A relatively small bill to the city of Missoula recently packed the house in council chambers.
The amount was $1,200 for membership dues City Hall has paid to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, or ICLEI, since 1996. This year, though, the payment spurred a fight.
A crowd turned up for the meeting, most to urge the council to pay up. But people from as far away as Silver Star pleaded with Missoula to withdraw from ICLEI to preserve their property rights and other liberties.
The council paid the bill, but the protest did not happen by accident. In the last couple of years, the John Birch Society has ramped up its work in Montana, and it has found a receptive audience for its platform, including opposition to ICLEI, said society spokesman Bill Hahn. The society does not disclose membership numbers, but the Montana field director said "it's definitely growing."
"When we take a look at what big government has brought us within the last 20-, 30-plus years, it's nothing more than ruinous spending, and you know, at terrible costs to our individual liberties," said Hahn, who pointed to both the Republican and Democratic parties as culprits.
According to its website, the John Birch Society aims "to bring about less government, more responsibility, and - with God's help - a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles."
The message of less government strikes a chord with some Montanans. The Montana Human Rights Network, which follows the work of far-right "patriot" and hate groups, tracks the John Birch Society and said its platform is sure to help shape the political debates of 2012.
"They really understand the value of engaging the Republican Party and getting candidates who are very conservative signed up to run for office even if they are not going to win," said director Travis McAdam. "They understand that when you run for office, even if you're not going to win, you have the microphone."
The John Birch Society notes its stances on its website, among them the protection of the Fourth Amendment and privacy, the end of federal aid for education because it "has not improved reading scores," and abolishing the Federal Reserve.
At least three people who testified at the council meeting have direct ties to the John Birch Society, but no one identified himself or herself as a member of the group. Robert Brown, regional field director, said he didn't mention his affiliation because he was testifying on his own behalf.
Hahn said he also speaks at times as an individual and not as a society spokesman, but he acknowledged that the organization's alleged link - undeserved, he said - to white supremacist groups might at times account for the omissions.
"That baggage does exist out there. And certain times, would we get farther in a debate or an educational situation if we don't drop the name? I guess it all depends on the situation," he said.
But Hahn also said the society publicly denounces hate groups, and it immediately revokes the memberships of people found to be active with them. He said John Birch in the last couple of years has denied memberships because of people's stances on issues such as white supremacy. (Hahn believes some of those applicants may have been from Montana, Idaho, or both, where the society has been more active in recent years; the state field director could not immediately verify the society had blocked Montanans.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights racial injustice and monitors hate groups, considers the John Birch Society an anti-government "patriot" group.
The Montana Human Rights Network has been tracking the activity of the John Birch Society and its interactions with the tea party in Montana the last year and a half, said McAdam.
When the ICLEI membership raised concern in council chambers, the Human Rights Network linked the outcry to the John Birch Society and a fall speaking tour in Montana by Tom DeWeese, a leading critic of Agenda 21.
Agenda 21 is a United Nations roadmap of sorts to sustainability, but its detractors see sustainability as a trap of "radical environmentalists" and a threat to private property rights.
"It boils down to control," wrote Hahn in an email. "Do we allow an international organization to implement its extreme environmental agenda through innocuous names of sustainability, smart growth, etc., or do we (as locals) retain the sovereignty that allows us to govern ourselves and decide locally what is best for individuals?"
To some onlookers, the alarm bells at the council meeting seemed to come out of the blue, but McAdam said people who had heard DeWeese speak were primed on the issue.
He said the Human Rights Network doesn't necessarily consider the group dangerous, but he said the political climate is ripe for its "conspiracy theories."
Opposition to a supposed New World Order used to be something that people encountered more among militia groups, but McAdam said some of those ideas are seeping into the mainstream. And a public beleaguered by one economic crisis after another is ready to receive the anti-government message, too.
"People are losing their jobs. They've lost their homes. They've lost their retirement," McAdam said.
Combine the economic hits with the fact that the United States elected a black man as president, and minorities of all kinds are being scapegoated in public debates, he said: "You have a lot of fear, a lot of anger and a lot of resentment. The right, not just in Montana, but the right in America, has historically thrived in those kinds of environments."
Knox Harrington generally rejects the paradigm of left-right politics, and while he said he isn't a member of the John Birch Society, the Missoula man is an advocate of some of its tenets.
Harrington wants less government, he wants adherence to the U.S. Constitution, and he doesn't want to live in a society governed by Big Brother and the Patriot Act. He considers himself a "regular guy," but an activist, too.
"I don't want to say that, well, I didn't do anything, little boys and girls. Now you have to live with the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) sticking their hands down your pants for your freedom," Harrington said.
The Montana native said he wasn't at the council meeting when ICLEI dues were on the agenda, but he heard plenty about it. In a blog post, Harrington described the council's support of ICLEI as "treasonous."
"This treasonous move is in direct violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights, as City Council has enforced the religious theory of anthropogenic climate change," Harrington wrote in a www.battleforjustice.com story. "It also slaps Article 1 Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution to the ground."
In an interview, Harrington agreed Agenda 21 looks harmless on its face: "It looks really pretty on paper, and it's really wordy, and they use a lot of friendly, nice terms, and a lot of people if they didn't know any better would say this sounds really good."
But Harrington said a closer look shows a dangerous underlying theme. That idea is to take away the power of local governments and put that control in the hands of an international organization - one, he said, in which local taxpayers have no say.
It's one of the things the John Birch Society is working against, Harrington said, and he's grateful for its presence. The group values people's rights to think freely and be individuals without "a fascist government looking over their shoulders."
"Really, they're one of the only ones in the nation who are actively doing something about the encroaching tyranny from that (corporate, federal government) and international parties like the U.N.," Harrington said. "So I'm just glad they're around to fight the good fight nonviolently."
He supports Ron Paul for his adherence to the constitution, and while he doesn't agree with every view the John Birch Society holds, he respects its efficacy: "It helped to get one of the champions of the Constitution into office, Congressman Ron Paul. So any organization that can do that time after time, they're doing something right, and that's what really attracted me."
Hahn, of the John Birch Society, said the group doesn't directly back or endorse political candidates, but it does work to recruit "opinion molders" and educate the public. The last couple of years, the society has focused growth on states that have single congressional districts.
"We have seen tremendous gains. We have done this over a period of years throughout our history, a few times here and there. Each time we undertake this, we see tremendous gains toward our motto, toward the mission of JBS," he said.
And state field director Michael Boyle said the society's principles are resonating with Montanans.
"I would definitely say the message we're giving out of following the Constitution, protecting our God-given rights, is definitely something the people in Montana are very, very much concerned about, and they're very much in favor of an organization that is working to protect those things," Boyle said.