THE 1998 ‘WILDERNESS MENTORING CONFERENCE’NOTE: Please consider leaving a comment after you’ve read this story. Scroll to the bottom of this page to find the comments section… Thanks. JS
On Memorial Day weekend, 1998 —twenty-five years ago — environmental activists from across the West and the country gathered at a plush resort in the Arizona desert to discuss the future of wilderness. They weren’t there to talk about its intrinsic values; they were there to talk politics. For years, the environmental community had pushed the idea of congressionally designated wilderness, but had made little progress. Now leaders of the movement, frustrated by their lack of success, proposed new strategies to accomplish their goals. What came out of that gathering forever changed the heart and soul of that movement. As environmentalists moved to implement these ideas, the meeting itself and the conclusions they reached, went practically unnoticed. In Moab, where this publication was still in its first decade, I could see the changes, years before I learned about the Rex Ranch conference, and discovered the root cause.
Mark Twain once said, “If you’re young and conservative, you haven’t got a heart.” But he added, “If you’re old and liberal, you haven’t got a brain.” When I first read that, I was 25 and had no idea what he was talking about. And I’m still not sure I agree completely. But for sure, I can acknowledge that many of my most deeply held beliefs were molded by emotion and by the inflexible, intolerant self-righteousness that only young people can be molded by. And so, when I was in my early twenties, I saw everything through a black and white lens; there was no room in my head for nuance, or gray zones, or self-reflection. I became the kind of knee-jerk environmentalist that most “anti-environmentalists” love to hate. I joined all the right organizations, wholeheartedly supported every cause and walked in lock-step with my enviro pals. But by the time I started The Zephyr, almost 35 years ago, I began to realize that my opinions were set more deeply in concrete than they had the right to be; in the first issue of this publication, I stated my intent to offer all sides of the debate– to provide a broad spectrum of ideas. A forum for differing points of view. . But while I think I stayed true to that pledge, it was always clear where my loyalties were. I gave the local environmental group almost unlimited space and free ads in The Zephyr to present their points of view. They, in turn, promoted my little rag as “the greatest newspaper in the world.” I was quite flattered. Many thought The Zephyr was the print arm of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Then in the late 90s, it all started to feel different to me. As the tourist boom/urbanization of Moab and the Rural West exploded, I began to doubt the purity of our cause. More than two decades ago, I decided to express those concerns, as “Industrial Tourism” and the “Amenities Economy” began to lay waste to the very land we sought to preserve. I thought it was time we looked in the mirror. I dedicated the April 2001 issue to that very topic; it was the cover story. I expected a healthy discussion, with input from all sides, and with the goal of finding a workable strategy to move forward. . But instead, and to my surprise, I encountered deep resistance. In fact, it was worse than that. None of my green friends wanted to talk about these kinds of impacts. When I pursued the matter, they thought it was heresy—the discomfort turned to anger and then loathing. I went from ally to enemy in a matter of a couple years. And so, my lockstep days were over. Since then, the “wilderness” issue has devolved into a political and economic debacle. It has been fueled by massive amounts of money and influenced by powerful men and women who, on first sight. might have seemed like odd allies to the wilderness cause. For me, the moral component in the wilderness fight was lost.
But why? What changed? At the outset, I had been more an idealist than a realist and I was never equipped to play the role of politician/dealmaker. Still, both then and now, the effort to preserve dwindling wilderness lands was always supposed to be, in my heart and soul at least, a moral and ethical issue. If there was a political/economic component to be exploited, I never felt it should be the driving force behind “the Cause.” As we approached the Millennium, the changes in the wilderness strategy was different –palpable — but I couldn’t pinpoint its origins — if there was one. But from where I stood, the “crusade” to save wilderness had gradually become a sales pitch. In Utah, the economic component of wilderness became a prominent, if not the defining reason for passing a wilderness bill. I remember reading and being troubled by a cover story in the SUWA magazine —they called it “Wilderness Economics 101,” and praised tourism as the ultimate “clean solution” to the rural west’s economic issues. Suddenly, the idea of wilderness in its purest form, and the legislative process to create wilderness diverged. I found myself on the outside, looking into a “movement” that I no longer recognized. It was never the same for me again and I couldn’t understand where they (or I) had gone astray. I noticed that SUWA and other groups were trying to build coalitions with tourist and recreation-based businesses. Lists of business supporters of the Red Rock Wilderness Bill appeared frequently. Even when one business owner started running illegal backcountry, off trail tours in Arches National Park, none of the local green groups could muster an objection. I aske questions but I couldn’t get a straight answer. The tourism/recreation industry began to take off in southeast Utah. I was flummoxed. But then one evening, an unexpected discovery popped up on my computer screen. As much and as often as I loathe the internet, the medium does have its moments. Despite its overarching banality, it also has the potential to provide information that might otherwise be buried by the passage of time and the lack of access to the long-passed facts.
