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The green backlash

The Konkolville Steakhouse is a shrine to red meat and raw timber, stitched to a half-century-old sawmill on a creek in Orofino, Idaho. There is a certain goofy charm to Orofino, home of the Maniacs, a nickname some people say is drawn from the state mental institution nearby. The high school emblem, a cartoon of a screaming, wild-eyed man, has survived years of scorn to become something of a rebel icon for teenagers.

Big-wheeled cars tool around with bumper stickers that read, "Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?"

So it was with some trepidation that a handful of people who make their livings trying to restore wolves, bears and other big fauna to the Rocky Mountains showed up at the old steakhouse recently for a night of chewing beef with loggers and mill owners. It would be an understatement to say that the two groups, as a general rule, do not get along _ nature haters and property rights wackos versus eco-freaks and humor-impaired granola crunchers. But as they joked and sparred over steak and beer, they discovered that neither side lived up to its stereotype.

"We found that we didn't hate each other," says Alex Irby, a manager at the Konkolville sawmill. "Turns out, we all like to do a lot of the same things. We love the outdoors."

The grizzly bear, the biggest land mammal in North America, has been missing from Idaho's backyard for a long time. The federal government, under the Endangered Species Act, had made known its intention to restore the big bears to central Idaho, the largest roadless area in the contiguous United States.

The steakhouse conferees simply want to get it done quickly, without endless lawsuits or regulations that might lead to major job losses. Yet, the mere fact that loggers in the back country are sitting down with environmentalists is an astonishing change from just two years ago, when the anti-environmentalist forces were storming Congress.

It has infuriated Rep. Helen Chenoweth, the Republican congressman _ as she prefers to be called _ from the wilder half of Idaho. She compares the timber workers to prey lying down with a predator just before a kill. Chenoweth has vowed to quash the fledgling effort to bring grizzlies back to Idaho, setting up a most unlikely conflict _ with the very people she often claims to speak for.

"They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive animals," she says. "I don't want them at all in Idaho." If people want to see a 1,200-pound omnivore, she says, they can go to a zoo.

What's more, Chenoweth had thought that there was no longer any political reason for timber workers to build a bridge to their old enemies, the environmentalists. For Chenoweth and other politicians who now make the same green-bashing speeches in Congress that they used to make from the backs of pickup trucks, this is supposed to be a time of triumph.

Nearly half of the 73 members of the House freshman class received a zero rating for 1995 from the League of Conservation Voters _ as did Bob Dole, the designated Republican presidential nominee. They never imagined that loggers, of all people, or ranchers or longtime Republicans would try to make the Endangered Species Act work _ just as Congress was trying to bury it.

But that is precisely what is happening, and it is one of the major reasons the class of '94 in the House finds itself in so much trouble.

Besides gutting the Endangered Species Act, the new congressional powers had promised to vanquish the Forest Service; sell public lands; weaken the Clean Water Act; take the regulatory shackles off the mining, timber and grazing industries; open the Alaskan rain forest to more logging, even close some national parks. These ideas had percolated up from the remotest folds of the land, where a handful of people were preaching that environmentalism had brought America to its knees.

They called their movement Wise Use, a term coined by Ron Arnold, a Seattle-area writer and executive director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. For years, the Wise Use leaders had been recirculating like water in a fountain. The same people showed up at the same annual rallies and seminars. With their limited audience and fringe ideas, they often resorted to blunt theatrics, like the hanging in effigy of two home-grown environmentalists in the eastern Oregon town of Joseph, across the Snake River from Chenoweth's district.

That was just before Election Day, however, when the Wise Use agenda became the congressional agenda, even though national polls showed no change in the majority sentiment of Americans favoring strong environmental protections. With the Republican sweep, the outsiders became insiders.

People for the West!, the largest and best-financed of the Wise Use groups, one of whose members strung the noose on Main Street in Joseph, saw six of its people elected to Congress. More important, two of the Wise Use movement's biggest allies _ though not formally members _ took charge of environmental legislation in Congress.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a onetime taxidermist who keeps a grizzly bear rug on the wall of his congressional office, became chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. The first thing he did was drop the word "Natural" from the committee title. Young pronounced himself the "alpha wolf" who would lead a new pack trying to overturn the nation's major laws on public lands, water and wildlife. He called environmentalists a "waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots."

Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, a former exterminator, became House majority whip. He immediately set his sights on an old nemesis of the pest control business, the Environmental Protection Agency, and tried to reduce the funding and regulatory strength of the agency, which he compared to the Gestapo.

A freshman, Wes Cooley, R-Ore., used the same word to describe biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Bills to benefit industries that had pumped a record amount of campaign contributions into the 1994 campaign came flying out of congressional committees.

But just when the Wise Use movement seemed to be at full flood, it hit a wall. Here in the very heart of Chenoweth country _ and in hamlets in Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Nevada and elsewhere _ the very people cast as enemies of the environment are not playing by the script.

"I'm just about as conservative as you can get _ a Gingrich Republican _ and I am absolutely furious at what the party is trying to do with the environment," says Merlin McColm of Elko, Nev., the center of a major mining area.

