Speech from Proceedings of the Seventh Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(2003)

Opening Address-Grassroots Action — Changing the Way We Govern Ourselves
Don Parmeter
International Falls, Minnesota


Thank you. My name is Don, and I am a recovering environmentalist. I thank you for that introduction. Carol and I have talked over the phone, like she said, for years, but it’s nice to be back in New York. I have to tell you something though. I don’t know who designed your freeway system. I was thinking about that as I was coming out of New York City last night trying to figure out how to get to Albany. It looked easy on the map. You know, I did take some map reading courses at West Point, so it’s not that I don’t know how to read a map, but, anyway, the only thing I could think of was the Department of Tourism once they get people in New York they don’t want them to leave, so they create this system. I have to tell you, you’ve a ways to go to keep up with Pennsylvania, though. I think I have been living in rural America for too long. You get in a metropolitan area and you kind of panic. So that’s why, after 25 years in Northern Minnesota, I am moving to St. Paul, which is kind of a frightening prospect. What are you going to do driving in that traffic? Well, you know what? I found a place to live that’s seven miles walking distance to the Capitol, so I am looking forward to that, actually.

Frankly, that’s one of the problems we have in the rural parts of America. Our capitols are so far away. I was trying to get things done living five hours from the Capitol and, I tell you what, those folks that live in the St. Paul area have an advantage. The problem is, us folks that are passionate about what happens in the rural parts of the country, we don’t want to live in the city, and we tried for years to try to get the Capitol moved up north. It’s a lost cause. I get involved in a lot of battles, but that one we’re going to lose.

But I really appreciate the invitation. It’s nice to be back here. I want to congratulate Carol for organizing this conference. I am not a conference organizer, but I got stuck with one, and I tell you it’s a lot of work and a lot of headaches, but forums like this are really important to bring a lot of people together. So thank you for doing that, Carol.

What I want to do is talk a little bit about my experience in Minnesota and talk, number two, about what works and about what doesn’t. I have been doing this for about 25 years now and we have tried a lot of things over the years. (I know I don’t look old enough to have been involved that long.) But, we tried a lot of things that don’t work. Then eventually, you know, you have to keep at it and find things that work. I want to leave you with some ideas of things that I think you can take away and maybe try if they haven’t been tried here and maybe get into some strategy.

I like talking about strategy. I didn’t fight in the Vietnam War and so maybe this is my experience doing battle, because it is a battle. It is like a war. Most of you, I’m sure, know Chuck Cushman. Chuck Cushman and I, we go back 25 years on this thing, and he is a student of military history. One of the fundamental principles of military strategy is if you want to win the battle, you have to control the battlefield. It is so true. So a lot of our work is finding ways to control the battlefield.

You mentioned one of my “favorite” agencies, the National Park Service. I got my start, when I was living in Washington, DC, not liking it very much. I grew up in northern Minnesota and really wanted to move back and I’m grateful to the National Park Service for creating so much concern and controversy in Minnesota that the Minnesota Legislature created a Citizens Council that hired me so I could move back to my home town. I really appreciate that. If you look at national polls, the last one I saw stated that the National Park Service is the most popular agency in government. That is because this notion, Carol alluded to it, of setting aside these wonderful areas for future generations has enormous appeal. It was said, “Creating National Parks is the best idea America ever had.”

They will tell you that this agency doesn’t know what they are doing. They don’t know what they are doing. Science in the National Park System? Don’t want to talk about it. We are doing something right, because we’re popular. I didn’t know. I mean I got thrown into this. The first issue, by the way, that I was told to fix was the purchase of a lot of private property in Voyagers National Park in Minnesota. Wow! It was too late. The first thing I did was I said, well, let me read the law. This was in the late seventies during the Carter Administration and some of you probably remember those days, and the fact of the matter is the government had a ton of money and they were pushing people around. The first thing I did was look at the law, and we need to look at the law more often, because a lot of times what it says isn’t what is happening on the ground. The chairman of the Citizens Council that was created by the legislator and the boards said, well, the park superintendent says they have to buy all this private land. I said, “But that is not what the law says.” What do you mean that is not what the law says? Read the law! It says right here if state lands and U.S. Forest Service lands and other federal lands are transferred to the National Park Service, that is adequate to administer this park. Oh! It was too late. And that is too bad. Somebody wasn’t doing the homework. People weren’t doing their job. And back in those days, it is not that way anymore, people trusted their government. They trusted their government. A lot of people they had to find the hard way found out maybe we can’t trust our government.

