It would appear that the energy and extraction industries are getting tired of the burgeoning influence sportsmen and women are wielding these days in the conservation arena, and they’re spending some money on a clandestine effort to besmirch a handful of nonprofit organizations that help give anglers and hunters a voice in today’s pivotal conservation debate.
And it’s pretty sleazy, honestly.
Since last spring, a slew of letters to the editor to dozens of small to mid-sized daily newspapers around the country has appeared from a single author -- one Will Coggin -- describing some of the most influential sportsmen’s conservation groups as left-wing fronts that take money from anti-industry foundations and use that money to stifle everything from natural gas fracking to hard-rock mining.
Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Isaak Walton League, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and other groups have been targeted and labeled as “green decoys” that merely exist to keep industries from achieving their goals. The most recent letter, printed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, trashed Trout Unlimited because it accepted money from “environmentalist foundations, including some from San Francisco,” as if merely mentioning California’s fourth-largest city somehow implies that TU is guilty of carrying out some twisted, liberal “hidden agenda.”
Specifically, the letters, appearing in papers as big as the Tampa Tribune and the Knoxville News-Sentinel and as small as the Cortez, Colorado, Journal, congratulate local volunteers for the work they do on the ground in their communities on behalf of these groups, but then warn the apparently naive volunteers that they are supporting the radical left, because these organizations take money from outfits like the Packard Foundation, the Wyss Foundation or the Hewlett Foundation in order to achieve their agendas, which Coggin describes colorfully as “liberal,” “radical” and “left-wing.”
Coggin’s letters mention only the support these groups receive from their supposedly radical contributors, but never make note of the money given to these groups by industry sources such as Tiffany and Co., Conn-Edison, the J.R. Simplot Co., Freeport-McMoRan, or the countless contributions from supporters in the hunting and fishing industries. Orvis, for instance, is a huge contributor to Trout Unlimited for obvious reasons, and Bass Pro Shops just named TRCP as its conservation partner of the year.
Additionally, when mentioning Trout Unlimited in some of his letters, Coggin notes that a former Democratic congressman serves on that organization’s board of directors. The congressman Coggin references is Walt Minnick from Idaho, who, when he ran for reelection in 2010 (and lost), was endorsed by both the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.
The ongoing smear campaign apparently got its Genesis last spring in Colorado Springs at a Western Energy Alliance meeting, where Richard Berman, the CEO of Berman and Company Consulting, told industry executives that they can “either lose pretty or win ugly.” Reportedly, the nature of the conversation made some in the industry uncomfortable -- so much so that Berman’s talk was recorded and released to the media. One industry executive told the New York Times that Berman’s tactics “left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Berman’s record speaks for itself -- he’s a paid-for consultant that has made a career out of trashing the reputations of groups, people and organizations ranging from the Humane Society to labor unions to Robert Redford.
“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions -- that’s my offense. I am just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand,” Berman told executives at the meeting in Colorado, as quoted in the Times.
It would seem, despite the “bad taste” Berman’s talk spurred, some in the industry have chosen to finance Berman’s campaign, and Berman and Company has employed Coggin to blanket the media with letters to the editor denouncing targeted sportsmen’s conservation groups as left-wing fronts promoting clandestine liberal agendas.
And blanket the media he has done. With form letters, no less. This became apparent when, in a recent piece in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Coggin started out railing against Trout Unlimited and then, mid-letter, switched to referencing TRCP as the “camouflaged front for its left-wing radical environmentalist sugar daddies.” The gaff was clearly an error resulting from a cut-and-paste effort gone awry -- apparently he borrowed from a previous letter that trashed the TRCP and pasted the verbiage into a letter attacking TU without checking his acronyms. He later submitted a note to the Knoxville paper acknowledging his error, and the paper blindly corrected his mistake (never mind that the content of the letter is, at the very least, misleading).
Coggin’s ongoing effort to smear the names of these groups that truly do good work on behalf of sportsmen and women everywhere has raised hackles amongst the anglers and hunters who support them. Most every letter Coggin has crafted has been countered by letters from readers and volunteers on the ground who have done what the newspapers have not: They’ve checked Coggin’s bona fides, and found him lacking any credibility.