Like a lot of Westerners, McColm lives for the outdoors. What he does for a living _ operating a ministorage business _ is secondary to what he does after work. On his car is a bumper sticker that reads, "Put the Elk Back in Elko." He is 66, and for the first time in his life he is thinking of voting for a Democrat.

"If you're going to be a conservative, you've got to be a conservative in all areas," McColm says. "The Republicans have made a horrible mistake, an abominable error. When I say this, the party wishes I would go away. But there are a lot of people out here just like me, and we aren't going away."

Initially, it was something of a mystery to McColm why his party _ the party of Theodore Roosevelt, a founding father of American conservation, and Richard Nixon, who signed more environmental laws than any other president _ had suddenly reversed course. But now he has figured it out, and he does not intend to rest until he can steer Republicans back to the green fold.

"They were misled by the zealots," he says.

Throughout last year, the march of the browns, as they sometimes call themselves in defiance, continued in Congress. They tried to establish a commission to close some units of the national park system _ a long-held dream of Chuck Cushman, a Wise Use leader from Battle Ground, Wash. When Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington wanted a bill to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, he had it drafted by lobbyists for the very industries _ mainly aluminum, timber, agriculture and oil _ that had the most to gain financially from a weakened act.

In the past three years, companies and political action committees intent on rolling back environmental laws gave more in congressional campaign donations than any other cluster of interest groups _ $34-million. Initially, it paid off, as the brown revolution raced through Congress.

But back home, in places such as Noxon, Mont., and Cedar City, Utah, little brush fires of opposition had started to flare.

"If anybody says people in rural Utah don't want wilderness, we say prove it," says Valerie Cohen of Cedar City, who started a citizens' group to oppose a large coal mine planned for the southern Utah wilderness by Andalex, a Dutch-owned company.

Last November more than 200 people jammed into a high school gym in Noxon to denounce plans for a big mine planned in the Cabinet Mountains. Noxon is the home of the Militia of Montana, a group that sells videotapes of Chenoweth warning about environmental plots. Most of the fire at the meeting was directed at Asarco, the company that could remove nearly $2-billion of silver and copper without paying anything to the Federal Treasury. In Nevada, McColm found that he was not alone in his anger.

While Republicans in Congress were promoting a bill to virtually eliminate any citizen involvement in the management of federal grazing land, McColm went to court to get ranchers to obey existing laws. Late last year, he won, forcing cattlemen who run livestock on Forest Service land to meet certain environmental standards.

"These ranchers are now talking about a holistic approach to grazing," McColm says, chuckling at the sound of it all. "I mean they know the kind of damage cows do to streams in this arid country. They just needed a nudge. And now the courts have given us a sort of citizens' bill of rights."

The Wise Use crusade is supposed to be about local control, giving land back to the people and handcuffing the regulators. But that assumes the local people share the Wise Use agenda. McColm and the steakhouse gang in Idaho are among the Westerners with something else in mind. And in some cases, they are willing to pay top dollar for it.

When Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., cut off a third of the appropriation to bring wolves back to Yellowstone National Park this year, supporters raised $40,000 to keep the program on schedule. Perhaps as much as half the money, supporters say, came from Republicans.

In New Mexico and Idaho, a handful of local groups have been bidding on public ranch land, willing to pay for the right to keep livestock away for a given period of time. In fact, Congress is finding out that there is no great clamor by the states to take over federal land, as there was during the first Sagebrush Rebellion 20 years ago.

Republicans had expected Eastern elitists or Eddie Bauer Westerners _ the usual targets of ridicule _ to be fighting their anti-environment agenda. But they never expected opposition from rural conservatives. Phil Brick, a professor of politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., conducted a survey of 1,250 voters in the Hell's Canyon area of eastern Oregon, a supposed Wise Use stronghold, in 1994, the year of the Republican sweep. The results astonished him.

In a county where people who call themselves conservatives outnumber liberals by better than four to one, 66 percent of those surveyed said private land development should be restricted even if it harms individual property owners, and 62 percent said the area was too dependent on grazing and timber.

What the survey suggests is that people favor a mainstream environmental agenda even if they despise the latte-lapping, urban-liberal expatriates who espouse it. It is this dynamic that the Republicans failed to grasp after the 1994 elections, Brick says. And that is why they now find their environment-stripping proposals so unpopular, he says.

Then too, with an eye on November, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has got green religion.

"The polling data are overwhelming," Gingrich says. "Most Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement."

Trying to reassure her supporters, Chenoweth gave a long speech on the floor of the House earlier this year, her strongest attack yet on environmentalists.

"There is increasing evidence of a government-sponsored religion in America," she says. "This religion, a cloudy mixture of New Age mysticism, Native American folklore and primitive earth worship _ pantheism _ is being promoted and enforced by the Clinton administration in violation of our rights and jobs."

The speech was somewhat similar to a talk Arnold gave before a group of New Mexico wool growers in 1991. "Environmentalism is a new paganism that worships trees and sacrifices people," he said then.

Arnold has been a big inspiration to Chenoweth. But now Arnold says the congressman from Idaho, his student, has gone too far.

"Is environmentalism a religion?" asks Arnold. "No, of course not. That's nonsense."

New York Times Magazine

Timothy Egan is the Seattle bureau chief for the New York Times.