Foundations are supposed to help the poor, not create them. That’s why Donna Thornton doesn’t understand why the Pew Charitable Trusts is trying to put her out of business. Donna and her husband, Dennis, run Thorco, a small family-owned logging company in Kalispell, Montana, that depends in part on federal timber from the Flathead National Forest. Times are tough-for the first time, the Thorntons don’t have any work this winter-and a sweeping land-use measure supported by Pew is threatening to make them even tougher.
“What this means to our community is poverty,” says Thornton, who has lived all her 38 years in Kalispell. “Montana already leads the nation in many poverty categories and that didn’t used to be the case. And this is going to make it worse.”
Two years ago, Pew launched the Heritage Forests Campaign, an ambitious “national-outreach effort” aimed specifically at winning administration approval for a ban on new road-building on as many as 60 million acres of national forest. During that time, the so-called “roadless” initiative has gone from a pipe dream with no chance of congressional passage to an administrative fait accompli, thanks to the clout of the environmental movement, a compliant administration, and an infusion of cash from green-friendly foundations.
“This is an absolutely monumental public-lands protection piece and we’re very close to making it happen,” says Ken Rait of the Oregon Public Lands Council, who was hired by Pew to run the campaign.
The initiative landed on Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman’s desk this past December, giving him just enough time to issue a Record of Decision before President George W. Bush was sworn in. But the initiative’s success came at a cost.
By forcing such a sweeping measure through the executive branch without approval from Congress or support from local communities, the Philadelphia-based philanthropic giant has come under fire for crossing the line between philanthropy and politics. The campaign was the subject of hearings last year before Congress, which have been followed by calls for more oversight and tougher restrictions on foundation giving.
The episode has also alerted rural denizens to the threat posed by the funders of the environmental movement. Some small-towners who used to have a high regard for the work done by foundations-or who had never heard of them at all-are starting to view them as the bad guys.
“We tend to think that these foundations are doing noble deeds, but here you have these East Coast bullies trying to tell us how to do things in the West,” says Brad Little, an Emmett, Idaho, rancher who has sued to stop the roadless initiative. “It’s going to hurt the status of philanthropic foundations. They don’t pay taxes now, and people are going to say, ‘Let’s make ’em pay taxes if they’re going to do this environmental activism.’”
Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming
The idea of cordoning off roadless areas is hardly new-environmentalists trace a similar proposal back to the last days of the Nixon administration. The issue caught the attention of Pew officials a few years ago when the Forest Service undertook a study on the repair and management of existing forest roads.
“We thought they were missing the bigger picture, which is what we should do about the 60 million acres of remaining roadless areas,” says Steve Kallick, Pew’s assistant director of environment programs.
From the start, Pew officials and environmentalists agreed that the campaign should be directed at the Clinton administration, not the Congress, where the chances of passage in the Republican-controlled body were virtually nil.
“There was never any thought to trying to put this through Congress,” says Kallick. “It was done under the Forest Service’s authority to manage the national forests.”
To organize the campaign, Pew turned to the National Audobon Society, awarding over $3.4 million in grants over two years. Other foundations chipped in, including Brainerd, Turner, Nathan Cummings, and W. Alton Jones, but the bottom line is in dispute: The House Resources Committee reported that it had identified $12 to $15 million in foundational funding for the project, while Pew insists the figure is closer to $4 million.
Audobon built a coalition of environmental support in part by funneling funding to another dozen green groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, Wilderness Society, and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. In March 1999, the campaign had its first success when the Forest Service agreed to impose an 18-month moratorium on new road construction in some public forest lands.
To build support for a permanent ban, the campaign hired a gaggle of pollsters to gauge opinion on the issue, including the Mellman Group, which did polling for President Clinton. Released July 27, 1999, the Mellman poll showed overwhelming support for protecting roadless areas in national forests, with 63 percent saying they agreed that “there is not enough wilderness protected on national forests,” according to Audobon’s press release.
Organizers left little doubt as to whom the poll was directed. “President Clinton can leave a legacy of historic proportions by protecting the last untouched national forest roadless areas,” said Mr. Rait in the same release.
The polling was followed by a massive write-in effort that ultimately generated a staggering 500,000 emails, postcards, and letters to the White House in support of the roadless initiative. That was enough to persuade the administration that the issue was a winner: On October 13, 1999, President Clinton announced that he would direct the Forest Service to prepare a study that would ban road-building on sections of the national forests that were roadless but that had not been designated as permanent wilderness.