Coggin’s digital footprint ties him to Berman’s PR machine, and seems to indicate that the Environmental Policy Alliance, ironically, is simply one of Berman’s many front groups, like the Center for Consumer Freedom that goes after anyone who challenges the agricultural industry or the retail industry, or the Employment Policies Institute (anti-union), the Center for Union Facts, the American Beverage Institute (no taxes on alcoholic beverages) or the First Jobs Institute (industry mouthpiece).
Newspapers around the country are struggling with smaller staffs and budgets, which might explain why they’ve chosen to toss journalistic integrity aside by running these seemingly unfounded, propagandist letters from Coggin without checking his facts. But the people who do the on-the-ground work and care about the quality of their fishing and hunting have not been so kind to Coggin. Most call him out for publishing misinformation -- one letter-writer from Lake Tahoe made the connection between Berman and Coggin and even referenced The Times piece about the Colorado meeting. Informed sportsmen and women aren’t giving Coggin much leeway.
Efforts to reach Coggin were unsuccessful, but David LeClere at the Environmental Policy Alliance, who, when asked who funds the alliance, declined to disclose that information.
“That’s their prerogative,” he said, saying the funders have asked to remain anonymous.
Failure to disclose source of funding and other supporter information is a hallmark of the Berman machine. Berman told energy industry leaders in Colorado last year (and was quoted in the Times): “People always ask me one question all the time: How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?” Berman’s response, he explained, is that “We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”
When asked what the alliance actually does, LeClere was quite vague.
“It’s an organization devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmentally radical groups,” he said.
LeClere also declined to divulge how many partners made up the alliance, simply stating, “I’m unsure.” He also failed to divulge any connection between Berman’s PR firm and the Environmental Policy Alliance or if he, himself worked for the alliance or another of Berman’s front groups (his LinkedIn profile claims he is a media associate for Berman and Company).
LeClere’s response to inquiries about Coggin may be most telling. When asked whether Coggin was solely employed by the EPA or if he represented other Berman front groups, Leclere’s response was curt: “I’m not sure,” he said, and then he hung up the phone.
For the record, Coggin’s LinkedIn profile names him as a senior research analyst for Berman and Company, where his duties are to “manage research, writing, and spokesman duties for a creative public affairs firm.” Creative, indeed.
A second phone call to the EPA was quickly disconnected by the phone operator. While the EPA is more than willing to look into the funding and the work of conservation groups representing sportsmen and women, its employees are not very forthcoming when asked about the funding and the credibility of their own employer.
And Coggin does, indeed, represent another Berman front -- the Center for Consumer Freedom. He spoke on behalf of that organization at a meeting of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation Jan. 23-24. He’s described by the MFBF as a “senior research analyst” for the CCF and “a frequent critic of radical extremists who seek to take choices away from Americans and put farmers out of business.”
On the conservation front, at least one of the targeted organizations knows the Coggin/Berman campaign is afoot. When the “green decoys” effort first surfaced last spring, Chris Wood, the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, responded with an online op-ed in The Hill, a D.C. political publication that Coggin and Berman initially targeted, presumably to plant seeds of doubt within political circles about groups like Trout Unlimited, TRCP and others.
Referencing Coggin’s initial post in The Hill, Wood wrote, “The blog post pillories TU for taking millions of dollars from ‘environmentally leaning’ foundations to accomplish our mission of trout and salmon habitat restoration. Guilty as charged.“
“What the post doesn’t mention,” Wood continued, “is that we accept contributions from the timber industry, the mining industry, the oil and gas industry, the agriculture industry and others, too. Whether the money comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘left,’ Trout Unlimited is an equal opportunity recipient of funding to protect and restore trout and salmon habitat, and make fishing better for everyone.”
And, unlike Coggin’s Environmental Policy Alliance, Trout Unlimited doesn’t have any secrets when it comes to its funders -- all of its financial and legal information is available online for public consumption.
But, so long as understaffed newspapers continue receiving -- and blindly printing -- letters from Coggin, the members of groups like TRCP and Trout Unlimited will be busy rebutting, and, possibly, giving the Environmental Policy Alliance more attention than it deserves. Far too many of Coggin’s letters have made it through the porous fact-checking filter of many newspapers, suggesting that the only requirements needed to get published are providing misleading and generally false information, a name and an “alliance” of one.
Well, two, provided LeClere can decide who he’s working for.