Environment Picture

Agenda 21: Smart planning or insidious U.N. plot?

Depending on where you hang your political hat, United Nations Agenda 21’s non-binding set of environmental recommendations is one of two things.

It could be the playbook of a shadowy global elite working to achieve total “global control,” in the words of Fox News provocateur Glenn Beck. This is a commonly held belief if you’re a conservative activist dutifully tuned in to Tea Party–type groups. These groups and their elected allies have put anti-Agenda 21 activism to work throughout Michigan in recent months with a bill in the Michigan Legislature (HB 5785), resolutions in local governments like Charlevoix County, and in protesting forest management plans put forth by the Department of Natural Resources.

Or, if you happen to be one of the thousands of wildlife management professionals, land protection advocates or local land planners, Agenda 21 is (based on the Google search you probably just had to perform) an obscure 300-page document that neither you nor anyone you know had ever heard of. Suddenly, it is being portrayed as the driving force behind your entire profession. You hear about it at every presentation and community meeting you host or attend.

The document in question is a 20-year-old nonbinding resolution that emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janerio in 1992. It was signed by the first President Bush and languished in relative obscurity until this recent, new and bizarre wave of publicity.

Those representing the two views of Agenda 21 are dangerously far apart right now. The first group is so convinced Agenda 21 will be the “end of America” that they see bogeymen behind every door. It is blamed for DNR limits on horseback riding in Michigan’s Pigeon River Country, for local land use ordinances and for programs that help people get programmable thermostats.

The second group is so dismissive of the mentality of these conspiracy adherents that they derisively dismiss the growing numbers of Agenda 21 agitators as akin to alien abduction believers or moon landing deniers. In doing so, they pour more fuel on the fire of anger and resentment burning hot in an increasingly organized group of anti-government activists.

Which is why Agenda 21 is truly a dangerous issue after all.

Not because it’s a roadmap to world domination hatched by a shadowy global elite (it’s not). But because it’s being used as a tool to drive a bigger and possibly permanent wedge into one of America’s most unique, authentic and homegrown institutions: the conservation and environmental community that protects our great outdoor heritage.

We shouldn’t let it happen. Americans’ interest in securing great wild places and providing opportunities to experience natural beauty was alive and strong long before Agenda 21. America’s conservation ethic was solidified in the preservation policies of Republican leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Ken Burns’ documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, highlights the uniquely American approach that has historically been supported by a strong bipartisan movement of folks who simply love the great outdoors.

It’s easy for progressives to mock or ignore Agenda 21 conspiracy believers. In doing so, they too often miss the underlying desires of many of these people to maintain access to the outdoors, to secure their freedoms to hunt and fish, to pass on to their children an outdoor experience similar to theirs.

Conservative policymakers, by feeding the unreasonable fears of anti-Agenda 21 activists, risk rolling back decades of improvements in forest health, community economic development and natural resource management.

While global conspiracy theories make entertaining talk show rants, they make terrible public policy. Stripped of political gamesmanship, Agenda 21 is just another take on the idea that people need to take a hand in nurturing and protecting our places and our planet. It’s a concern mirrored in local garden club meetings and deer-camp conversations across Michigan and the U.S.

The reality is that managing our land, wildlife, and energy systems is getting more complicated. More users demand access to landscapes for often incompatible activities. Sometimes triathlons are staged in areas open to hunting. Specialized outdoor pursuits like horseback riding and elk hunting, bird watching and ORV scrambles must all be accommodated on one Michigan landscape.

This balancing act requires thoughtful policy. The conservation and environmental communities, progressives and conservatives, hunters and planners, need to come together now to make sure that our shared outdoor ethic doesn’t get trampled by the distraction of UN Agenda 21 rhetoric.
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