You talk about environmental statutes, I was in graduate school when all these wonderful laws were passed. Frankly, I was supportive of them. Of course, I was living in Washington at the time and I trusted my government, too. When I was transferred back on active duty to Minnesota, I found out, wow, this is not what the law intended. You know, what are they doing to people in the name of environmental protection?! They are violating, daily, the National Environmental Policy Act and a bunch of others and they have gotten away with it. It’s getting a little harder for them to get away with it, but it is going to take organizations like this and organizations in every state of the country to get it right, and we are in this for the long term.

There are no quick fixes to this issue. It took 25 years or so to get in this position. It’s probably going to take that long to get out of it. This agency, these federal agencies, and state agencies, too, are very expansionist, and, man, they have federal statues and state statues, as you know, over the place to give them reasons, presumably, to expand.

With the National Park Service, Biosphere Reserves are that just one program. They did the National Rivers inventory that, in Minnesota alone, put well like 40 or 50 rivers on the Wild and Scenic River candidate list. Wilderness, endangered species, National [Natural] Landmarks programs. Find a statute on that one. You know where that originated? With the Historic Sites Act designed to set aside buildings, homes of past presidents. That’s a good deal. Somebody had the bright idea, well, why can’t we apply it to several hundred thousand acres of wetlands, so that’s what they did. The wetlands preservation…find the federal wetlands statute. There isn’t one. But, you know, we don’t have it right in Minnesota, either, because there is one proposed now, and the principal sponsor in the House is my congressman, Jim Oberstar, who gets re-elected by overwhelming margins because he delivers tons of highway money to the state. What people don’t understand is that if people don’t have jobs and property, what good are roads?

Of course, now, and this has been going on for some time, you have all these set-aside areas that are administratively done by various agencies. I probably don’t need to get into that in detail. There are other speakers and Carol mentioned it, too, the forest planning and the SME’s and the RME’s and the special management zones and they go on and on and on. Back in 1989, I testified before Congress actually. The congressman chairing the Public Lands and National Parks Committee at the time was the late Paul Wellstone from St. Paul. Again, Carol mentioned these nice sounding names, how could you oppose legislation called the American Heritage Trust Act? That was a multi-billion dollar fund set aside fund for buying land. Wow! Federal government doesn’t have a clue how to take care of what it already has and we’re going to set aside a multi-billion dollar dedicated trust fund. It didn’t pass. Every environmental organization signed on to that bill, but it didn’t pass.

But you know what? They figured out that maybe we don’t have to buy the land to control it. That would be a better deal, you know. The Democrats were in control of Congress back then, back when this thing was proposed, and they couldn’t get it through, so that was a pretty good idea from their standpoint, if you think about it. We can control it without having to buy it. That’s a heck of a deal. That’s the scariest thing to me. If you force the government to pay for everything they do in terms of land control, they can’t afford it and they’ll tell you that. The environmental community will tell you we can’t afford it. Then don’t do it!

So this is a constant battle, and you need people who are committed for the long haul. When you win a battle, you think, we won. All of a sudden, the next year it comes back with a different name. It just keeps coming and coming.

I’ve become convinced that the battle really isn’t with the environmental organizations. Fundamentally, it’s with the government. It’s just that the environmental organizations are organized. They have a ton of money, and are passionate. We can learn a lot from how they do business.

