Tea Party network emerges as counterbalance to state-level green pressure groups

Kevin Mooney Kevin is a journalist and investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.
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Across the country, private citizens and business owners are joining forces with Tea Party activists to push back against well-funded green pressure groups that work with government officials. Over the past few decades, the environmental movement has worked to undermine property rights, block entrepreneurial activity and expand regulatory control without a serious, concerted response, according to free-market advocates

However, since the 2010 elections, Republican governors and state lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party have worked to unwind environmental provisions they view as being overly burdensome to business. This has occurred in tandem with legislative efforts on Capitol Hill to curtail the power and influence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Instead of fixating on Washington politics, some of the key players within the Tea Party network have burrowed in locally and operate as a counterbalance to state-level green pressure groups. Although they are a long way from achieving anything in the way of parity, Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, credits the Tea Party for settling on the right strategy.

“Small environmental groups, as well as the large well-known ones, are systematically undermining the economic vitality of America,” says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association. “They are pushing land use regulations and land lock-ups to such a degree that they are killing the economic ecosystem of rural America and blocking the development of jobs and communities while limiting access to productive lands. In the long run, the small environmental groups are hurting America while trying to do what they perceive as good. But the cumulative impact of all of them going in the same direction with a top down ‘for the good of all’ approach is strangling rural America and forcing rural people off their land, off federal land, out of their jobs and business and into the cities. The economic competitiveness of America is being gradually undermined by this process.”

An early test for free-market forces comes in Maine where Paul LePage, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor is following through on a campaign pledge to roll back environmental regulations. He benefits from new Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature, but will be up against a “green iron triangle” that is deeply entrenched, lavishly funded and closely aligned with government agencies, Ron Arnold, executive director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, says.

“The Big Green disaster that’s destroying Maine has been gnawing away at every state for years,” he said. “The influence and reach of green pressure groups has gone unchecked and unchallenged far too long, crushing private citizens and business owners nationwide. The Iron Triangle, as I describe it in Maine, shows rank collusion between the Maine Audubon Society and the DEP, jointly concocting false ‘science’ to justify catastrophic regulations. Gov.-elect Page and incoming lawmakers need to show some guts and throttle these cabals so they can never hurt anyone again. There is no reason to let fictitious ‘ecological concerns’ continue to overwhelm the state’s economy. It’s time to strip Maine of its anti-business regulations and regulators, restructuring the bureaucracy to promote economic development and force environmental protection to help growth, not demolish it.”

LePage has advanced a 63-point plan to cut environmental regulations and to open up 3 million acres of the state’s North Woods for development. Although the governor is off to a promising start, he has a long road to travel, Erich Vehyl, a local activist and landowner, said. There is a long history of “well-heeled” environmentalists collaborating with government officials to take over private property that reaches to the late 1980s, he explained. The critical point came in August 1988 when the Natural Resources Protection Act was passed, which created the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and also expanded the Land Use Regulation Commission.

An umbrella organization known as the Northern Forest Alliance, which operates throughout the New England area, postures as a non-political entity but actually coordinates government takeover efforts, Vehyl said. Other key players here include Maine Audubon Society, an independent affiliate of the National Audobon Society, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT).

“Maine is best described as an environmental dictatorship,” Vehyl said. “It is difficult to overstate how intertwined the local level green groups are with state and federal government agencies.”

Theodore S. Koffman, a former state representative from Bar Harbor, for example, was also elected as a trustee to the Maine Audubon Society. Although he is now term-limited out office, Koffman used his positions on both sides of the “Iron Triangle” to secure environmental restrictions, Vehyl noted.

This game is being played in other states.

In Montana, Tim Ravndal, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Conservative Tea Party, has expressed concern over the power and influence of the Montana Wilderness Association, a non-profit group that favors restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and land use designations that limits human activity.

Beth Baker, who was sworn in as a new Montana Supreme Court justice this past January is married to Tim Baker, the former executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. She also raised money for her successful judicial campaign from environmental groups, according to Citizens for Balanced Use.

“We are going to be in for a real fight,” said Ravndal, who is also the Montana Tea Party Movement organizer. “The other side has the market cornered in judicial eco-extremism and we need to be wary. We are going to introduce and stimulate discussion in the upcoming legislative session so we can have results by the 2013 legislative session.”

Karen Bulich Moreau, a New York attorney, is keen on the idea of Tea Party activists standing up to green pressure groups. Moreau is the president and founder of the Foundation for Land and Liberty, a new non-profit group that offers technical help and legal assistance to land owners, government officials and attorneys.

She has her eyes on the Nature Conservancy, which is far and away the wealthiest environmental group in terms of assets and income stream, with 2009 total revenues of $856,246,824 and assets of $5,636,393,924, financial records show.

The Nature Conservancy works with its many state affiliates to undermine property rights and expand government control, she said. This has been accomplished through “conservation easements,” which began as well-meaning effort to allow financially strapped property owners to receive tax benefits in exchange for specified development rights, Moreau explained. But, over time, the easements have been used to advance government land grabs.

“It’s what you call a quiet exaction of rights, a malignant method of taking private land,” she said. “It’s tragic because the most financially vulnerable people in the private sector are being run over by our government policies.”

While Moreau acknowledges that environmental groups maintain the upper hand, she also said it is encouraging to see that the battle for property rights has finally been joined by the free market.