Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The orca killers

Just as surely as it made good sense for government scientists to declare an endangered species listing for Puget Sound orcas, you could also predict the reaction from right-wing business interests, who would "inform us sternly that there are plenty of orcas in the world, so this population doesn't really need protecting. And besides, the new restrictions are costing us jobs, and Americans more oil for their SUVs. And a few hundred other phony talking points designed to let the orcas go extinct here."

Sure enough, the battle lines are being drawn along these parameters. Last week, the P-I's Lisa Stiffler reported on the opposition to the listing from exactly the corporate interests expected:
But this month, the Building Industry Association of Washington filed a 60-day notice declaring their intent to sue to the government for that decision.

"It's an unlawful listing," said Tim Harris, an attorney with the group.

The association, which works to limit taxes and regulations, is concerned that making the orcas endangered will result in severe restrictions on the development and use of property on or near the Sound.

The notice states that because there are other orcas in the region -- including Alaska, the Bering Sea and Russia -- the local killer whales don't merit special protection.

"You can almost say any individual school of fish can be listed," Harris said.

This is, of course, nothing but malignant misinformation. The ESA provides protection for distinct populations like the resident Puget Sound orcas. Some quick facts, just to make plain the BIAW's mendacity:
-- The Southern Resident population of killer whales comprises some 90 orcas, divided into three pods, designated J, K, and L. One of these pods, J pod (with 24 members), resides in these waters year-around. The other two pods, K pod (21 members) and L Pod (45 members) spend their winters in open Pacific west of British Columbia.

-- This population is genetically and culturally distinct from the "transient" killer whale population that travels the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska, as well as other resident populations in British Columbia and Alaska.

-- The transients in particular are quite distinct: while residents appear to be strictly fish eaters (the vast majority of their diet being salmon), transients appear to be strictly mammal eaters, feasting particularly on seals and sea lions.

-- The languages that residents and transients, respectively, use are so distinct as to scarcely even resemble the other. Likewise, behavioral observation makes clear that the two populations strive to avoid each other

-- Genetic studies have established that there has been no interaction between the two populations for at least 300,000 years, and perhaps longer. The Southern Residents, in fact, are completely isolated genetically.

-- The chief threat to the orcas' survival as a viable population comes from the lack of salmon -- the causes of which center mostly around rampant development and the concomitant destruction of their habitat, particularly the streambeds in which they spawn.

-- Other threats to the orcas also emanate from industrial activity and development, including the toxins that are dribbled steadily into Puget Sound waters. Orcas' bodies are so laden with these toxins that when one dies and washes up on a beach, it has to be treated as a toxic spill and disposed of by an emergency response team.

Facts matter little to organizations like the BIAW. Their ability to ensure that developers have as few restrictions as possible in bringing pavement to every corner of the state is all that counts.

Even if, in the end, every last orca simply vanishes from these waters. If the BIAW has its way, that outcome is not just predictable, it's guaranteed.

It may be a death by a thousand cuts, slow and incremental. But groups like the BIAW are killing orcas just as certainly as someone out hunting them with guns.

The right wing's big gorilla

The Building Industry Association of Washington is an organization that not only is ruthless to the point of consciencelessness, it also has become an extraordinarily significant player in Washington state politics. They are, in fact, one of the most powerful funders of the conservative movement's agenda here.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they also boast a history of dalliances with (and underwriting of) right-wing extremism, particularly the Patriot/militia movement of the 1990s.

The BIAW was perhaps best noted in the 2004 election for underwriting and driving the gubernatorial campaign of Republican nominee Dino Rossi, and was one of the chief financiers of his misbegotten challenge to the election of Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.

They're also gearing up to run Rossi against Gregoire again in 2008. Some enterprising reporter should, between now and then, ask Rossi where he stands on orca preservation.

Meanwhile, as David Goldstein pointed out, the BIAW also heavily financed the eventually successful campaign of an industry lawyer and lobbyist named Jim Johnson to win election to the state Supreme Court.

With that win under their belt, the BIAW plans to finance a slate of candidates for next year's Washington State Supreme Court races -- a plan that could place the court essentially in their pocket. Already, there's a great deal of concern over this development and its ramifications for the historical independence of the Supreme Court, since the course for any justices elected this way is fraught with real conflicts of interest.

If you want a look at what the future holds as far as BIAW-backed candidates go, take a gander at Stephen Johnson, who has already announced his candidacy.

It's especially worth noting that a source of the BIAW's revenue stream -- and thus of their power -- is their bellying up to the taxpayer trough via a municipal employees' industrial insurance fund that they operate.

