plundering public lands for maximum private profit. And it was a hidden homage to one man in particular: The progenitor of the “Wise Use” brand and tradition, author and marketing guru Ron Arnold.
In his down-home, affable way, Arnold has, over 30 years of assiduous efforts, managed to seed the notion in the American mind that environmentalism has gone over the edge, that animal-rights activists take their cues from Satan worshippers and that saboteurs of sawmills and poorly sited housing developments pose a great threat to domestic security. With a hypographic zeal bordering on mania, he has struggled in books published by his own Merrill Press to link Al Gore to Ted Kaczynski, and Earth First! to the Manson family. He has dismissed “the pesticide bugaboo” raised by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the specter of “oil-soaked birds” from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill as “alarmism.” He has strained to link the words “environmentalist” and “terrorist” for decades.
That effort has recently paid off: In March, six members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for maintaining a Web site chronicling the actions of animal-rights activists; one month later, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law classifying environmentally motivated vandalism as terrorism. Judging by these and other quiet victories, Arnold has been incalculably successful.
But everyone has his good side. I called Arnold to talk about what he’s termed the “ecoterrorist threat,” but ended up “going all around Robin Hood’s barn,” as he described it. We talked about families, travel plans, the view of the Douglas firs from the window of his office in Bellevue, Washington. In the course of the conversation, he broke away twice to take calls from one of his three married daughters; he defended solid liberal values such as reproductive rights and the teaching of evolution in the schools. “I’m not an emissary from the devil,” he reassured me. “I’m a different person than anyone thinks I am.”
We talked for three hours.
Did you really coin the term “ecoterror”?
To the best of my knowledge. The first time I used it was in the 1970s. Reason magazine called up and said, “There was a helicopter that just got torched. Can you look into this? We’ll pay you a bunch of money to write the story.” So I wrote the story, but I had this really nasty editor who was very insistent that we come up with a name for what happened. She kept asking me, “What do we call this?” I said, “Well, it’s a kind of terrorism.” She liked that, so it stuck.
And you once belonged to the Sierra Club?
I was a volunteer leader, yes. I got into it in 1961, in the decade when if you weren’t a Marxist you weren’t hip. But I’ve actually read everything Marx wrote. Lenin, too.
The Sierra Club’s brochure had a little thing by [then–club president] Bestor Robinson in it. His motto was, “Never let your love of nature blind you to the needs of your fellow man.” I put that in a drawer with my socks. But later I thought, “Whatever became of Robinson’s motto? What became of contributing to the American way of life?” It’s a kick-’em-out-and-lock-’em-out society now.
Where did you get the idea for the Wise Use movement?
The term comes from Gifford Pinchot [Forest Service chief from 1905 to 1910], who said, “Conservation is the wise use of resources.” I saw that quote in the early ’70s. I thought, “That’s neat. I like that idea. That’s what it’s really about.” That term “wise use” was the definition of conservation. I said, “Okay, let’s take this seriously.”
In 1992 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted you as saying, “If people believe that there are endangered species, or if it matters if there are, then they should put up their own money to save them.”
It’s kind of like this: If you followed the [Endangered Species Act (ESA)] from the time it was passed in 1972, you know that the definition of “endangered” has gone through mission creep. Everybody who voted for it, and I’ve talked to quite a few of them, thought we were just talking about the big mammals and birds. But then it got down to bugs and things. They said, “That’s not what we had in mind!”
That’s not true. I recently talked to one of the ESA’s authors, former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who explained that the ESA was designed to warn us that if a species went extinct, we should worry that we could be next.
What it’s come down to is that the ESA is not about animals or plants at all. It’s about places. It’s a land-control law. And if you happen to be of a political persuasion that doesn’t like private property for whatever reason, it’s a perfect tool for eliminating private property.
You wrote the authorized biography of James Watt, Reagan’s controversial, fundamentalist-Christian secretary of the interior.
I did. When his people arranged a meeting with him in Boise, Idaho, I said, “Who’s Jim Watt?” I went to Boise, and the Secret Service agent ushered me and my wife into his hotel room. He was in jeans and a work shirt. We exchanged some pleasantries, and he grilled me on some mining stuff and forestry stuff. I knew the issues pretty well. He said, “What about the religious stuff?” I said, “I’m not religious, but I’ve heard that you are, and I’ve heard what you’ve said, and I know the difference between the two.”
Where do you stand on religion, by the way?
Any notion of how we got here is equally preposterous. I don’t know anybody in the conservative Christian movement. I don’t rub shoulders with those guys. I’m not interested in it.
How do you define yourself politically? As a Republican, or as a Libertarian?
I’m conservative fiscally. On a few things I’m actually a Marxist, because there are a lot of holes in free-market theory. But on most social issues I’m probably liberal. I’m pro-abortion, for instance. I had an adopted daughter go to Canada for an abortion in 1968, and the abortion was botched, and I nearly watched her die. She was my sweetie-pie! Now she’s in her 50s, a note broker at the top of her field, but we almost lost her.
What about the drug war? Where do you stand on marijuana laws?
I think they’re silly because nobody pays attention to them anyhow. But I actually do have one religious principle: I don’t do things I can’t do. I do what I can do, and I succeed. Trying to change the marijuana laws is something I can’t do.
I think it’s kind of dippy. But I’ll also say that science is just as culturally conditioned as religion. It was invented by people in the Western world. You take a lot on faith.
Do I believe this crap about superstrings and chaos theory? Yeah, I believe it a lot more than Big Daddy came down out of the sky and created the world in one day. But where does science come from? It’s an ideology, just like religion is.
And this no doubt influences your stand on climate change.
Climate change is a guess. I’ve talked to six climate scientists. Four say this isn’t what’s happening. Two say this is happening.
Four say the climate isn’t changing at all? But what about the evidence in the Arctic sea ice, just for starters?
The four say there’s no question that the climate is warming up, but is it because of what people are doing?
But the consensus among climate scientists is that humans are changing the climate.
If you’re a scientist and you say nothing is happening, you don’t get grants, do you? But if you say, “Uh-oh, the climate is changing, we’d better do something,” you get grants, don’t you?
I think there’s a lot of economic self-interest going on here. A lot of scientists are politically motivated — they don’t like big oil companies and want to shut them down. They have a visceral, unreasonable hatred of corporations.
Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse?, talks about CEOs of large corporations stepping ahead of the government to address climate change. He’s hardly anticorporate, but he has no doubt that the climate is changing and humans are changing it.
Well, I haven’t read that book. What’s it called again?
It’s called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed?.
Okay. I’ll get a copy. It sounds like something I should know about.