For an understanding of what happens to big NGOs when they become dependent on rich donors, both private and corporate, consult the last paragraph of George Orwell's "Animal Farm": "Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
I only have space to examine the fate of one big NGO, so I've chosen a graphic, but by no means atypical, example—that of Ducks Unlimited.
First, I'll note that DU has done and does wonderful things for waterfowl and, thereby, all manner of other wildlife. Since its founding in 1937 it has conserved 14 million acres of wetland habitat. In 2017, close to 5,000 major donors and 700,000 members kicked in about $86 million.
For years I supported DU in print and financially, and I hope to do so again. I used to go to the Boston DU dinners with my neighbor, close friend and boss, Colton "Rocky" Bridges, then director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. At the fundraising auctions (always emotional affairs and always late in the evening) drunken DUers, sometimes with tears running down their cheeks, would rise unsteadily and shout "For the ducks! For the ducks!"
Like so many good men at state game and fish agencies Rocky left and went to work for DU. He made it a better outfit. But since Rocky's departure from the organization and the planet, DU has gone AWOL on important issues and been on the wrong side of others.
Dale Hall, DU's CEO since 2010, served honorably as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009. He kept the service out of trouble with an anti-science administration. And when Bush's Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary, Julie MacDonald (a political hack with no knowledge of or interest in fish and wildlife) ripped apart the Endangered Species Program's scientific reports, Hall had her declawed. Shortly thereafter an Inspector General's report forced her to resign in disgrace.
But science hasn't been a Hall priority at DU. Consider his screed in the November-December 2018 issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine in which he falsely accuses Obama and former USFWS director Dan Ashe of spreading "misinformation" about and blocking the use of genetically modified crops (GMOs) and neonicotinoid pesticides, the latter so lethal to pollinators and other non-target wildlife that they've been banned by the European Union.
Hall alleges that an Obama/Ashe "order" to "halt" use of GMOs and neonicotinoids on national wildlife refuges "eliminated one of the most beneficial programs available to a refuge manager to provide food for waterfowl and other migratory birds." He closes by thanking, in capital letters, Trump's acting USFWS director, Greg Sheehan, for reversing the "order."
Dan Ashe, Jamie Clark (also a former USFWS director), and two former high-ranking USFWS officials—Ralph Morgenweck and Jon Andrew—tried to set the record straight with a letter to the editor. They noted that there was no "order" from Obama, Ashe or any other political figure, only a policy memo from a career professional—USFWS refuge chief Jim Kurth.
They further noted that there was no case for GMOs, neonicotinoids or even farming on national wildlife refuges. For the last two decades the refuge system has been phasing out farming, traditionally a political plum tossed to locals. Moist-soil management provides natural and far more nutritious food for waterfowl and other wildlife. Today only about 80,000 acres of refuge land is still farmed. But DU would have the public believe that this makes a difference amid a private sea of millions upon millions of acres planted to corn, soy and wheat.
The letter to the editor elicited no apology, no retraction and no response, just a boilerplate rejection slip for articles: "Thank you for your interest in having an article published in Ducks Unlimited magazine, but your submission is declined."
So why would DU publish such bizarre and untruthful claims and refuse to run corrections? Could it be because GMOs and neonicotinoid pesticides are produced by Monsanto, a DU donor and partner?
The Trump administration horrified wildlife advocates when it emasculated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) on December 22, 2017.
Every living former USFWS director with one exception, every living former USFWS migratory bird chief with no exception, and other former top USFWS officials signed a letter to then Interior Secretary Zinke expressing shock and outrage at the "new, contrived legal standard that creates a huge loophole in the MBTA, allowing companies to engage in activities that routinely kill migratory birds."
The MBTA had required British Petroleum to cough up $100 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund after its Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And that got matched by another $100 million. If the spill happened today, BP wouldn't have to pay a cent thanks to the Trump administration's creative re-interpretation of the MBTA.
The only former USFWS director who refused to sign the letter was DU's Dale Hall.
As I write, Don Thomas, a medical doctor and nationally respected outdoor journalist, is working on a piece about the Trump administration's vandalism of the MBTA. In a November 2, 2018 letter to DU he wrote: "I would like to suggest that we set bygone events aside for a moment and address an issue of common concern…. Has DU taken a position on this matter? If so, I would like to report it, for the good of both DU and the ducks." As of January 2, 2019 he has received no reply.
Thomas elevated the quality of DU's magazine by contributing informative, literate pieces from 1998 to 2015, including a regular column starting in 2001.
So what of the "bygone events" that aren't?
They resulted from a piece entitled "A Rift Runs Through it" that Thomas wrote for the fall 2015 issue of Outside Bozeman, a tiny publication based in southwest Montana.
The piece criticized local property owner, James Kennedy—49th richest person in the U.S., according to Forbes—who spent what for most anyone else would have been a fortune in a lengthy crusade to kill Montana's 1985 Stream Access Law. After Kennedy bought up eight miles along the Ruby River, he barred access to anglers and the rest of the public by erecting barbed wire and electric fences across the easement between a bridge and the water. He then undertook prolonged litigation that made it all the way to the state Supreme Court before it failed.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Kennedy had been pumping huge sums into DU.
The ink was barely dry on the Outside Bozeman issue when a copy appeared at DU headquarters. DU immediately dismissed Thomas. In less than 24 hours it permanently expunged from its website all references to Thomas and all 17 years worth of his features and columns.
