Little-known UN Agenda 21 cast as threat to freedom
By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Al Hulick remembers, to the day, when Agenda 21 came into his world.
It was May 17, 2011, during an informational meeting on Janesville’s desire to join the Green Tier program offered by the state Department of Natural Resources. Some attendees reacted skeptically, handing out literature about Agenda 21, a non-binding pact to promote sustainable growth drafted by the United Nations in 1992.
“I had never heard of it,” recalls Hulick, a management analyst for the city. He assumed these fears about the Green Tier program, through which the DNR and the nonprofit land-use group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin help communities pursue environmentally friendly practices, would fade over time. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Hulick said, opposition to the city’s participation in Green Tier has “grown at every meeting and become more vocal.” The Janesville City Council has twice delayed action on the program, due to the concerns raised by citizens, some from other counties.
These critics see Green Tier as a step on a slippery slope that could lead to the loss of liberty. At one public meeting, Georgia Janisch of Janesville called Agenda 21 a plan “to take us over from within without firing a shot.”
There are legitimate reasons to question programs like Green Tier, which involve public funds and may not always bring desired results. But painting it as part of plot to destroy private property rights, dictate personal behavior and impose one-world government is a harder sell.
“I don’t think the U.N. could organize an escape route out of a brown paper sack, let alone a giant global conspiracy to usurp the power of sovereign governments,” wrote Monona resident Sunny Schubert, columnist for the local Herald-Independent newspaper, after a Green Tier program there was attacked by anti-Agenda 21 activists.
But while it’s still often dismissed as a fringe cause, the anti-Agenda 21 movement, with close ties to the Tea Party, is gaining political traction nationally and in Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Wisconsin and some candidates for office here oppose Agenda 21, although battles against programs like Green Tier appear to be led by citizen activists.
Last fall the state Assembly, after hearing from Agenda 21 opponents, passed a bill to let communities opt out of Smart Growth, a state law governing comprehensive land-use plans. It died in the Senate but is expected to be resuscitated next year.
Opposition to Agenda 21 “has gone from being an amusement to a nuisance to something people should be aware of,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. “It’s real. It’s having an effect.”
From the U.N. to Mayberry R.F.D.
Accusations that the United Nations represents a threat to national sovereignty and individual liberty are as old as, well, the U.N., chartered in 1945. What’s new is the extent to which this sentiment has taken hold as a grassroots movement, often to oppose environmental initiatives sought by public officials and citizens who have never heard of Agenda 21.
A dizzying array of books, websites, handouts and DVDs seek to expose the nefarious intent behind this pact, signed by President George H.W. Bush, including a plan to relocate humans into a few dense urban centers. Anti-Agenda 21 activists even inveigh against high-tech Smart Meters installed by utility companies, which they allege are surveillance devices.
The journey to this dystopian future, they argue, will occur in baby steps — a bike lane here, a program to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs there. Opponents believe Agenda 21 is driving every last smidgen of Earth-friendly policy: Renewable energy. Land-use planning. Resource conservation. Even recycling. Every green tag is a red flag.
“It’s so big and encompassing, it’s going on all around us,” says Marv Munyon of Watertown, a member of the Rock River Patriots. He says the Tea Party-affiliated group, based in Fort Atkinson, has distributed thousands of DVDs warning of the danger. “The public needs to wake up to what this is all about.”
But even Munyon concedes that, to the uninitiated, the claims made about Agenda 21 are “so far out that it seems Orwellian.” That doesn’t stop him from believing: “It’s so wild that I couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Munyon is not the only true believer. In January, the Republican National Committee approved a platform plank against Agenda 21, which it said was “being covertly pushed into local communities” as part of a “destructive and insidious” U.N. design. It will be taken up at the party’s national convention in August.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin passed a platform resolution condemning Agenda 21 at its May convention. It calls for action to “prevent or reverse the entrenchment” of the plan’s “extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.”
Mark Neumann, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, appeared in April at a Milwaukee-area event that dealt with Agenda 21 and was introduced by Munyon at a Rock River Patriot event in January. Campaign spokesman Joe Pileggi confirmed that Neumann opposes Agenda 21, but declined to elaborate. Ironically, Neumann has drawn firefrom anti-Agenda 21 activists for accepting federal solar subsidies.
In a statement to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said accusations that Agenda 21 amounts to environmental extremism or poses a threat to private property and personal freedom “are false and have no basis in fact,” likening the blowback to the “climate change denial movement.”
On the contrary, del Buey argued that Agenda 21, which has served as a guide for thousands of cities and towns and even some nations, can bring “greater freedom, greater decision-making at the community level, and greater opportunities for prosperity.”
The war at home
Among those battling Agenda 21 in Wisconsin are the Rock River Patriots, Northwoods Patriots, and the Wisconsin 9/12 Project, inspired by a national group launched by conservative commentator Glenn Beck to discuss the Constitution and the principles upon which the nation was founded.
“There are definitely groups from all over the state who are involved in it,” said Kirsten Lombard, organizer of the Madison-based Wisconsin 9/12 Project. She testified against the Green Tier plan in Janesville and Monona, distributing a glossy handout alleging that “sustainability advocates … operate largely by stealth,” using intentional deceit to hide their true objectives.
“We all want a clean environment,” Lombard said in an interview. “But when that honest desire to have a clean environment is leveraged to take rights away from people, and money out of their pockets, that becomes a problem.”
Lombard said her group has 25 to 35 core members and is funded by “people throwing money into a can,” adding with a laugh, “We’re not funded by the Koch Brothers.”