I had an opportunity that just kind of came out of the blue, this rural organizing, a conference in Duluth, Minnesota, the National Stewardship Conference. We somehow got a phone call from a Soviet environmentalist who heard about the conference and wanted to get involved. It turns out he was a Soviet dissident. He was a film producer from the Ukraine, and so we invited him to come to the conference. Actually, we ended up sponsoring five Ukrainians to come to the conference and found out that the environmentalists in the former Soviet Union are not like our environmentalists at all. We signed an agreement with the leader of the largest environmental organization over there. Anyway, this conference just started taking on a life of its own, and I was leaning towards this anyway, this whole idea, but another man, who was one of the Ukrainians and later became the first Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, said, you’ve got a problem with your bureaucracy in this country. When I hear that from somebody from the Ukraine, I get nervous.

This Ukrainian man was the medical doctor that was first brought into Chernobyl to assess the damage, the health effects and the environmental damage. He was very passionate, a wonderful guy. He said, the issue is really about centralized planning. It’s not good for the environment. It’s not good for the economy, and if they’re taking your land, you’ve got a problem, and you’ve got to turn that around and you’ve got to do it fast.

So that’s kind of where my personal focus has been, on centralized planning, regional planning by federal and state governments, primarily. We killed one of these schemes. This was two or three years ago and I am kind of proud of this—we had this thing in Minnesota called “community-based planning.” Well, that sounds good. It’s going to come from the communities. No, it’s not. It’s coming from Washington, and it’s coming from St. Paul. It took a heck of an effort, but we actually killed it. And now it is back in the form of something called “basin-wide planning.”

Basin-wide planning. I don’t know if you have heard that one, but look out for that one. If there’s anything, that’s the biggest threat, in my opinion, to private property rights this country has ever seen. Because the neat thing about basin wide planning from those who want to control it is that everything, every piece of land is in a basin. Every piece of land is in a basin. And they confuse folks. We have, where I live, it is called, depending on who talks, and this is very good, they call it one name, say, the Rainy River Basin. Another is the Rainy Lake Watershed. Another one is Lake of the Woods-something watershed and people don’t even understand what they’re talking about. The folks promoting it called it the Rainy River Watershed because the river doesn’t affect that many people. What they don’t tell you, we’re talking about 15 million acres here, folks. So there is going to be a huge battle over that in Minnesota and we are prepared to fight for it. We are prepared to get legislation.

The other thing is, find basin-wide planning in the statute. The State, which is pushing this, and the National Park Service is sort of the back seat waiting to see what happens because they don’t want to go out front because we are on to those guys. So the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is out front saying, well, the EPA is making us do it. I talked to the head of the watershed division of EPA. You know, he’s got a phone and seems a pretty decent guy. He said, no, we’re not. We brought this up to the Governor’s legislative director. Some of our friends in the legislature said, “What is that? We don’t remember authorizing this.” I said, “That’s because you didn’t.” Oh. Well, where is the statutory authorization for it? The Clean Water Act. Find it in the Clean Water Act. I don’t know, maybe someone is reading a different act than I have.

They are very nervous about this, because they know they got a battle on their hands. But then they tried to get away with it by saying, well, this is just about water quality. Everybody wants clean water. Yeah! Really! And finally we found the smoking guns, and there are more than one, believe me, on this one and it is not about, yeah, it’s about clean water, but in a state like Minnesota or New York, or any state, you can’t separate the water from the land. This is about controlling agricultural practices. It’s about controlling mining. It’s about controlling forestry and recreation. It’s controlling everything and fundamentally it’s about controlling people. Because whoever controls the land controls the people. That’s a truism.

All of a sudden we got the Department of Natural Resources on our side. Wow! All of a sudden the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is taking authority away from the D&R commissioner. He is not liking that too much. That is, you know, this stuff just keeps coming and coming and coming.

