You Too Might be a Terrorist!

If you've ever given money to an environmental organization, if you support the movement's agenda, then you're probably part of a grand conspiracy that's degrading life in America. Worse yet, you might even be a terrorist, or at least an accomplice. At least that's what Nick Nichols seems to think.

Nichols' views wouldn't matter if he were just another backwoods loser. On the contrary, environmental watchdogs fear he's at the vanguard of efforts to exploit the nation's post-September 11th mood by tarring the entire green movement as extremists. Nichols acts under the pretext that, "If environmental groups cost business money, then they're eco-terrorists," says Dan Barry, of the Clearinghouse for Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR), which tracks anti-environmental groups.

Nichols is the CEO of "crisis communication" firm Nichols Dezenhall. The firm doesn't reveal its clients, but they have reportedly included business pillars such as Audi, Arco and the Society of the Plastics Industry. He's also popular on the nation's lecture circuit.

At a March 7, 2002 conference on "Eco Extremism" co-sponsored by Nichols Dezenhall and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a "free market" think tank) Nichols delivered a thinly-veiled marketing pitch for his firm, in an assembly room overlooking the U.S. Capitol grounds. Among the well-heeled, attentive audience members were journalists, think tankers and executives from the paper, forestry and plastics industries.

Incidentally, while the conference was open to the public, Barry and other environmentalists were refused admission.

Nonetheless, adding gravitas to the event was Representative Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who discussed his legitimate crusade, as chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, against actual eco-terrorists, from groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. But McInnis was careful to delineate between extremists who break the law and legitimate environmentalists, who represent "sometimes very sound messages."

"At least three-fourths of the environmental groups in the U.S. hold these [extremists] in distain," said McInnis, who compared the extremists to abortion clinic bombers.

Like any politician, McInnis hurried off after speaking. That left Nichols free to blur the distinction between legitimate greens and those who use violence, a blurring that he achieved with considerable deft.

A self-proclaimed corporate warrior, a rottweiler who advocates combat over appeasement, the silver haired 54-year-old delivered an entertaining, 50-minute, fire-and-brimstone pep talk. He compared himself to Winston Churchill. He called his competition in the public relations industry "capitulation counselors" who "teach corporations how to roll over." Projecting a photo of Adolf Hitler and Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain on the screen, he compared traditional PR firms to Chamberlain.

That, of course, leaves environmentalists to play the part of Hitler. No wonder they weren't invited.

After paying lip service to legitimate green groups, Nichols explained that all those consumer advocates and environmental activists out there supposedly looking out for the public interest are actually members of the "crisis creation industry." The industry, he says (with a straight face, mind you) includes "anarchists, Marxists, Luddites, nannies and the chronically aggrieved. If you watch the evening news you see plenty of nannies" who "think they know what's right for the rest of us." See how easy it is to lump black-clad anarchists with public health professionals?

Nichols painted with the broadest of brushes, deftly segueing among references to September 11th, eco-terrorists and the mainstream environmental movement. One minute, he (rightly) condemns the $43 million-plus in property damage caused by ELF since 1996. Next, he reproaches the green crisis, a powerful "$22 billion per year" global conspiracy. Environmentalists, he says "behave like guerillas: they are predatory, powerful, insatiable, rich and global."

"What motivates them?" he asked, gesticulating behind the podium like a wind-up soldier. "Political power -- and they are powerful. Money. This is a big business, the crisis creation business, lots of money involved. Notoriety. An attitude of anti-free enterprise. To the extent that they're driven by so-called altruism it relates to a disgust over free enterprise. A distain in some cases for people and democracy."

They "don't like private property. If you own it, you could be a target. Science -- they despise. Why? Those are facts and they don't like to confront facts. Anything they can do to attack science and scientists helps their political agenda."

This environmental cabal, in Nichols' cosmology, is outgunning corporate resistance, instigating a host of societal ills including "lost individual freedom, lost progress, innovation, jobs, and stock value; more regulations, lawsuits, attacks and victims" and "a loss of consumer choice" (has he been to Wal-Mart lately?).

Presumably, for Nichols' marketing goals, it's crucial to establish a link between eco-terrorists who raze ski lodges and PhD toxicologists. After all, it's the latter that Nichols Dezenhall is equipped to fight. The firm's strategy -- as described in slick marketing handouts illustrated with photos of frothing rottweilers (no kidding) -- depends on routine, if hard-hitting, PR warfare: attacking a group's tax exempt status, its credibility and its funders. To eco-terrorists, these tactics are irrelevant. To media-dependent mainstream groups that that have rent and salaries to pay, they could be lethal.

