People for the West! (PFW!), which became People for the USA! before being disbanded in 2001 in the face of declining membership and funding, used the term multiple use rather than wise use and described itself as “a non profit, grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the traditional multiple use of Western and Midwestern public lands.” It was one of the largest, best financed and most powerful of the Wise Use groups with a claimed grass roots membership of 18,000 including “farmers, ranchers, oilmen, miners, timber workers, recreationists, elected officials and people from all walks of life.”
PFW was funded by mining companies and petroleum companies who wanted cheap and easy access to resources. In 1991 its funding came from almost two hundred companies including $1.6 million from the mining industry. Its 13 member board of directors included 12 mining company executives. PFW! organizers tended to downplay their industry connections and portray themselves as a genuine grass roots organisation concerned about local issues.
PFW! was formed by John Wilson, head of the Western States Public Lands Coalition and Chief Executive Officer of mining corporation, Pegasus Gold. Its original aim was to fight a proposal to repeal an old law (the 1872 Mining Law) which enables mining companies that have found mineral deposits to buy up public land for between $2.50 and $5.00 an acre. The law was established at a time when mining exploration was generally the work of pick-axe prospectors. It was intended to encourage them by giving them cheap rights to mine on federal lands.
In present times the Mining Law prevents tax payers from recouping some of the benefits of the minerals found on public land by large mining companies and enables those companies to make huge profits selling the land, when they have finished with it, at market rates. Nor are there any provisions in the law for cleaning up land polluted with mining wastes before it is sold off. In 1991 an industry financed poll found that 82 per cent of those surveyed believed that mining companies should have to pay royalties on what they extracted and rehabilitate the sites of their activity. As a result of this finding the “polsters cautioned the industry not to debate the mining law in public forums.” PFW! enables the industry to put its views in the name of the concerned citizens.
PFW! didn’t baulk at using the tactics of the environment movement. It had copied the exclamation mark of Earth First! and its logo had striking similarities with the logo of Citizen’s Clearing House of Hazardous Waste. It used the environmentalist strategy of grassroots organising. It collected signatures on petitions in rural minority communities by knocking on doors and organises letter writing events and large numbers of telephone calls on short notice. It’s members visited and lobbied mayors and county commissioners as well as lobbying government by picketing government buildings and testifying at public hearings.
Its grassroots organising was aided by industry funding and support. PFW! managed to have a big grass-roots showing at the congressional hearing on mining law reform in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by arranging for at least one company to bus employees there from around the state and for school children to wave placards. PFW! argued that repeal of the 1872 law would destroy families and communities. Reform of the Mining Law was successfully stopped in September 1994.
PFW!s aim broadened from mining. It organised grassroots groups in grazing, logging and mining communities and was responsible for dozens of local groups in various states. Like other Wise Use groups it gained members by appealing to their fears. “They seek out the aggrieved and disenfranchised. Whenever there is a mill closing, for whatever reason, PFW is there directing people’s anxieties and fears toward the convenient scapegoat of the environment movement.”
One foreboding PFW! pamphlet warned that if mining, grazing or logging were restricted, “people will lose jobs, rural communities will become ghost towns, education for our children will suffer and state and local governments will forfeit critical income for police, fire protection, roads and services.”
PFW! was involved in the fight to oppose an environmental protection plan for the Greater Yellowstone Area, which covers three state jurisdictions. PFW! became part of the Yellowstone Regional Citizens Coalition, a coalition of 40 “commodity, multiple-use, recreation, and local government groups” including the Montana Mining Association, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Multiple-Use land Alliance and Montana Wood Products Association.
This coalition of industry and interest groups produced letters, leaflets, press releases and organised a grass-roots campaign against the proposed plan. Environmentalists claim they whipped up emotions at rallies and grossly overstated the proposed changes in their literature in an attempt to frighten people into opposing them. This they did successfully and the government bureaucrats mostly backed down from their original commitments “leaving environmentalists to battle industry and other opponents of the Vision document while the agencies sat in judgement.” The final document was so watered down that the word ‘vision’ had been left out of its title.