Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 26, 2013

Forum: Agenda 21 paranoia does not help


---- — From April 10 through May 5, the front pages of the Record-Eagle published three astonishing headlines: “Leelanau shuns economic partnership — commissioners vote to disband county economic board.” “Second Leelanau commissioner cites conspiracy theory.” “Closed-door County? Commissioners on jobs: Not our business.”

This incredibly bad publicity resulted from some county commissioners’ efforts to abolish the Economic Development Corporation rather than try to reform it. The head of the EDC said our commissioners “do not want new jobs created, do not want to support young families, and therefore are roadblocks to our schools and young people, the future of our community.” That assessment has now been echoed and amplified by many local business leaders.

Even more astonishingly, two of the commissioners, Debra Rushton and Karen Zemaitis, apparently voted to abolish the EDC because they feared that Agenda 21 might be applied to Leelanau County. But Agenda 21 was signed more than two decades ago at the first Earth Summit in Rio. NOAA, my former employer, played an important role in that conference.

Had they done their homework, the commissioners would have known that Agenda 21 is not a treaty and it does not change any national, state or local law here in the United States. Agenda 21 seeks to promote economic development while protecting the environment for future generations. Agenda 21 is, if you will, a business plan for Planet Earth.

If President George H.W. Bush supported Agenda 21, how did fellow Republicans Rushton and Zemaitis become such strident opponents? Could it be, perhaps, that they listen to talk radio too much?

Glenn Beck has recently been hyping a new book by claiming that Agenda 21 is a diabolical plot of the United Nations to take away the property rights and personal freedoms of ordinary Americans. Since then, Beck-inspired conspiracy theorists have been citing Agenda 21 to oppose programs aimed at protecting open space, enhancing public transportation, and even creating bike lanes.

Of course, Leelanau County already has many such programs. Will our commissioners set their sights on the Conservancy, farmland preservation, the Bay Area Transportation Authority and bike trails because they sound suspiciously like Agenda 21? Who knows?

The local press finds it amusing that this Glenn Beck-inspired paranoia has infected a vocal minority in our county. The Enterprise warned county residents to “keep their eyes open for black helicopters.” The Record-Eagle called the Anti-Agenda 21 crowd “self-disenfranchised conspiracy advocates who claim to see a socialist behind every tree.” Frankly, I don’t see the humor.

In the next few years, the Leelanau County Commission may well decide to have nothing to do with economic development, public schools, public transportation, bike lanes, protection of open space and preservation of clean water. And, perhaps by 2014, the voters of Leelanau County may well decide to cast out those elected officials who simply parrot Glenn Beck and want to impose his extremist ideology on the residents of “the most beautiful place in America.”

About the author: From 1988 to 2000, Jay Johnson was Deputy General Counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His area of responsibility included drafting, interpreting, and enforcing domestic and international laws and regulations that protect fish, living marine resources and the marine environment.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing Please include biographical information and a photo.