Nichols doesn't bother much with specific gripes against mainstream environmentalists. Perhaps that's better left to the executive imagination. Of course, his tactic -- lumping ideological kin with extremists -- is time honored among fanatics. By extension, all Muslims are in al Qaeda. If you don't own a television, you're the Unabomber.

But for the benefit of doubters, at the polemic's crux Nichols drives a spike through mainstream environmentalism. "Is this about altruism?" he snarls. His PowerPoint presentation answers that, with a damning quote attributed to Dr. Charles Wurster, of the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense). What's so compelling about the quote is that it comes from a group that's widely considered moderate, if not conservative, with extensive ties to corporations.

The slide read: "Asked if he thought a ban on DDT might result in an explosion of malaria cases in Sri Lanka, Dr. Wurster replied: "Probably -- so what? People are the cause of all problems. We have too many of them. We need to get rid of some of them, and this is as good a way as any."

The crowd gasped: clearly the Hitler comparison wasn't an exaggeration.

The problem is, Wurster's remark is at best museum grade; at worst it's a fib. Nichols didn't bother to reveal the quote's age, but it's been swirling around since before the Beatles' breakup. Materials later e-mailed to TomPaine.com by Nichols Dezenhall's staff showed that.

But the date doesn't matter: Environmental Defense says that the remark "has absolutely nothing to do with any position that we ever held, it's a complete and utter fabrication." Dr. Wurster, the alleged orator, is now retired. Reached at his home in Long Island, he says "Not only did I never say it, I never thought it." The quote "pops up at least once a year. It has a life of its own." He says a disgruntled lawyer fabricated it in the late 1960s to explain why he left the Environmental Defense Fund after the group fired him. Since then, it has become a popular right-wing canard.

Will Nichols remove the quote from his presentation? More importantly, what does it say about the altruism of the mainstream environmental movement if he has to base his indictment on rusty fabrications? Nichols Dezenhall didn't respond to requests for comment.

But hey, things are not always what they seem in the PR trade, nor, it appears, at the Eco-Extremism conference.

In addition to Representative McInnis, Nichols' supporting cast included one Kelly Stoner -- a meticulously made-up, comely young woman. Billed as the executive director of Stop Eco Violence (a group that barely seems to exists) Stoner's speaker bio is cryptically brand-free: she's identified as a "communications specialist" in Oregon, who "has several years experience in the forest products and agriculture industries, where she has had to deal first hand with the threat of eco-terrorism."

It turns out that Stoner is a former media relations official with Louisiana Pacific, a firm that supplied Home Depot with old-growth redwood, until it met "perfectly legal and non-violent pressure from a coalition of environmental groups," according to Emily Headen, Director of the environmental group CLEAR. (In an interview, Stoner says she was unaware of this.) Louisiana Pacific has long encouraged the so-called "Wise Use" movement -- anti-environmental groups funded by extractive industries, polluters and off-road vehicle manufacturers.

Oddly enough, the Web site address on Stoner's card (stopecoviolence.com) didn't exist at the time of the conference, but it was registered to -- you guessed it -- Nichols Dezenhall. Is her organization a front for the firm? Is she a freeze-dried activist, a telegenic face for the anti-environmental movement?

In the middle of an interview, when confronted repeatedly about connections with Nichols Dezenhall, Stoner suddenly laughed nervously and said her cell phone was malfunctioning, although over the course of the next few minutes she managed to take TomPaine.com's phone number and answer any question that didn't relate to the PR firm.

The next morning, she called back from Oregon before 7:00 a.m., "since I had problems with the cell phone yesterday -- and I swear I did." Back in her saddle, she said "Nichols Dezenhall is not driving Stop Eco Violence," and that her group was organized by a "broad coalition" of concerned citizens whose names she couldn't release, lest they become "lightning rods." She contacted Nichols "several times for PR counseling and that's the extent of our relationship."

But when asked if the firm was helping with her group's Web site, Stoner snapped again: "Why do you ask that?"

Curiously, Stoner says her "official" relationship with Stop Eco Violence began in February 2002. Nichols Dezenhall registered the Web site in November 2001.

We report, you decide.

David Case is the executive editor of TomPaine.com, where this article originally appeared.

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