I was Googling—just typing in names and organizations and places–to see what I might find. I typed in “wilderness” and “marketing.” What appeared on my screen was a complete surprise to me. What it revealed to me answered my years old question — What in the hell is happening?
I had stumbled upon a website called “The Wilderness Mentoring Conference of 1998.” The gathering had been assembled by a group of self-proclaimed “mentors,” professional environmentalists, active at the time, in organizations that reached from Washington DC to Alaska. This relative handful of New Environmentalists was frustrated by the movement’s lack of progress in pushing and passing wilderness legislation across the country.
And so, On Memorial Day Weekend in 1998, according to the document that summarizes this event, “sixty-three people active in (or suffering a tenuous retirement from) wilderness advocacy met at the Rex Ranch in Amado, Arizona, for the first Wilderness Mentoring Conference.” It included participants from national and regional environmental organizations coast-to-coast, including The Sierra Club, Montana Wilderness Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and National Audubon Society. And it included representatives of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), including its then-Executive Director, Mike Matz. Matz would also preside over the conference as one of its mentors.
SEE COMPLETE LIST OF PARTICIPANTS https://web.archive.org/web/20160303101800/http://www.jmccomb.com/mentor/participants.htm The report of the gathering–the post mortem—was called “Building a Successful Wilderness Campaign: Lessons from the 1998 Wilderness Mentoring Conference.” It brought together, the introduction explained, “the last generation of ‘closers,’ those who know how to take an idea and run with it all the way to the president’s desk, with a new generation of eager, thoughtful wilderness advocates. The younger generation was encouraged to think critically and to identify strategies, tools, and tactics for developing and leading successful wilderness campaigns.” THE WILDERNESS MENTORING CONFERENCE AT WORK
A prominently displayed quote by Michael Carroll, later of The Wilderness Society, established the tone and direction of all that would come later:
“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.” That, in its most succinct essence, was the theme of the conference. While the organizers of the event paid tribute to the wilderness activists who had come before, clearly the purpose of the meeting was to propose a new approach.
“Although it is important to pioneer new wilderness strategies,” the report explained almost as an afterthought, “we must do so with knowledge of what has come before.” With that token nod to the “importance of history” and to the “philosophical and political contexts” of the wilderness movement, the conference explored the new territories of salesmanship, marketing and media manipulation to win the legislative wilderness battle. One might think you were being taught how to sell a new Buick. The conference offered a plethora of ideas. Among them: Hire a professional consultant. Build a portfolio that contains your media clips.Create relationships with reporters. Don’t wait for reporters to come to you. Use smart lobbying skills when you speak to them If you can, give them tips about good stories elsewhere. They’ll appreciate it, remember you, and come back to you.Widen your availability. Don’t just aim for newspaper coverage. Talk to local radio show hosts and see if they can interview you. Videotape your congressional co-sponsor. Use “Presponse.” Call the media before you stage an event. Hold a press conference. Anyone or any group can call a press conference. The trick is to have a hook that will attract the media. NOTE: You can view the entire “Mentoring Conference Report. At one point the site vanished but my former wife, Tonya Morton, was able to use her remarkable skills to find a cached copy.https://web.archive.org/web/20160303112636/http://www.jmccomb.com/mentor/
(I also copied most of the report to a Zephyr link, on the off chance that the story was deleted at a later date. Here is the link to the transcribed story…) The conference explored the differences between a “defensive” and “offensive” campaign and it examined the fine art of lobbying both the executive and legislative branches of government. And most importantly, it emphasized: “Understand and use the media.” They could not have put a finer or more meticulous point on it… “When you are learning to cook up a campaign, media are an essential utensil. In addition to using media strategically, you need to know how to market your cause effectively once there.” Among its more important points:
* Get people’s attention. Use an unexpected messenger to get your message across. Do something unexpected and unique. Gimmicks can be very effective for capturing people’s attention… * Use a catchy slogan. Use alliteration or a clever rhyme to make a slogan stick in people’s head. For example, many years ago, the line, “Don’t be a litterbug,” made people more aware of their littering habits. * Appeal to people’s interests. Use marketing to let people know how a certain initiative will help them in particular. For example, get families’ attention by talking about their children’s future. * Deliver your message using an unexpected source. Increase your credibility by asking a hunter or rancher to deliver a message of support to Congress or the media * Ask experts to endorse your “product.” Ask a scientist, a geologist, or any pertinent expert to help market your campaign. Maybe they will let you quote them or refer to them in an article or ad. * Develop a spokesperson. Get people used to a recognizable, quotable, and believable spokesperson. If Joe Movie Star thinks saving the wilderness is a good idea and is vocal about it, his support might be enough to convince some people to back you. Who is a local hero in your city or town? Might he or she be willing to support your cause? * Use other products to sell wilderness. Note the byproducts of protected wilderness, such as clean air, clean water, and pristine places to visit and enjoy. * Contrast real wilderness with fake wilderness. Show how much better the real thing is than Disney or cyberspace, for example. * Take back your leaders’ quotes. Many companies that don’t seem to have the best interests of wilderness in mind, such as ATV manufacturers, often cleverly use quotes of well-known wilderness advocates to sell their products. Use quotes (e.g., John Muir’s) in a context that supports saving wilderness. * Make it funny. People like humor. Make good-natured jokes about anti-wilderness initiatives. People also like the possibility of good times. Show people having fun in the wilderness. This was the Rosetta Stone. Until I stumbled upon the web site, I had never heard of the conference; nor did I know that my Utah friends had participated in it. Nor did I know that SUWA’s executive director was one of its mentors. This is the moment where my friends in the wilderness movement in Utah took a sudden turn in a direction I had not even remotely imagined possible. The ‘why’ part had been answered. THE MENTORING CONFERENCE of 1998— AT PLAYNOTE: These photos were found on an ancient website; they were originally posted in 1998. At one point the link vanished but we were able to find a cached copy.
“Gimmicks…Catchy slogans…ask a rancher to support you…get Joe movie star as a spokesman…Cleverly quote John Muir…Ask experts to endorse your ‘product.’…Show people having fun in the wilderness.”
It all came to pass. Particularly ironic was the mentors’ admonition, “Contrast real wilderness with fake wilderness. Show how much better the real thing is than Disney or cyberspace.” Since this was written, many of us have lamented the Disneyfication of wilderness. What better example than Moab’s latest incarnation as the overhyped “Adventure Capital of the World, home of swing lines and zip lines and slack lines and every adrenalin-fueled recreational experience imaginable. The Mentors must be proud. But what this conference created and what their report reveals is that, not only did the mentor gathering give its collective blessing to an all-out Disneyfication of Wilderness, its embrace of the strategies set forth in 1998 established the Disneyfication of the wilderness PROCESS as well. This is when and where the heart and soul of the wilderness movement died. To put together an event like the Wilderness Mentoring Conference would have been an expensive proposition, even in 1998, especially at Rex Ranch Resort and Spa, in Amado, Arizona (south of Tucson). Funding the travel costs of 63 people from around the country should have been a daunting task. But the event had plenty of backing from some very deep pockets. REI, (Recreational Equipment, Inc.)( which had recently put future Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on its board of directors, was a contributor. So were two mega-wealthy board members from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance—Bert Fingerhut and Hansjorg Wyss.
At the same time Wyss and Fingerhut were engineering a dramatic shift in SUWA’s wilderness strategy, it was injecting millions of dollars into SUWA’s coffers, turning it from the bare-bones grassroots organization it had been, into a cash-flushed “business” with brand new offices and a million dollar payroll.