A dark history

If you go back even farther, though, you can find an even darker side to the BIAW. As Jay Taber at Skookumgeoduck has explained at some length, the BIAW has been involved in some of the ugliest political organizing in Washington state, including the formation of militias back in the early 1990s.

During this time, Taber also worked with my old friend Paul deArmond, who compiled an exhaustive record of this activity at his Public Good Special Reports site. DeArmond was recording in detail many of the same events I was observing and reporting on as a newspaper reporter back then.

What we saw happening was, in response to the state's passage of a Growth Management Act in 1990, a bevy of so-called "grass-roots" reactionary movements who were actually being underwritten and organized by a network of industry organizations, with the BIAW in a lead role. These movements ran the gamut from "property rights" groups to county-secession efforts to antitax agitation to anti-New World Order militia organizing, all under the larger umbrella of "Wise Use."

Samantha Sanchez in The American Prospect described how these dynamics played a key role in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994:
When one environmental group, 1000 Friends of Washington, finally succeeded in putting a land-use measure on the ballot in 1990, the developers met the challenge. An alliance of corporate interests--not just timber companies but also such corporations as Boeing, Darigold, and U.S. West--spent nearly $1.8 million on advertising and grassroots organizing to block the measure, which promised to affect both real estate and logging. Groups such as the Washington Contract Loggers Association organized rallies of angry timber workers; the American Pulpwood Association provided public speaking and lobbying training to potential activists. Meanwhile, the development interests poured more than $2.5 million into the campaign coffers of state legislature candidates; nearly 70 percent of that money went to eventual winners and much of it was directed at a group of 20 candidates particularly friendly to industry.

The industry coalition won their initiative fight, but ironically their failure to dislodge a Democratic legislature gave the environmentalists an opportunity to achieve through legislation what they could not through the ballot measure. Sure enough, the legislature adopted a growth management act while defeating four property rights bills--three dealing with wetlands and one takings measure--that had strong industry backing.

But the story does not end there. Heavy lobbying had already neutered some of the act's more ambitious provisions anyway: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that developer pressure frightened the legislature into cutting $4.5 million from the program's funding and stripping some key provisions. Now, the industry groups concentrated on organizing at the county level, where the planning would actually take place. Organizations such as the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance began to crop up and make their presence known at local meetings. The Snohomish group billed itself as "a grassroots group concerned about environmental regulation" while taking money from construction interests, such as the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Jim Klauser, the director of Seattle Master Builders, became the alliance's director.

Klauser is the chief figure in this activity; until recently he remained associated with the BIAW by sitting on its Legal Trust Committee. Klauser ran one of the BIAW's major subgroups, the Master Builders Association of King County, and the Snohomish County office of the BIAW just north of Seattle.

He also founded an organization called the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance, which became a front for militia organizing and other far-right activity, which deArmond describes thus:
The next property-rights group to appear was the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance, known as SNOCO PRA. In the summer of 1990, Jeannette Burrage of the Northwest Legal Foundation represented them in an assault on a Snohomish critical areas ordinance. The standard Wise Use strategy for preserving developers' subsidies and tax advantages: protest, lawsuit, referendum, lawsuit, election, lawsuit. SNOCO PRA hired Terre Harris as a political consultant to run a referendum campaign to take most of the starch out of the ordinance. By October 1990, Harris announced that SNOCO PRA had enough signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. A complex series of legal maneuvers began that would ultimately lead to Snohomish County suing the PRA members over the referendum campaign, a lawsuit which would not be settled by the Supreme Court until January 27, 1994.24,28

SNOCO PRA's executive director, Jim Klauser, had two interesting connections. First of all, he was on the board of the Northwest Legal Foundation. Secondly, like Harris, he had been an official with the Master Builders Association, their president.

A March 4, 1993 letter from Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (associated with National Assn. of Home Builders) stated that "While we have worked within the governmental process, we have also supported the formation and development of a strong property rights movement in Snohomish County. We've provided major funding to these efforts, which are more sophisticated than any other county in Washington. ...The county wide policies themselves, later this spring, may be the subject of a referendum campaign. This depends on the outcome of litigation between county elected officials and citizens who have filed a referendum to repeal the policies." The letter is signed by Mike Echelbarger, MBA President and Rick Lennon, MBA First Vice President. Klauser's later activities with the Washington Property Rights Network would underscore the important role of the development industry in creating the property rights organizations in Puget Sound.

One of SNOCO PRA's leaders was a fellow named Ben Sams, who organized an "anti-New World Order" militia meeting in Maltby, Wash. The keynote speaker at the meeting was a fellow from the Militia of Montana named Bob Fletcher, who displayed maps describing a planned United Nations takeover of the northern Cascades region. [It was in fact the first militia meeting I ever attended; I describe it a bit more here.]

