What follows is a column (previously appearing in the St. Maries Gazette-Record) by Chris Carlson, now living at Medimont, Idaho. He was one of the founders of the Gallatin Group and was from 1989 until last year its representative based at Spokane. His Gallatin bio also notes that he was “a former press secretary to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, Chris directed the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Public Affairs during the governor’s four-year term as Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Following his position in Washington, D.C., Chris was appointed to the Northwest Power Planning Council by Idaho Governor John V. Evans. In 1984, he became regional vice president of public affairs for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane.” And he was a journalist before all that. He’ll be contributing occasional columns in this space.
We’re all familiar with zealots, true believers who go to extraordinary lengths to attract media attention for their cause, hoping the coverage will generate new interest and fresh contributions.
In Idaho most of the zealotry we experience relates to differing visions regarding future use of natural resources and the wildlife on public lands. Thus, we sometimes see civil disobedience activities by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies or Defenders of Wildlife, protesting wolf hunts, timber sales or mining projects.
While at the Interior department serving as the director of the office of public affairs (1987-1991) I had my epiphany, my revelation about how best to handle the zealots that constantly besieged the agency. The key was to deny them the media coverage they seek.
Shortly after this insight, opportunity to apply it arrived in the form of Mitch Snyder, a self-styled social activist who had taken on the plight of the homeless people in our nation’s capital as his cause. He decided the best way to draw attention to the cause was to stage a sit-in of homeless people in D.C.’s stately Union Station.
Having just arrived home one evening, I received a call from an Interior assistant secretary, who said the Park Service police were reporting that Snyder had led 50 homeless people into Union Station and were conducting a sit-in until arrested and forcibly removed.
He wanted to know what I thought should be done. Once I ascertained they were not blocking the passage of commuters and customers to trains, I told him to direct the Park Police to do nothing until midnight.
Why midnight, he asked. Because, I explained, it was the news media picture of police carrying the homeless to paddy wagons that Snyder wanted and we weren’t going to let him have it.
At midnight, after the late evening news is over, I instructed, have the Park Police “gently” pick up demonstrators and carry them out of the station. No arrests. End of story. And that’s what happened.
Shortly after midnight, however, the assistant secretary called again to say the homeless had promptly lain down in the street in front of the station. The Park Police wanted to know what they should do now.
I said they should do nothing more. The street was the responsibility of the District’s city police, not Interior’s, and it was the city’s problem. Within minutes he was back on the phone saying the Situation Commander for the D.C. police on the scene was asking if we had any advice.
I said they ought to block off the street and leave the homeless there. It was below freezing that night and once they realized they would not be arrested they would leave before the sun rises. And that’s what happened.
Nothing ever appeared in the news media on this incident and there was no bad publicity for the Interior Department.
Fast forward a few years to the first part of this decade. Another opportunity arose for display of the principle in action when the public affairs firm I founded was retained by the president of Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) to devise a strategy to counter tree-sitters occupying some of the spectacular Redwoods it owned.
Vexed by the long sit-in held the previous year by “Julia Butterfly,” he was determined not to be held hostage again. He asked for a counter-strategy. Our company’s game plan worked perfectly.
First, we had the client recruit and train several folks who could quickly scramble up the trees, surprise the tree-sitter, truss them up and bring them down n with removal activity happening after midnight long after reporters had gone home. We had each tree-climber wear a helmet with a small mini-camera affixed to it to record the removal and rebut any false claims (which there were) of “brutality.”
Secondly, tree-sitters were informed that by climbing a Redwood they were signing the tree’s death warrant rather than saving the tree. Any tree they scaled and perched in would immediately have a band cut around its base, much as a porcupine does, starting its demise.
The company only had to do it once and the tree-sittings were discontinued.
The key is denying zealots the attention they crave. Without it, they often wither and retreat.
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