Activists see little-known UN plan Agenda 21 as a threat to freedoms
Al Hulick remembers the day 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 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 residents, some from other counties.
Some question programs such as Green Tier because they involve public funds and might not always bring desired results. But other Green Tier opponents paint it as part of a plot to destroy private property rights, dictate personal behavior and impose one-world government.
"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 anti-Agenda 21 activists attacked a Green Tier program there.
Still, the anti-Agenda 21 movement, with close ties to the Tea Party, is gaining political traction nationally and in Wisconsin. Some political players oppose Agenda 21, although battles against programs such as 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 UN to Mayberry
A dizzying array of books, websites, handouts and DVDs seek to expose the nefarious intent behind Agenda 21, including a plan to relocate humans into a few dense urban centers.
The journey to this dystopian future, critics 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 smidgen of Earth-friendly policy: renewable energy, land-use planning, resource conservation, even recycling.
Green tag = red flag
"It's so big and encompassing, it's going on all around us," said Marv Munyon of Watertown, a member of the Rock River Patriots. He said 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," Munyon said.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin at its May convention passed a platform resolution condemning Agenda 21. It calls for action to "prevent or reverse the entrenchment" of the plan's "extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control." A similar resolution awaits approval at the party's national convention in August.
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. He declined to elaborate.
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."
The war at home
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."
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 residents 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."
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."
He said even something as simple as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs can be seen as driven by Agenda 21—when in fact such initiatives usually are sought by residents and officials who "are just trying to save money."
Anti-Agenda 21 activists have opposed the recent conservation easement obtained by the state on more than 100 square miles of forestland in four northern counties, as well as 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 Northwoods Patriots, based in Eagle River, calls the proposal "a 15-county land-grab."
Not easy being green
The Green Tier program was created in 2004 with input from environmentalists as well as business groups to help business pursue greener practices. Gov. Scott Walker recently praised it for aiding "voluntary collaboration … to yield environmental and economic gains."
In 2010, the program was expanded to include five municipalities: the cities of Fitchburg, Middleton, Bayfield and Appleton and the village of Weston. When the DNR last year opened the door to five new communities, Janesville expressed interest. That led to angry citizens and leaflets alleging "unelected, unaccountable representation."
At the Janesville City Council's June 11 meeting, local resident Paul Lembrich warned that signing the Green Tier agreement would "replace the current charter of the city of Janesville and permanently destroy its sovereignty, beyond recovery."
The council's June 25 meeting drew even more foes.
Georgia Janisch of Janesville called Agenda 21 a plan "to take us over from within without firing a shot."
Another speaker suggested future council meetings could no longer begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, the current custom. The statement drew applause.
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.
Initially, the council asked City Attorney Wald Klimczyk to look into whether the city might not be able to withdraw from Green Tier, as alleged.
He concluded that the agreement could be easily severed. But additional concerns were raised over whether the city might face penalties for doing so, and the council requested further research.
The matter could be delayed for weeks or even months.
Meanwhile, on July 2, Monona become the sixth Wisconsin community to join the Green Tier plan.
Speakers from Janesville and elsewhere attended to two Monona meetings to oppose the plan. They included Sandy Bakk, a GOP 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, and the council passed the plan unanimously.
Joked Alderman Chad Speight, "I am going to be very concerned if U.N. inspectors show up."
Paul Lembrich wishes he could believe that programs such as Green Tier are benign, but he can't. The need to be a foot soldier in a global war for human liberty weighs heavily on the 77-year-old Janesville man, a retired school custodian.
"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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Last updated: 4:57 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013