Kallick says the write-in campaign and polling were critical in winning the administration’s endorsement. “I’m convinced that made the difference,” he says. “Most politicians don’t think much about natural-resource issues and you really have to get their attention.”
The decision certainly got the attention of the West. While environmentalists applauded, lawmakers blasted the decision as a “power grab” that would rope off millions of acres as “de facto wilderness,” with devastating consequences for forest health and the already-struggling timber industry.
“You are effectively shutting down national forests,“ said Senator Frank Murkowski, Alaska Republican, at a Senate subcommittee hearing in November 1999 with Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. “This is a de facto designation.”
Some lawmakers zeroed in on Pew, accusing the foundation of trying to circumvent the democratic process by making an end-run around Congress. They argued that the policy should have been broached through the forest-planning process, a typically slow, detailed and compromise-laden endeavor involving federal and state agencies, Congress, local communities, and interest groups.
“If the roadless initiative is universally popular, why can’t the Heritage Forests Campaign get it enacted by Congress through the normal legislative process?” asked Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, Idaho Republican.
Pew makes no apologies for bypassing Congress. According to Kallick, the campaign’s decision to take public-opinion polls and then move through the administration was actually more democratic than taking the proposal to the public’s elected representatives.
He cites the influence of Western Republicans in keeping the roadless initiative off the congressional agenda. “A small minority of people in power for many years has blocked this kind of action, and we felt that if most of the public was given the choice, they would support it,” says Kallick.
The overwhelming response from the write-in campaign proves his point, he says. “This one was unique in our experience in that it really created a snowball of public opinion. The response here was unprecedented,” says Kallick. “It just shows we were right.”
What it shows, say critics, is that Pew knows how to conduct polls. “Pew’s not interested in both sides of the story-they only want one side of the story,” says Little, who sits on the boards of several Western nonprofits, including the University of Idaho, High Country News, and Idaho Community foundations.
“Those guys are masters at getting the answers they want. The [polls] on the roadless initiative were so biased,” he says.
For example, the key question asked by pollsters was whether those surveyed “would support a policy to protect the remaining roadless areas from logging, mining and other habitat-altering development,” says Kallick. The survey results showed at least 65 percent support for that statement across a spectrum of demographic groups.
Clearly many Americans want to protect wilderness. But, critics ask, do they realize that the roadless area policy was aimed specifically at national forests? If so, do they understand the distinction between wilderness areas, national parks, and national forests? There are already 105 million acres designated as wilderness in the United States where no logging, mining or other industry is allowed, but the national forests have traditionally served as key sources of timber, minerals, and other resources.
Pew officials counter that the polls were conducted by Democratic and Republican pollsters alike, and that slanted surveys would have been worthless. “It was a well thought-out effort to work with both sides,” says Kallick. “A poll that isn’t straightforward doesn’t do you much good.”
Stealing a March
Either way the initiative caught many Westerners by surprise. “The average citizen in Idaho felt that it was done quietly behind closed doors,” recalls Dan Goicoechea [CK] of the Idaho Farm Bureau. “Our congressional delegation screamed and howled about it. No one could figure out where it was coming from.”
It didn’t take long for them to find out. On February 15, 2000, the House subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health held an oversight hearing on “The Funding of Environmental Initiatives and Their Impact on Local Committees,” which examined “the relationship among large foundations, environmental groups and the federal government in the development and implementation of environmental policy.” The primary case study used during the hearing was the roadless initiative.
Not surprisingly, lawmakers and witnesses used the hearing to denounce the Heritage Forests Campaign. Subcommittee chairman Chenoweth-Hage accused Pew of abusing its tax-exempt status by sidestepping Congress with “back-room deals [that] deny the average citizen a voice.”
“To whom is the Heritage Forests Campaign accountable?” she asked. “This campaign is put together by foundations-not participants. The grantees are accountable to the foundations that fund them-not their own members.”
She also announced that documents obtained from Council on Environmental Quality showed that a number of groups involved with the Heritage Forests Campaign-“a who’s-who in the environmental community,” as she put it-were in attendance during the drafting of the initiative. Nobody representing the timber industry, recreation, local communities, or school boards was present, she said.
