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The Corporate Money Behind Our Country’s Anti-Public-Lands Politicians

The Congressional officials who attack our conservation system have received enormous campaign contributions from extraction companies, according to a new report.

By Jimmy Tobias


Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A wrecking crew is hard at work on Capitol Hill.

By way of bill writing, budgetary sabotage and the Congressional bully pulpit, the wrecking crew wants to dismantle our country’s proud tradition of protecting natural resources. It wants to do away with federal lands. It wants to weaken conservation law. It wants to make you believe that land agencies like the United States Forest Service are corrupt, inept, tyrannical, or all three at once. It wants to undermine America’s great outdoors.

Perhaps you already know the politicians that compose this small but powerful anti-public-lands cohort. Perhaps you’re familiar with Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the firebrand chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Perhaps you recognize Mark Amodei, a Congressman from Nevada who brings to his work a tireless disdain for the federal domain. Perhaps you’ve heard of Representative Jason Chaffetz, another Utah Republican, who recently attempted to dispose of three million acres of public land across the West. But in case you’re not acquainted with these people and their conservation-averse colleagues, the Center for Biological Diversity released a report last week that lists the top 15 “public lands enemies” operating in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Together the individuals named in the report have proposed or co-sponsored more than 100 anti-public-lands bills in Congress in the last six years alone, including legislation to gut the 110-year-old Antiquities Act, to transfer millions of acres of national land to state control, and to remove conservation protections for sage grouse and other imperiled species. Together they have polarized, even poisoned, the public debate around federal land management.

The wrecking crew’s members, including Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Representative Steve Pierce of New Mexico, have a number of things in common: They’re mostly white, they’re mostly men, and they’re on the older side of the age spectrum. Their most essential shared trait, however, is this: Each and every one of them has received enormous campaign contributions from oil and gas corporations, mining companies, or other powerful extractive industry interests.

These politicians, in other words, are the embodiment of how our corrupt campaign finance system results in regressive policies that harm the American people and threaten the landscapes they love.

This dynamic was on display last week at a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on marine conservation. During the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the executive branch invoked its legitimate authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect large tracts of ocean habitat by declaring them marine national monuments. President Barack Obama, for instance, created the Atlantic Ocean’s first such monument shortly before leaving office.

These monuments, however, have upset certain anti-conservation congressmen. During the hearing last week, for example, Representative Don Young of Alaska, who ranks No. 7 on the public lands enemy list, railed against the use of established law to protect federally managed ocean parcels.

“I will tell you Mr. Chairman I don’t believe the Antiquities Act should ever have been applied to oceans,” he said, adding later that, “this is an attempt, very frankly, to control again the sea beds….” Young particularly criticized marine monuments for precluding oil exploration and commercial fishing. He also plugged his MAST Act, a bill that would strip future presidents of their power to independently protect marine areas using the Antiquities Act.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Young maintains these sentiments as a matter of political principle. It’s also possible that Young’s opposition to marine monuments has something to do with the more than $180,000 in campaign contributions he has received over the course of his career from Edison Chouest Offshore. The company, which is Young’s second largest overall campaign benefactor, is a major player in servicing offshore oil drillers.

The legislative activities of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, public lands enemy No. 12, tell a similar story. The powerful chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Murkowski has received more than $1 million in career oil and gas industry campaign contributions. In turn, she’s been an outspoken advocate for fossil-fuel interests, pushing to open up oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and promoting legislation to increase oil production on Alaska’s federal lands by as many as 500,000 barrels a day by 2026. She has also been one of the Senate’s leading proponents of the land transfer movement.

There’s a very real case to be made that the anti-conservation crusade taking shape today on Capitol Hill would simply not exist without the huge quantity of corporate cash influencing our elections. According to a recent bipartisan poll conducted by Colorado College, voters in seven Western states overwhelmingly support this country’s national monuments while most oppose the land transfer movement. Yet somehow many of the leading Western politicians in Congress hold the opposite view. They are ardent opponents of federal land conservation. What, besides corporate electioneering, explains this gulf between public sentiment and political representation?

Oil drillers, strip miners, agricultural conglomerates — they want something for the cash they dole out. The U.S. Congress, for its part, knows how to deliver.