Agenda 21 stokes property-rights fears
Others say U.N.
land-use blueprint having no impact
By TIM HEARDEN
QUINCY, Calif. -- Carol Viscarra doesn't consider herself a political activist, but Agenda 21 caught her attention.
The cattle, hay and vegetable producer from the Indian Valley near here is also an emergency-room nurse, so she doesn't have much time to "bounce around the county addressing regulatory boards," she said.
But battles over water from a stream that feeds her 450-acre ranch have taken Viscarra on a journey of research that led her to fight a proposed update of Plumas County's general plan, which she believes could slowly destroy private property rights.
"I am an American," she told the county planning commission recently, "and I believe that one of the primary pillars upon which rests our most fundamental freedoms as Americans is private property rights."
Viscarra and some of her neighbors assert the updated plan closely mirrors Agenda 21, a United Nations document that's drawn fire from some landowners and activists in the West who fear it's behind a planned depopulation of rural areas.
"It is a global plan that is implemented locally, one city and one county at a time," Viscarra said in prepared remarks.
Adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and reaffirmed last year, the more than 300-page Agenda 21 advises governments in a variety of areas having to do with what it calls "sustainable development." The far-reaching document includes sections on combating poverty, changing consumption patterns, protecting air quality and promoting human health.
But in a chapter devoted to agriculture and rural development, Agenda 21 calls for "increasing production on land already in use and ... avoiding further encroachment on land that is only marginally suitable for cultivation."
Further, the document decries "inappropriate and uncontrolled land uses," which it calls "a major cause of degradation and depletion of land resources."
Agenda 21 urges governments to "collect, continuously monitor, update and disseminate information ... on the utilization of natural resources" and to "establish agricultural planning bodies at national and local levels" to set priorities for land use.
In a lengthy section on water, Agenda 21's authors also advocate monitoring the use of "chemicals in agriculture that may have an adverse environmental effect" and says farms must "save water for other uses." It also blames soil erosion from "overgrazing" for the siltation of lakes.
The document was forged as a sort of compromise between the interests of richer countries concerned about environmental issues and poorer nations that wish to grow their economies, said Dan Shepard, a UN information officer.
"It's not a treaty, and it's not law. Every country does it on its own," Shepard said. "It's sort of a guideline. It's a blueprint. ... It's not mandatory. It doesn't call for any big-brother approach."
However, Viscarra and a growing number of others fear that Agenda 21 is being used by groups such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives -- later renamed Local Governments for Sustainability -- to eventually force people into cities and return vast swaths of rural landscape to wilderness.
Viscarra said nongovernmental organizations make use of grants to influence local policy. She maintained that Agenda 21's goals have become "embedded in every regulatory agency for the feds," and local planning departments farm out their general plan updates to consultants who are trained by industry organizations to apply the UN's ideals.
"It's happening in 100 ways in 100 places," Viscarra said in an interview. "I think people only within the last 18 months are starting to connect the dots."
An attractive target
Plumas County makes an attractive target for environmentalists, she said. Its Feather River watershed is the largest in the Sierra Nevada range and contributes to the water supply of over 25 million Californians.
She noted the county's general plan proposal asserts water availability for farmers and ranchers "could be at odds with downstream demand for environmental flows to improve the Delta ecosystem and support greater water exports to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California."
Viscarra argues that Agenda 21's influence can be seen in other issues, too, such as the decline of the timber industry, a U.S. Forest Service travel-management plan that prohibits cars from driving off designated roads and "the valuing of fish over farming communities" in the Klamath Basin.
She isn't alone in her fears. Bert Holzhauser, a third-generation cattleman in Dorris, Calif., suspects that Agenda 21 is behind a plan to reintroduce wolves into California.
"When they bring the wolf in here, that's going to do all the agriculture in," he said. "It's not only going to do agriculture in, it's going to do recreation in. It's going to do the towns in, everything. The whole infrastructure of California is going to be hurt by that and it's going to cost a lot of money."
Gary Soeth, whose family has run cattle and sheep in the rolling foothills west of Willows, Calif., said he doesn't know much about Agenda 21. But he is concerned about the new wilderness areas and national monuments that have been designated in the last two decades, he said.
"If we continue to lock up agricultural lands and take them out of production, we could end up with other nations feeding us," Soeth said. "I don't think there's any way we could weaken our nation quicker."
Soeth said he's resisted taking money from federal agencies to improve his land or setting up a conservation easement.
"I think a person has to be pretty nave (to think) that there aren't going to be strings attached," he said. "I think someday they will call their chips in."
All the fears over Agenda 21 are unfounded, asserts Stephen Wheeler, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California-Davis with expertise in city and regional planning.
Agenda 21 has become a catch-all bogeyman for rural residents with "legitimate feelings in many cases that they don't have a lot of control over their lives," Wheeler said.
But, he said, the document is essentially toothless.
"I have never heard anybody specifically refer to it in my professional life, and I used to work for a number of NGO (nongovernmental organization) and advocacy-type groups and develop papers for them," Wheeler said.
"Basically there's absolutely zero impact of Agenda 21 on American planning," he said. "There's probably not much even in countries like Sweden, which do take international stuff seriously."
Wheeler derides as "absolutely nuts" any notion that a "global superagency" is going to take over farmland. He blames much of the furor on conservative talk-radio hosts such as Glenn Beck, whose novel "Agenda 21" depicts life under a future global dictatorship.
However, those who warn others about Agenda 21's reach aren't limited to rural residents or talk-radio hosts.
* Michael Coffman, a former manager for Champion International who is perhaps best known for helping defeat U.S. ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity in the early 1990s, cautioned about Agenda 21's implementation in his 2010 book, "Rescuing a Broken America."
* Rosa Koire, a forensic commercial real estate appraiser who specializes in eminent domain valuation, similarly warns about Agenda 21 in her 2011 book, "Behind the Green Mask." She started the organization Democrats Against UN Agenda 21.
* In 2011, a trio of researchers from the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote that Agenda 21 "unabashedly calls on governments to intervene and regulate nearly every potential impact that human activity could have on the environment."
If implemented, policies encouraged by the UN document would "significantly expand the role of government in economic decision-making, impede development and economic growth, and undermine individual choice" and local control, wrote researchers Wendell Cox, Ronald D. Ult and Brett D. Schaefer.
However, so-called smart-growth concepts weren't new when Agenda 21 was introduced and people should recognize it is "simply another facet" and "not allow it to divert them from opposing the more ubiquitous, overarching agenda of homegrown environmental extremists," the researchers wrote.
For her part, Viscarra said she has no quarrel with the concept of sustainability. Her beef operation is certified organic, and the 70-acre heirloom vegetable farm she shares with her husband, Jose, provides food for a local natural food store.
She said she was prepared to be mocked and ridiculed for her stances on Agenda 21, which some of her neighbors have criticized on a local newspaper's comment board.
"I was prepared for that," Viscarra said. "But you can't deny that Agenda 21 is out there. They want to paint it as a conspiracy theory and not educated. They're hurling all those little insults. But I really think our Board of Supervisors are willing to relook at this plan. They want a balanced plan as much as we want a balanced plan."
Viscarra said people shouldn't rely on her opinions alone when it comes to Agenda 21.
"Inform yourselves," she said during the planning meeting, "and draw your own conclusions based upon your own research and exploration of these subject areas."
Heritage Foundation report on Agenda 21: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/12/focus-on-agenda-21-should-not-divert-attention-from-homegrown-anti-growth-policies