In Wisconsin, the anti-Agenda 21 movement has found a friend in Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Rhinelander-based Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association and chair of the Wisconsin Council on Forestry. He has publicly speculated that Agenda 21 drives federal regulators to “push their own agenda ahead of the citizens of America.”
Schienebeck’s group, which represents the forestry industry in Wisconsin and Michigan, brought in anti-Agenda 21 activist Michael Coffman as the keynote speaker at its meeting in April in Escanaba, Mich.
Such advocacy is having an impact.
Dennis Lawrence, executive director of the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, a public agency representing 10 counties, said citizens upset about Agenda 21 have delayed passage of comprehensive land-use plans, particularly in Oneida County. They hand out what he considers “disinformation” that vilifies land-use planning.
“It distracts from the whole planning effort,” Lawrence said. But it hasn’t brought planning to a halt because “eventually the decision makers realize there isn’t much to the argument.”
Matt Dallman, director of conservation for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, said conservation efforts of all stripes are under growing attack from citizens concerned about Agenda 21. Some even dig through land-use plans in search of words like “corridors,” “connectivity” and “social justice,” to confirm their suspicions.
“It’s small but growing,” Dallman said of the anti-Agenda 21 movement. “It really does hinder progress in conservation.”
Brian Ohm, a UW-Madison professor of urban and regional planning, said anti-Agenda 21 activists are “unfocused on what they’re attacking, other than government in general.” But he thinks this can pose a big problem at the local level, where decisions on land-use and transportation policies are commonly made and where citizen input can have the most impact.
Even something as simple as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, Ohm said, can be seen as driven by Agenda 21 — when in fact such initiatives are usually sought by citizens and officials who know nothing of this U.N. plan and “are just trying to save money.”
Another focus of concern is the acquisition of public land. Munyon, of the Rock River Patriots, sees Agenda 21 in the recent conservation easement obtained by the state on more than 100 square miles of forest land in four northern counties. “It takes more land away and puts it into government control.”
Anti-Agenda 21 activists are now mobilizing against a proposal in Congress to establish the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, a broad swath of land that traverses 15 counties, as a National Heritage Area. The bill was introduced in March by Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, and Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican.
Not easy being green
The Green Tier program was created in 2004 with input from environmentalists as well as business groups including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently praised it for having “produced enhanced, voluntary collaboration with businesses to yield environmental and economic gains.”
Originally aimed at businesses that wanted to adopt greener practices, the program was expanded in December 2010 to include municipalities. The cities of Fitchburg, Middleton, Bayfield and Appleton and the village of Weston all signed on.
Last year, the program agreed to add five new communities, and Janesville expressed interest in becoming one of them. That sparked a full-fledged battle, waged by angry citizens and leaflets alleging “unelected, unaccountable representation.”
At the Janesville City Council’s June 11 meeting, Robert Bellard of Beloit called Agenda 21 “a cancer upon the land formed by the U.N. with its tentacles reaching into every township and county designed to slowly squeeze this great republic into a pulp of dictated control.”
And Janesville resident Paul Lembrich told the council that signing the Green Tier agreement would “replace the current charter of the city of Janesville and permanently destroy its sovereignty, beyond recovery.”
Lembrich, a retired school custodian who wears an American flag on his sleeve, said in an interview that his beliefs are based on “basic common sense” and what he’s read about Agenda 21. He thinks what’s happening on this issue “all matches the Book of Revelations, lockstep by lockstep, very precisely.”
The council’s June 25 meeting drew about three dozen opponents of the Green Tier pact. Twenty people spoke against it, only three in favor.
Speakers dubbed Agenda 21 “socialism on steroids” and warned that joining the Green Tier program would “strip away every cherished American freedom.” One woman suggested that future council meetings could no longer begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, the current custom. The statement drew applause.
Another person said, “We don’t want to be on bicycles. We don’t want to be herded into centers like the U.N. wants.”
Hulick, the Janesville city staffer, sees such fears as baseless, noting that multiple additional laws would have to pass for these things to occur. But he doesn’t doubt the sincerity or passion of those raising these concerns.
“Those folks believe they’re doing the right thing,” Hulick said. “I respect their opinions.”
Initially, the city council delayed its vote to look into whether the city might not be able to withdraw from Green Tier, as alleged. Janesville City Attorney Wald Klimczyk concluded that the agreement could be easily severed. But at the June 25 meeting, additional concerns were raised over whether the city might face penalties for doing so.
Laurel Sukup, the DNR’s representative at this meeting, repeatedly offered assurances that the city would not be penalized for withdrawing from Green Tier. But the council requested further research. Hulick said the matter could be delayed for weeks or even months.
Meanwhile, on July 2, the city of Monona eclipsed Janesville to become the sixth Wisconsin community to join the Green Tier plan. Speakers from Janesville and elsewhere came to two meetings to oppose the plan. They included Sandy Bakk, a Republican candidate for state Assembly, who warned that joining Green Tier would mean “a loss of autonomy” for Monona.
But the program drew support from Monona Mayor Bob Miller and a half-dozen speakers. The council, after requiring that any Green Tier plans be submitted for its “review and approval,” passed the plan unanimously. Joked Ald. Chad Speight, “I am going to be very concerned if U.N. inspectors show up.”
One person who wishes he could believe that programs like Green Tier are benign, but can’t, is Paul Lembrich. The need to be a footsoldier in a global war for human liberty weighs heavily on the 77-year-old Janesville man.
“You have no idea how happy I would be if I was wrong about all of this stuff,” Lembrich said. “I would be the happiest person in the world.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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