As Paul recalled in an e-mail:
The dynamics were like this:

1) The GMA triggered a backlash because county governments had to pass critical areas ordinances. Klauser starts a "property rights" group -- Snohomish Co Property Rights Alliance. This is a spinoff of a previous "umbrella" group called the Washington Property Rights Network. WPRN has Arnold's fingerprints all over it, but I was never able to get specific proof of his involvment except through Klauser.

2) Klauser sent out a letter to the MBA claiming credit for setting up property rights front groups -- this being the most damning evidence of BIA involvement and clearly establishing all the the "property rights" groups as fronts.

3) The property rights groups got exposed to the Catron strategy of local sovereignty through the National Federal Lands Conference (Ron Arnold is one of their board of advisors). The NFLC had all sorts of tenuous links to [the racist and anti-Semitic] Posse Comitatus -- mostly because they were all birds of the same Far Right feather in the Southwest. Some of these connect back directly to William Potter Gale and his Committee of the States tax resistance nonsense.

4) Klauser and Stokes (working through SNOCO PRA) start Freedom and Skykomish secession groups inside of SNOCOPRA. There is 100% overlap, which is to say that the secession groups were subsets of the property rights stuff.

5) Skip Richards [a Whatcom County activist] immediately copies the secession groups in Whatcom with Pioneer and Independence county groups. Likewise, the (King County) Property Rights Alliance started up Cedar County. Again, key players were previous partners with [Wise Use founders Alan] Gottlieb and [Ron] Arnold, especially Ted Cowan.

6) All of the county secession groups are heavily interlinked with Posse and Christian Patriots. The major characters are Ben Hinkle in Whatcom and Ben Sams in Snohomish. Sams was part of John Trochmann's "United for Justice" group that Trochmann formed during the Weaver standoff. So the secession groups were also being used for militia recruiting.

Klauser's chief partner in organizing the Snohomish County secessionists was a local rabble-rouser named John Stokes, who ran an organization called the Freedom County Committee. Stokes later claimed he had gathered enough signatures to force a secession vote, but he vamoosed to Montana at about this time and the signatures were not submitted for several more months; when they finally were, the numbers validated didn't come close to meeting the requirement.

Of course, Stokes has continued to foment right-wing extremist politics in Montana, where he bought a radio station and began broadcasting the home addresses of local environmentalists, a la Radio Rwanda. His attacks on liberals are especially disturbing as potential precursors to similar attacks elsewhere.

One of Klauser's chief allies, a former Whatcom County BIAW official named Art Castle, went on to cofound a local Bellingham group that engaged in similar far-right recruitment. Castle now operates the Kitsap Home Builders Association listed as a local resource by the BIAW.

It was in Whatcom County that Castle and Hinkle's organizational work soon led to the formation of the Washington State Militia, whose career I describe in some detail in my first book, In God's Country (and is likewise told in Jane Kramer's excellent Lone Patriot). That group, you may recall, ended in complete collapse as a number of leaders and members were eventually convicted for their roles in a scheme to build and deploy pipe bombs.

In one of his appendices, deArmond explains how these local organizations provide the logistical traction for the national "Wise Use" program:
When we asked Ron Arnold about the secession movement, his recollection was that Jim Klauser -- exec.director of SNOCO PRA and founder of the Washington Property Rights Network -- was the first to tell him of the county secession movement:

"...the secession thing came up and I said, 'Come on, give me a break, are you kidding?' Because I didn't know anything about the legal structure for doing that. 'Is that legal?', 'Oh yes, the constitution has provisions for it.' 'Oh really!', so I read it."

Asked why he supported people like Klauser, Arnold said,

"Because I intend to win. I don't fight to lose. And because I know that movement theory is right, that if I help segments along, I'd create leaders. I help leaders. ...There are so many people doing what I need done, but I don't have to sit at their desk."

The situation goes much deeper than this, since Arnold is working at the top level of Wise Use. Below him and the other national Wise Use organizations is a middle level of regional trade associations, business groups and industry lobbying organizations. These groups, such as the Master Builders Association, the various county chapters of the Affordable Housing Council, the local Chambers of Commerce, and realtor's associations, provide the leadership and funding for creating front groups like the Property Rights Alliance, SNOCO PRA, Whatcom CLUE and other so-called grass-roots groups.

Organizations like the Building Industry Association of Washington represent, in many ways, the essential face of modern conservatism: their bottom line is money and power, by any means necessary.

This means playing a major role in electoral politics and political organizing, while also quietly encouraging the role of extremists within the broader mainstream of conservatism. They are, in effect, organizational "transmitters".

Their poisonous effects on the body politic are bad enough. Unfortunately, their toxicity also extends well into the natural world too.

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