Fighting Bureaucrats, Radicals and Liberal Judges on America's Frontier

I first encountered William Perry Pendley at a "Wise Use" conference in the early 1990s at a hotel in Reno, Nev. Among the folksy crowd of rural and small-town activists who had come together to figure out how to prevent environmentalists and government agencies from threatening their property, their communities, and their way of life, Pendley stuck out. Instead of going about meeting people and making conversation, he quietly sat on the sidelines typing into his laptop; but mainly he was conspicuous for his suit and tie — perhaps the only such dress in the room, even though worn with cowboy boots. Also, he was probably the only lawyer in attendance. Just as I was the only professor, there to research the environmental issues bringing turmoil to the American West.

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Later Pendley spoke to the gathering with passion, and it was plain from audience response that despite his different appearance, Pendley also spoke for the people there. As the chief legal officer of the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), he had literally represented some of the persons present in their battles with the Federal government. And in a larger sense he represented a vital way, sometimes the only way, those in the audience could hope to defend themselves and achieve justice. He brimmed with the same outrage as his audience, and best of all, gave them hope they might prevail. He shared with them a belief in the Constitution, and the personal rights and liberties and protections it recognizes.

Pendley would author two books in the mid-1990s that prefigure his new book: "It Takes a Hero: The Grassroots Battle Aganinst Environmental Oppression" (Free Enterprise Press, 1994) and "War on the West: Government Tyranny on America’s Great Frontier" (Regnery, 1995). The former consisted of down-to-earth sketches of the Wise Use and property rights activists who were leading the growing rural and small town resistance to the policies of the Clinton and previous administrations. "War on the West," on the other hand, was a broad survey of all the major environmental issues afflicting Westerners, and the myriad ways in which private property rights were being violated, and the livelihoods of rural producers — ranchers, farmers, miners, timber workers — were being threatened.

I thought the books would make excellent teaching tools for my university courses on environmental issues, and I was right. The challenge I faced was to teach undergraduates at a Massachusetts university about topics foreign to the experience of most of them. But Pendley’s style is so direct and clear, and the examples he cites are so memorable, that students grasp them well, and in general are persuaded by his analysis and arguments. In the surveys I conduct at the end of my courses, students have consistently rated his books very highly in terms of what they learn from them. On the other hand, in the same courses when I used Al Gore’s "Earth in the Balance" students invariably rated it very low, far beneath Pendley.

"Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America’s Frontier" follows in the same vein, but with much greater emphasis on the legal aspects of the cases the MSLF has fought to protect ordinary Americans — and our Constitution — from the forces cited in the book’s subtitle. The book is in fact a spirited summary of the MSLF’s work over nearly 30 years. Not just environmental issues are addressed; racial preferences, for instance, are at the center of some important lawsuits. Government high-handedness and misdoing are at the core of many of the legal situations. The book highlights a great variety of cases, some of them mind-boggling — one asks, how could this happen in America?

As in his other books, Pendley does not just describe. He analyzes, explains, educates, especially in the arcane areas of the law. For ordinary Americans in the position of having to worry about their legal rights in respect to government — unfortunately, a large and growing number of citizens — "Warriors for the West" should be as clarifying and interesting as his previous books were for my students.