The liquidation called to mind how, after the long-dead Trotsky had fallen out of favor with the Soviets, he was disappeared from a painting of Kremlin Pooh-bahs. The absurdity extended to Trotsky's hat which was left hovering in ether.
Pilloried by outdoor writers, DU offered this explanation: "It's impossible to think we could have members of our own staff [Thomas was not staff] taking really nasty shots at people who are our volunteers and donors."
Shortly thereafter DU professed to have no position on Montana's Stream Access Law. But it swiftly backtracked when duck-hunting donors, who depend on that law, got their backs up.
As long-time members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America Thomas and I expected our organization to strongly condemn this assault on the First Amendment. Instead OWAA noted that the First Amendment "also allows organizations such as Ducks Unlimited [which helps fund OWAA as a "supporting" member] to choose the voices it uses to disseminate its messages" and that "OWAA plans to use the Thomas-DU disagreement as a platform to educate freelance journalists and media outlets who use their content about the nature of freelancing, including the risks and obligations freelancers and publications have toward each other."
Switch the setting from Montana to Nevada. For two decades rancher Cliven Bundy had unlawfully grazed his cattle on public land, accumulating $1 million in unpaid fines and fees. In March 2014 (on orders from "our heavenly father," as Bundy reports) he and 300 heavily armed "militiamen" confronted at gunpoint BLM agents who finally had mustered the nerve to confiscate Bundy's trespassing cattle. The agents responded by returning the cattle and leaving. Thereafter Bundy became a property-rights folk hero.
In January 2016 Bundy's son, Ammon, emboldened by BLM's retreat and the Justice Department's inaction, led a heavily armed militia in a 41-day occupation and trashing of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The refuge, now 293 square miles, was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt for waterfowl.
Virtually all major sporting and environmental organizations expressed outrage. But DU, an organization that exists only for waterfowl, never uttered a peep. I can't help thinking that this silence had something to do with a federal jury finding all Malheur-takeover defendants not guilty of multiple felonies.
Whenever I ask DU why it doesn't speak up on such issues it answers with its shibboleth: "singleness of purpose." Id est: For the ducks! For the ducks!
But "singleness of purpose" has never restrained DU from speaking up. Consider the public letter it signed, savaging USFWS for blocking Alaska's predator jihad on national wildlife refuges. Signing with DU were 33 other sportsmen's groups, many of which tend to worry more about the interests of their members than the interests of wildlife.
So grotesque was the massacre on lands belonging to all Americans that the Service had to shut it down. As Director Ashe, put it: "The Alaska Board of Game has unleashed a withering attack on bears and wolves that is wholly at odds with America's long tradition of ethical, sportsmanlike, fair-chase hunting. There comes a time when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must stand up for the authorities and principles that underpin our work and say, 'No.'"
Previously DU had proclaimed that it "does not believe it would be constructive to … liquidate the national interest in federal land management." Yet it was perfectly okay with, indeed promoted, liquidation of that interest in Alaska.
The letter savaging the USFWS was instrumental in the Trump administration's reversal of Ashe's rule.
The 417,500-acre Izembek Refuge, mostly designated wilderness, sustains foxes, wolves, brown bears, wolverines, moose, caribou, sea otters, walruses, Stellar's sea lions, shorebirds, seabirds, five species of salmon and a rich array of waterfowl including almost all the Pacific black brant on earth. At least 50,000 people have voiced opposition to the Trump administration's plan for a wasteful, destructive and entirely unnecessary highway through the heart of the refuge. Not a peep from DU.
And not a peep from DU about the Trump administration's plan to convert the waterfowl-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to an industrial sacrifice area for the oil-gas industry.
If "singleness of purpose" explains DU's silence on the planned trashing of these two refuges, how is it that DU can whoop it up for toxic lead ammo? This is perhaps its more unforgiveable betrayal because no NGO better understands the dangers of lead. Lead shot has been banned for waterfowling since 1991 because it was fatally poisoning two million ducks a year.
I shall not forget the day when Dr. Mark Pokras of Tufts University's Wildlife Clinic in Grafton, Massachusetts opened a giant refrigerator and two dozen stiff bald eagles, poisoned by consuming lead bullets, tumbled out around my feet. He then showed me X-rays of scores of poisoned common loons in which lead sinkers and jigheads were plainly visible in the digestive tracts.
The Safari Club, passionate defender of toxic ammo and promoter of canned hunts, attempted to bootstrap its sagging image with a program it called "Sportsmen Against Hunger" in which members donated their venison to the poor. But after studies documented dangerous levels of fragmented lead in the venison Minnesota and North Dakota pulled it from food banks and had it destroyed.
Since there are low-cost, effective alternatives to lead ammo, one might suppose that DU would be against poisoning humans (or at least against poisoning wildlife). But when, on his first day at Interior, Zinke overturned a planned phase-out of lead ammo and sinkers on national wildlife refuges, there was DU's Dale Hall at the signing ceremony, grinning, gushing and standing proudly behind Zinke.
Hall is on his way out, but my read is that DU's deficiencies are nine parts systemic and one part Hall. Judging from Hall's decent performance at USFWS, I believe the climate at DU turned him.
Can DU regain the high ground it occupied when Rocky Bridges and I were members and supporters? I hope so. And I'd like to think so.
We hate to ask, but ...
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