It has its origin in ecosystem management, which was the brainchild of the Clinton-Gore Administration. Bill Clinton didn’t know what was going on in that area, at least. But Gore and Babbitt did and they imposed this thing. There is no statutory basis for ecosystems management. If there is, I haven’t seen it, not in Minnesota and not at the federal level. But it sounds good. Ecosystems management, you know, we have to manage ecosystems. How do you define an ecosystem? Well, you really can’t. But basin-wide planning? Basins, watersheds will work. They have geographical boundaries, and you can say, yep, we are going to control, to manage. They don’t like the word control…Therefore, Rainy Lake or Rainy River Basin. Ecosystems management, in my opinion, is alive and well today, and it’s all around us. Alston Chase has had some conferences and he has done extensive research on this topic and claims that the balance of nature theory was basically after World War II, and that there is no support for it among ecologists, but it sounds good. If you leave something alone, it returns to a steady state of equilibrium. Oh really? I don’t think so. If you leave it alone long enough, it will come back to the way it was. How do we want to preserve the Boundary Waters? You talk to not just the environmental groups, but land managers, federal land managers, not so much at the state level, at least in Minnesota. Well, we want to preserve it as it is. How are you going to do that? If you leave it alone long enough, it’s going to change. Maybe we should preserve the Boundary Waters Canoe Area like it was during the Ice Age. Try canoeing over a frozen lake. It doesn’t work. They don’t want to talk about that. They don’t want to talk about reality. They’ve got all these neat sounding names for these things and they are passionate about it and the public is buying it.

If there is any doubt about these agencies and the environmental community being anti-people, there was a conference, a national conference, wilderness conference, in Minnesota in 1989. The federal government put a quarter of a million dollars into this conference. They forgot to invite the people that were affected and their elected officials to speak. We were allowed to buy tickets, which was really a kind gesture, but here is one of the statements that caught me. Mike McCloskey, former chairman of the Sierra Club, had a dandy. This is a matter of public record. The proceedings on the conference are that thick, done by the University of Minnesota. It must have cost $350 a copy. Why don’t you order one and see if they send it to you? But here was one of the quotes from Mike McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club at the time. “Trees and rocks have rights to their freedom to go their own way untrammeled by man.” Can you imagine! I don’t know what constitution they are referring to, but, in my opinion, yeah, we have a responsibility to take care of living and non-living things, but my reading of the Constitution says that people have rights. But that’s how far this environmental movement has gone.

Fundamentally, we have to take it back. You know, we spin our wheels a lot getting angry at these folks, and we let it slip away. A lot of people just took freedom for granted. We let it get away, and we are going to have to fight to get it back. Once you lose power, it’s not given back. You have to take it back. And you take it back in non-violent ways, obviously, but there are ways to do it.

I want to leave you with some suggestions. This one is just basic. You have to organize. Without that, you’re going nowhere. The purpose of any organization, of course, is to agitate, educate, litigate, and legislate. I am getting away from the litigation part of it, in all due respect to Perry Pendley and others. You have to fight in court. But I think that, fundamentally, this is a political issue, and we have to win it in the political arena. And yes, you have to go through some court cases and through the courts to get there, but ultimately this is a political issue and we’re going to have to organize. The only way to do that from our standpoint is at the grassroots level.

Two, you’ve got to build broad-based coalitions. You have to. But the nice thing about property rights is everybody in this country owns property. But people in Minnesota don’t understand property rights, and that is why we are starting a property rights organization, They don’t understand the origin of property rights. They just don’t, and so they are not going to learn it on their own. You’ve got to teach them and you got to organize.

One of the things we are doing is this. Recreational people and people like foresters and miners and so forth, they all own property, and so we are putting together a coalition. We’re having some success. It’s really hard work. But we have got to get more people in the tent, under the tent. You know, there is power in fewer numbers and there is power in knowledge, but there is also power in diversity. We have to start reaching out to these folks, and we have to start recruiting. One of the ways Jesse Ventura got elected was because he had a man who knew how to recruit new people, and they recruited a ton of new people into government. And they got Jesse. Hey, if you can get Jesse Ventura elected governor, man, there is something to that story.

We have found success in “using”—and I use the term using, because elected officials work for us, they’re servants—using local elected officials. Use local elected officials. The first step is you have to organize at the grassroots level. If your coalition is broad enough and big enough, the elected officials will come along. We have a statute in Minnesota—and, frankly, I don’t know how many states have this, but if you don’t have it, look into it—called the Joint Powers Act, which authorizes local units of government to organize for various purposes, for any purpose. We organized the Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board. One county by itself, especially a rural county, can’t win this battle, so we have multiple counties involved, including some with fairly large population bases that came together. They’ve been together for ten years. So you have to use those people and even if you don’t like your local county commissioner or your city councilman or your township ward officer, the thing about local elected officials, you can hold them accountable. That’s the key, accountability.