That’s enough for Ron Arnold, a leading wise-use advocate whose book, Undue Influence, tracks the links between foundations and the environmental movement, to accuse the players in the Heritage Forests Campaign of law-breaking.
“It’s a violation of the Administration Procedures Act,” he says. “It’s a conflict of interest where you have that kind of one-sided access. They were invited into the administration offices to plan the actual rulemaking. . .. I had a right to be there, too, and I was not invited. And that’s illegal.”
Pew’s Kallick scoffs at such charges. “That [charge] was completely overblown-there was nothing illegal about it,” he says. “The argument was that it was never appropriate to go to the government and ask for anything unless you had every other [opposing] group with you. Interest groups talk to the government all the time-that’s democracy.”
Three months later, at a full committee hearing on the same issue, witnesses noted that the Heritage Forests Campaign had gathered 170 signatures of support for the roadless initiative from members of Congress. While not illegal, such lobbying drew criticism from watchdog groups like the Capital Research Center.
“[W]hen a foundation organizes a lobbying campaign on a highly divisive political issue, when it uses its largess to task one nonprofit organization-the National Audobon Society-to coordinate the lobbying of other nonprofits, then Congress should ask whether the spirit of the law is being upheld,” said Robert Huberty, the group’s executive vice president.
During the hearing, Chenoweth-Hage noted that Pew had been asked to send a representative, but declined. “She made a point of saying that these people from Alaska and Idaho had been able to make it, but somehow people from Philadelphia couldn’t,” says Huberty.
Pew officials deliberately avoided the hearing, says Kallick, because they knew the questioning would be unfriendly, and because the rest of the witnesses were critics of the roadless initiative. “It was clear there was an inappropriate amount of attention being paid to us and not to the assessment of the roadless policy,” he says. “Under the circumstances, we didn’t think it would benefit us.”
Kallick also dismisses the complaints as sour grapes. “What people really complained about is that we were effective,” he says. “The difference here is that something historic happened and that’s what rankled them.”
Lawsuits and Coffins
For all the uproar on the Republican side of the aisle, the roadless initiative never strayed from its course. After publishing the proposed rule in the Federal Register, the Forest Service held hearings last summer that drew a hefty 1.6 million comments. Environmental groups called on the agency to broaden the rule to include the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which was excluded from the administration’s version, while critics begged for it to be scrapped.
In Montana, opponents organized a convoy to the June hearing in Missoula, where more than 2,000 protestors staged a rally and brought in a coffin filled with letters objecting to the initiative. Even then, however, many of the initiative’s foes said they felt like they were going through the motions with an agency that had already made up its mind.
“What really bothers people here the most is when things that directly affect our lives don’t include our people in a meaningful way,” says Stefany Bales, spokeswoman for the Intermountain Forest Association in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “I don’t think anyone here really thought that our testimony would have any impact.”
Opponents have also gone to court, first to stop the 18-month moratorium and then to derail the final rule. So far three lawsuits have been rejected, the latest one (filed by Boise Cascade, the Intermountain Forest Association, and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association) because the judge ruled the challenge premature.
On November 13, 2000, the Clinton administration announced the release of the roadless initiative’s final environmental impact statement, the last step before the final decision. The statement contained good news for environmental groups: The initiative now includes a ban on commodity logging in roadless areas and also paves the way for the inclusion of the Tongass in 2004.
At the announcement, Secretary Glickman lauded both the initiative and the process through which it was approved. “Never before have the American people so actively participated in helping to decide how their public lands should be managed,” he said.
The American people may have participated in the process, counters Arnold, but there was nothing democratic about it. “It was a done deal. It was the biggest put-up job in the history of the environmental movement,” he says. “The foundations paid for it all and the environmental groups took the money and they did what they were told.”
The success of the Heritage Forest Campaign could well inspire similar efforts, although Pew has no plans for a follow-up, says Kallick.
“It’s hard to imagine another campaign of its kind. But where there’s broad public support for change in land policy, we would investigate it,” he says. “We’re certainly not closed to future actions, but we have no plans right now.”
In the meantime, the initiative leaves the rural West worried about the future-and wary of wealthy out-of-town do-gooders bearing polls.
“The roadless area is the final nail in the coffin,” says Little. “It’s going to change the whole character of the communities I live in from places where we work the land and produce a product to a total tourism deal. And people here don’t want that. But that’s one poll Pew won’t do.”
Valerie Richardson is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.