Tracing the ‘Endless War’ on Environmentalists Back to the War in the Woods

No one admits to recording Richard Berman’s address to a room full of energy executives in Colorado Springs in June 2014, but it’s an eye-opener.

One unnamed industry executive recorded Berman’s remarks and was offended by them. He provided a copy of the recording and the meeting agenda to the New York Times. DeSmog picked up the story the following day.

If the oil and gas industry is going to prevent environmental opponents from slowing down its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to use dirty tricks, Berman told the executives, whose companies specialize in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

At least four companies with Canadian fracking operations were in Berman’s audience — Devon Energy, Encana Oil and Gas, Ensign Energy Services and Newalta.

“Fear and anger have to be part of the campaign,” he said. “You got to get people fearful of what’s on the table” (what they might lose if environmentalists win) “and then you got to get people angry over the fact they are being misled” (by environmental groups).

Energy executives need to “think of this as an endless war,” he cautioned. “And you have to budget for it,” he warned, as he made a pitch for $3 million to run ads attacking environmentalists in a campaign he calls “Big Green Radicals.”[view:in_this_series=block_1]

Berman is founder and chief executive of Berman and Co., a Washington-based consulting firm that sets up non-profit front groups to attack unions, public-health advocates and consumer, safety, animal welfare and environmental groups.

He admitted that people are always asking him, “How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?” His reply was designed to reassure. “We run all of this stuff through non-profit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for some 20 years now.”

TransCanada’s Dirty War in Canada

Too bad the Edelman PR agency couldn’t guarantee the same anonymity to its client, TransCanada Corp., in its campaign to discredit critics of its proposed Energy East pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to refineries and export terminals on the Atlantic coast.

Documents released by Greenpeace Canada in November 2014 reveal a plan much more ambitious (and likely many times more costly) than Berman’s Big Green Radicals. But the framing is similar; where Berman says “Think of this as an endless war,” Edelman says “It is critical to play offence … We are running a perpetual campaign.”

The plans call for mobilizing 35,000 supporters (in the works), setting up an online hub (accomplished), extensive advertising (happening), researching the pipeline’s opponents (in the works), and recruiting allies and third-party voices (not known).

A week after the documents were made public, TransCanada cancelled its contract with Edelman, its anonymity blown. It’s not known who took over for Edelman, but someone has to do it — the war must go on.

An Anti-Environment History

The endless war began in 1962 when Bruce Harrison, then “manager of environmental information” for the Manufacturing Chemists Association, masterminded the industry’s campaign to discredit Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book that raised the alarm that DDT and other pesticides were poisoning wildlife and endangering human health.

In their campaign to discredit Carson, Harrison and his colleagues, PR executives from Shell, DuPont, Dow and Monsanto, used the emerging practice of “crisis management,” which has been described as a mélange of “emotional appeals, scientific misinformation, front groups, extensive mailings to the media and opinion leaders, and the recruitment of doctors and scientists as ‘objective’ third-party defenders of agrichemicals.”

Substitute online hubs, Twitter and Facebook for extensive mailings and you have the blueprint for today’s campaigns.

Everything else remains the same.

Carson died of cancer two years later; Harrison went on to become a general in the endless war as a leading light in anti-environmental PR.

The war crossed the Canadian border in the late 1980s to attack environmentalists who were resisting clear-cut logging of B.C.’s old-growth forests. Inspiration for this ten-year-long campaign, dubbed “War in the Woods,” came from the Bellevue, Washington-based Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, whose name says it all.

The centre was funded by oil, chemical and timber companies, including B.C.-based MacMillan Bloedel, whose logging of pristine old-growth forests on the west coast of Vancouver Island was attracting growing opposition.

Leading the counter-attack were the centre’s Allan Gottlieb and Ron Arnold. Gottlieb was a fundraiser for conservative causes while Arnold was the strategist, like Rick Berman adept at setting up front groups. They created the “wise use movement,” a medley of industry groups held together by two principles: private property rights should have primacy over the public interest, and access to public lands for resource use and exploitation should be unrestricted.

Arnold liked “wise use” as a label for the movement: it is short and fits into a newspaper headline, and it is ambiguous enough to mean just about anything. But behind the soothing ambiguity is the iron fist. In his book, Ecology Wars, Arnold wrote, “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement” — total war, in other words.

In 1988, Gottlieb and Arnold brought 250 groups to Reno, Nevada, to start a movement that would oppose the environmental movement. MacMillan Bloedel flew some executives and the mayors of Port Alberni and Port McNeil to the conference to listen to speeches about how to do battle with “preservationists.”

As Arnold told the timber industry:

“The public is completely convinced that when you speak as an industry, you are speaking out of nothing but self-interest. The pro-industry citizen activist group is the answer to these problems. It can be an effective and convincing advocate for your industry. It can utilize powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtue of the close-knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller… And it can turn the public against your enemies… I think you’ll find it one of your wisest investments over time.”

He recommended that Canadian timber executives organize grass-roots organizations that could be “an effective and convincing advocate for your industry.”

“Screw The Environment. We Need Jobs”

The executives and mayors went back to B.C. with a plan to draw the residents of resource towns into the fray. A year after the Reno Wise Use conference, a “coalition of people whose livelihoods depend on trees” held a provincial conference to launch a grassroots campaign to oppose the environmental campaign. Logger Mike Morton, an alderman in Ucluelet, a Vancouver Island logging town, stepped up as a spokesman.

Morton became chairman of Share the Clayoquot Society and the following year, executive director of Share BC, an umbrella organization for 22 local “share our forest” and “share our resources” groups (“share” meaning preserve a small portion of the land and “manage” the rest) set up by the forest industry.

Forest executives were able to turn the disaffection of rural and resource industry workers, farmers and small business people into anti-environmental sentiment. Woodworkers were losing their jobs, but not because of the actions of environmentalists. They needed to look to their employers, who were replacing thousands of workers with automated equipment and exporting raw logs instead of processing them in the province.

Environmental opposition built to a climax in the summer of 1993, when 850 people were arrested for blockading a road used by MacMillan Bloedel in its logging operations in Clayoquot Sound. It was billed as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Eight months later, in March 1994, 20,000 woodworkers and residents of timber-dependent towns massed on the B.C. legislature lawn to decry a B.C. government-commissioned land-use proposal for Vancouver Island that would protect 13 percent of the island’s land base. “Screw the Environment. We Need Jobs,” their signs read.

Labeled the “yellow ribbon campaign,” it was Share’s crowning achievement.

After eight years leading Share, Mike Morton had a new job as director of communications for the BC Liberal caucus. When the Liberals under Gordon Campbell won the 2001 election, Morton became director of communications for the premier, a post he retained after Christy Clark became premier.

By then the war in the woods was over but the war in the Alberta oilsands and in B.C.'s mines was well underway. 

Image Credit: Screenshot of an image of environmentalist Bill McKibben from a "Big Green Radicals" video by the Richard Berman-connected Enviromental Policy Alliance

Donald is an author and adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has studied the…

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