That was a quarter century ago. The “new leaders” of the mainstream environmental movement were sure that the passage of the Red Rock Wilderness Bill was just around the corner, but so far, all that cash and all that flash has not served them well. A massive 10 million acre wilderness bill seems no closer to passage than it did 20 years ago. Instead, whether it was their active participation and partnership with some of the richest and most powerful industrialists and financiers and private equity gurus on the planet, or their more recent ties to the recreation industry, mainstream environmentalists became willing players in the urbanization of the rural west; and threatened to turn all of it into the Disneyland that they themselves once feared. For me, it has been one of the most shocking and troubling examples of integrity gone bad, and good intentions soiled, that I’ve ever seen. Many of the billionaires I mentioned served and still sit on the boards of many environmental organizations. Even after a couple of them went to prison for securities fraud in 2007, they served light terms and when released, at least one of them, Bert Fingerhut, returned to his duties as a Grand Canyon Trust board member…and its legal advisor. ***** For years, I was unaware of the Mentoring Conference. My efforts to understand the change in strategy went unanswered by the executive directors and even lower level staffers, who failed to see a problem with any of this. In 2007, I wrote an essay for Writers on the Range called “SUWA Can You Spare a Dime.” It appeared in High Country News and was syndicated to numerous daily and weekly periodicals across the West. I noted that at the time, SUWA had net assets of over $5 million. And while I acknowledged their aggressive watchdog role keeping an eye on the extractive industries and OHV abuse, they seemed to spend next to nothing on the impacts of tourism and recreation.
When the story ran in the Salt Lake Tribune, SUWA’s executive director, Scott Groene, demanded rebuttal space from Betsy Marston, the Writers on the Range editor. But when it arrived, she found the article so steeped in anger and vitriol that she asked Groene to remove them; she advised Groene to re-write his essay, without the nasty stuff, and re-submit. But he never did. Instead, he found a sympathetic editor at the Salt Lake Tribune who would print the story “as is.” It was a doozey. In part, Groene wrote: “Part of a desert country’s magic is that it nourishes eccentricity,” Groene explained. ” Jim is part of that, our own Barney Fife. He’s worth having around though, even if we have to clean up after him now and again. “Typically enough, Jim’s rant says less about SUWA than about Jim’s own curious little world. As its only resident, he’s in charge. He gets not only his own opinion but his own facts.” The Tribune permitted me a few lines to respond in its “Letters” section. “Now that I have had the gall,” I wrote, “to disagree with some of SUWA’s strategies and to suggest that it might want to share even a fraction of its $5 million bankroll with other enviro groups, I appear to be in the doghouse. And with Barney Fife no less.” More importantly, I recalled the words of Edward R. Murrow, who wrote, “ ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” But there was no comment from SUWA. Not then and not now. ***** Recently I looked up SUWA’s tax returns for the most recent year available, 2021. SUWA had called its $5 million largess a “rainy day fund.” That was in 2006. Fifteen years later, their assets have jumped to $25,303,976. In fact their net assets increased by almost $6 million, from just the previous year— more than their total assets in 2006. (For comparison, The Zephyr had a net profit of less than $7000 last year…you sure can’t say I’m in this for the money.)
Most environmental groups continue to bewilder me as I get older and start looking for facts to support ideas. While these groups have never seen an oil and gas project, or a uranium mine that they didn’t hate and want to bury, they enthusiastically support renewable energy as the answer to climate change concerns. They love solar and wind, for example, and they love electric cars. But at the same time, these same organizations will oppose and try to derail any project to extract the rare earth minerals that are absolutely necessary for renewables to work. Cobalt. Lithium. Even copper is needed, in massive quantities, to generate the kind of renewable energy our 21st century consumer society demands. To put a finer point on it, in order for the amenities/tourism economy to work, consumption needs to keep growing, at a rate that we all know is, sooner or later, unsustainable. But you’ll never ever hear the conservation movement talk about such blasphemies. If I can fall back on my favorite Wendell Berry quote, many years ago, he admonished environmentalists. He wrote:
“…this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience….To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers.” Perfect. Now, as the year 2023 comes to a close, we need to ask ourselves, have the efforts of these environmental organizations, flush with cash and eager to mold the West in its preferred image, done anything substantial to “protect” the wilderness? Just look around you. Look at the rural west now, compared to even a decade ago. I’ve come to realize that “extractive industries” aren’t confined to coal and oil and uranium. The New West, to me at least, is extracting its very soul. What do you think?
Jim Stiles is the publisher and editor of The Zephyr. Still “hopelessly clinging to the past since 1989.” Though he spent 40 years living in the canyon country of southeast Utah, Stiles now resides with two cats, Rambo & Rascal, on the Great Plains. Coldwater, Kansas is a tiny farm and ranch community, where there are no tourists.He can be reached via facebook. Messenger, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTO COMMENT ON THIS STORY, PLEASE SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE