In Kirk MacKenzie's world, it's us versus them.
"Them" includes international bankers, the Service Employees International Union, "neo-environmentalists," communists, terrorists and the United Nations. Judging by the majority of his audience at a recent speech, "us" refers to white Republicans over 50.
This particular worldview was on display Monday, Dec. 16, in a cramped dining room at the Best Western Plus in Kalispell, where MacKenzie, founder of Defend Rural America, gave a two-hour presentation to a crowd of at least 80 people that included three state legislators.
The event, titled "How to Reclaim Montana's Lands," opened with a prayer by former Tea Party state legislator Derek Skees and included speeches by Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, and Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who also serves as vice chairwoman of the Montana Republican Party. MacKenzie introduced himself as "one of the few good ones" from the San Francisco Bay Area (laughter all around), and then dove into the substance of his speech.
MacKenzie wants to teach citizens and politicians how to strip control of public lands away from the federal government and put it in the hands of state and local officials. He believes that rural America is under attack by an insidious cartel of leftists, bureaucrats, bankers and phony scientists who use federal lands and laws like the Endangered Species Act to enact an oppressive agenda.
"Total control of public and private property everywhere in the country," he said, discussing the intent of federal environmental laws. "This has been in brew for quite some time ... This is the plan."
Part of his approach involves promoting a fundamental distrust of mainstream science. He claims that scientists manipulate data to shut down dams, lock loggers out of old-growth forests and generally put a halt to industrial development on public lands. One of his favorite examples is the listing of the spotted owl under the ESA in the early '90s. He claims the listing was intended to close off public land in the Pacific Northwest.
"The Endangered Species Act is a fraud," he said. "...As it turns out the spotted owl is not a species. It turns out that barred owls, which are doing just fine, are the same species as spotted owls."
MacKenzie explained that these plots are the work of what he calls "neo-environmentalists." "What is the single biggest problem in rural America?" he asked rhetorically during his speech. "Neo-environmentalism. I am not talking about environmentalism. I am talking about a political movement that disguises itself in a green cloak ... If you peel it back, you will see what I have been seeing ... watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside ... In my opinion, they are domestic terrorists."
Fielder, the vice chairwoman of the Montana Republican Party, promoted MacKenzie's gathering in an op-ed in the Sanders County Ledger and agreed to be a panelist at the event. However, she quickly distanced herself from MacKenzie when asked about his extreme rhetoric and ideas.
"I was disappointed in some of the remarks that were made," she says. "[The presentation] was not what I expected. It was not what I thought it would be."
Ballance was also quick to denounce MacKenzie's harsh language.
"I think that kind of rhetoric always hurts," she says. "I think when we call people terrorists and make those kinds of statements it stops the discussion right in its tracks."
Despite their concern about MacKenzie's words, both legislators say they might use some of his ideas to try to wrest power out of the hands of federal land management agencies.
Ballance is teaming up with the Ravalli County commissioners to find ways to force the U.S. Forest Service to work with local governments in the Bitterroot Valley. She is modeling her efforts in part on Apache County in Arizona, which MacKenzie regularly invokes as an example of local government willing to stand up to the U.S. Forest Service and its regulations.
Apache County officials passed a series of resolutions in 2011 that declared a countywide state of emergency and made it a crime for federal land managers to close roads on public forestland.
"Success!!!," writes MacKenzie on his organization's website. "The County was not bluffing. It acted upon its resolutions ... A second, much larger project is now being planned."
Ballance, MacKenzie and others think they can get similar resolutions passed in Ravalli County in order to force the Bitterroot National Forest to keep its roads open and to increase grazing permits and logging on the public forests.
"I would like to see our county take jurisdictional responsibility in these areas," says Ballance. "It might bring the Forest Service to the table and allow us to work with them."
Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, who is running for U.S. Congress in 2014, also attended the event. He agrees with MacKenzie's notion that federal lands fall under the legal jurisdiction of state and local governments.
"I think it is critical that the state of Montana play a much larger role in the control and management of our federal public lands," he says. "If it came to where we could convert the federal public landsnot the parks, but the other federal landsto state lands then I would be very supportive of that."
Despite concerns with his rhetoric, it seems some are willing to follow MacKenzie's fight against the secret agenda to conquer rural America.
"There is an agenda, and we haven't been treating it that way," MacKenzie said. "...In fact, rural America is being conquered."