At least five counties in western states have paid tens of thousands in taxpayer funds to a right-wing group organizing a push against a federal land conservation program.
The Biden administration’s “30 by 30” plan is a voluntary environmental program with a goal of conserving 30 percent of the country’s land and water by 2030. But anti-conservation groups have a darker interpretation of the initiative. One group, American Stewards of Liberty (ASL), has whipped up opposition to the plan, with leaders comparing the program to genocide. And some counties are buying into the conspiratorial hype—literally.
At least five counties that signed onto ASL’s anti-30 by 30 effort this summer have paid ASL tens of thousands in recent months. Another has earmarked unspecified funds for the group. Others have indicated involvement in a potential ASL lawsuit over federal conservation efforts, with the planning director of one ASL-aligned county announcing that the suit would be funded by counties connected to the oil and gas industries.
The move comes amid an apparent lag in support for ASL from governors and U.S. congress members who previously worked alongside the group, said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the conservation group Center for Western Priorities.
“You’ve seen American Stewards retreating into their conspiracy theory comfort zone, as they were not able to successfully build that bridge into more respected conservative circles,” Weiss told The Daily Beast.
ASL did not return requests for comment.
On Aug. 7, Garfield County, Colorado, signed a $30,000 contract with ASL for “federal land policy consulting services,” public records show. The contract describes the funds as going toward ASL’s “Multiple Use Alliance,” a group of counties ASL is organizing for potential legal action against conservation efforts. Garfield is one of the alliance’s signatories.
While courting county-level officials across the country, ASL leaders have painted an apocalyptic vision of the Biden administration’s environmental program.
At an ASL event in 2021, executive director Margaret Byfield agreed with a speaker who warned that the voluntary conservation plan would lead to a situation like the Holodomor, a 1930s genocide of millions of Ukrainians by famine under Soviet rule. “I agree,” Byfield said. “That’s what I see coming if we don’t stop it. That’s exactly what I see coming.”
Trent Loos, an ASL associate who also spoke at the event and agreed with the Holodomor comparison, has previously warned The Daily Beast that “the natural state of the United States before Lewis and Clark was a horrific place,” adding that conservation efforts might return the U.S. to an era of famine and horse-eating. “Even Lewis and Clark had to eat horses to get across mountain ranges. So to return it to its natural state is to regress us by 250 years.”
A nonprofit, ASL was founded to help foot the bill for rancher Wayne Hage’s long-running legal battle with the federal government. Hage, Byfield’s father, refused to pay fees after he let his cattle graze on public lands without a permit. Hage’s family finally lost the case in 2016—two years after rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with federal agents over similar charges of $1 million in unpaid grazing fees on public lands.
Today, ASL is run by Byfield and her husband, Daniel. In 2020, “ASL spent just over 94 percent of its budget on the Byfields’ salaries,” the Texas Observer reported. (In 2021, the last year for which ASL’s tax returns are publicly available, the couple’s compensation was just over half the nonprofit’s expenses.)
This year, at least tens of thousands of ASL’s funding will come from county-level taxpayers.
In June, Utah’s San Juan county signed an $18,000 contract with ASL for “assistance in Coordinating and Advising in Federal Land Planning.” San Juan County is a member of ASL’s “Multiple Use Alliance.”
Another MUA member, New Mexico’s Otero County, signed a $20,000 contract with ASL in July. Otero also paid ASL $20,000 last year. (Also in 2022, the county paid $49,750 to a conspiracy-peddling group for an “audit” of the 2020 presidential election. The audit found no fraud but resulted in a congressional probe against the auditors, and allegations that a convicted sex offender had participated in audit-related efforts to knock on residents’ doors.)
Kane County, Utah, another MUA member, has paid ASL more than $16,000 since 2022, state records show. During a county commission meeting in July, Kane officials reaffirmed their commitment to the MUA and stated that, while they weren’t pledging new funds related to the MUA at that meeting, “we could always decide at a later time to contribute a certain amount.”
Chaves County, New Mexico also “paid $10,000 on 6/30/23 to American Stewards of Liberty for the Multiple Use Alliance,” a county spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Some of that funding comes in advance of anticipated ASL legal action against a new proposed Bureau of Land Management land use plan, which ASL outlined in a July letter. ASL described MUA counties as being central to a potential legal challenge, which will be led by the law firm Fennemore Craig.
One MUA member, California’s Modoc County, has already signaled potential involvement with a lawsuit. During a June county commission meeting, Modoc’s planning director suggested that counties with oil and gas royalties would bankroll the potential ASL effort.
An opening legal salvo “would be prepared by an attorney that’s being paid for by several of the counties that would be signatories on the letter that have oil and gas royalties at stake,” the Modoc planning director said.
Counties that signed the MUA have previously awarded generous contracts to ASL and Fennemore Craig, which often represents ASL.
Chaves County paid ASL more than $185,000 over five years, the New Mexico Wildlife Foundation reported in 2021.
In December invoices obtained by the watchdog group Accountable.US and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Byfield charged Kane county $1,073 for airfare, auto expenses, and a hotel. She billed the county another $1,500 for “natural resource consulting” in February, and in March billed the county $4,500.
During an October 2022 meeting with Kane County officials, Byfield also recommended the county hire Fennemore Craig attorneys for a potential fight against conservation rules, “even though we have several good attorney’s involved already,” emails obtained by Accountable.US show.
Byfield estimated that the attorney fees “could run between $5-10k, but we would need to get a more specific bid directly from them.” Utah records show that Kane County actually paid Fennemore Craig $32,000 that year.
Although public records do not show any other recent Kane County payments to Fennemore Craig, Kane previously paid the Arizona-based law firm $203,000, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2021. Those payments appear related to a legal fight over roads, which ASL was spearheading. During that legal battle with the Bureau of Land Management, Kane County paid ASL $483,000, the Tribune reported.
Some watchdog groups like Accountable.US have accused ASL of crossing a legal line for nonprofits. In 2021, Accountable.US filed an IRS complaint alleging that ASL was engaged in lobbying work, in violation of its 501(c)(3) status.
ASL is scheduled to hold a three-day “Stop 30x30” conference in Texas this week. The event will feature the screening of a new film by the right-wing media group Epoch Times. The film, “No Farmers No Food: Will You Eat The Bugs?” is a reference to a conspiracy theory about elites trying to crack down on food supplies and making people eat insects.