Use the classroom and get teachers and students involved. We’re just starting to do this. We’ve got a long way to go. There are programs called “Ag in the Classroom,” “Forestry in the Classroom,” and that sort of thing, but we’ve got to go further than that. A lot of young people are just cynical about, a lot of older people, are cynical about government. We need to promote science more. If you look at some of this stuff that the government and the environmental community are promoting, it has nothing to do with science. It has to do with philosophy.

We had a pleasant surprise in the Minnesota Legislature this year with our pilot project that basically is intended to document conflicts between federal and state agencies and local government authority, to document where government regulations and policies interfere with private property rights.

Third, figure out how to fix it. That’s tough. We can do the documentation. It’s already there. We will put that together for the next session of the legislature, but figuring out how to fix it is tough. But what we found out in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I don’t know how far we can stretch this in other parts of the country, and by the way, somebody came in and said, wait a minute, Minnesota is a pretty liberal state. Not any more. Not any more. We put together a coalition of rural Democrats and suburban Republicans—northern Minnesota, by the way, is almost all Democrats, but they’re very conservative. If you focus on these land use and property rights issues, they will be with you. They may not be happy about it because the leadership of the party thinks that we can’t support that. Bologna! So where did the suburbanites come from? Well, the community-based planning. They don’t like centralized planning any more than anybody else. Their constituents like freedom. That’s not a bad thing to be for, because what this issue is all about is preserving freedom. People in the suburbs would like to have the choice, you know, of driving to work as opposed to light rail. They want to live in their house. They don’t want to be forced into urban growth boundaries and high-density housing. So, when we went to pass this pilot project, we had tons of support in the Minnesota legislature. The House majority leader, who is now governor, was one of the authors of the bill. So we’re going to play that one. I moved to St. Paul because I thought we have got a good thing going here. I don’t know how long it is going to last, but we managed to pry some money, not a lot, but some, out of the Legislature this year, and they had a $4.5 billion deficit.

They’ve something there called the Metropolitan Council, which has a lot of power so don’t give up. One of the suburban legislators said, you’re never going to convince the legislators in the core city of Minneapolis and St. Paul to go with you. He said, who cares? Who cares! They don’t have the clout anymore. So look at the suburbs. You might be surprised. I was. I knew we had a little support there, but I didn’t know how big it was. We got a unanimous vote out of the House Ways and Means Committee which is a 28-member committee that controls the money in the House of Representatives in Minnesota. That happened because we worked on this and organized over the years. Don’t give up on the suburbs. You might find more support there than you think.

You’ve got to be proactive. We’ve got to start playing offense. Okay. We have been reacting for so long we’re just used to it. You fight a battle and then you sit back and wait for them to come at you again. So come up with your own initiatives. You know, clean rivers? Yeah, we like clean rivers. We think that the best people to lead that charge are the people that own land along them. We’ve done that successfully and you know what? All of a sudden you hear the Forest Service and the Park Service and the environmental community raise hell when you suggest it. When you get it under way, they don’t know how to stop it. You’ve taken the battle away. You’re controlling the battleground.

We’re going to do that on a basin-wide basis, but that’s a tougher fight. You’re not talking about river corridors anymore. You are talking about areas the size of the California dessert. That was a big battleground. You know, they got greedy back in 1980 with Alaska with all those multi-million acre national parks and wildlife refuges. They thought, hey, this is a good deal. This is a lot of land. Let’s try it in the Continental 48, so that’s what they are doing through basin-wide planning.

The bottom line is we have got to take the land back but, more important, we have to take our government back. It is not going to be easy and it is not going to be pretty, but it has to happen.

The final thing I would say is, just don’t give up. Don’t ever give up! Thanks a lot for your time. Thank you very much.

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