In a year when national monuments in Oregon and across the West have come under fire from the federal government, a Bend-based organization has raised more than $270,000 to fight back.
In March, the Conservation Alliance, a Bend-based organization that funds groups that protect and secure public lands across North America, announced a fund aimed at preventing the federal government from changing designations around national monuments and other public lands, including one in its own backyard.
Since, the organization raised $273,000 for the fund — known as the Public Lands Defense Fund — from local and national companies that make and sell outdoor products. John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance, said all but $6,000 of that total has gone toward 18 grants for organizations trying to preserve existing public land, including Oregon’s recently expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Sterling said. “We never really wanted to be in this position.”
The Conservation Alliance has worked with large outdoor product companies to fund grants to organizations looking to secure and manage public land for more than 25 years. However, Sterling said in the spring that the idea to develop a separate fund, focused on defending existing land, grew out of the presidential election in 2016. He said the election of a Republican president emboldened a group of congressional Republicans interested in rolling back protections on federally managed land.
In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review 22 national monuments and make recommendations on whether a monument was appropriately classified, confirming the fears of Sterling and other conservationists.
Throughout the year, the Conservation Alliance sought support from national apparel companies, such as The North Face and Patagonia, as well as smaller companies such as Ruffwear, a Bend-based company that makes outdoor gear for dogs. Earlier this year, Ruffwear donated $50,000 to the defense fund.
Will Blount, president of Ruffwear, said support for public land fits the company’s ethos and makes economic sense, given that many of the company’s customers use its products on public land. Since the end of 2006, the company has donated about $172,000 to the Conservation Alliance.
“This notion that land and waterways belong to all of us is one of our nation’s best ideas,” Blount said.
Sterling said that the funds were distributed over the course of the year, primarily to local environmental nonprofits in areas facing potential monument reductions. Sterling said the main aim behind the grants was getting concerned locals to raise their voices about the monument review, and said they played a crucial role in spurring the about 3 million public comments submitted to the Department of the Interior during the review.
“If these guys had any sense, they’ll look at the widespread, deep opposition,” Sterling said.
Despite the opposition, Trump signed proclamations downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two controversial national monuments in Utah, earlier this month. After the announcement, the Conservation Alliance made its largest grant from the fund: $75,000 to the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, which has filed lawsuits designed to halt changes to the Utah monuments.
While Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have gotten a lot of the headlines around the monument review, conservationists believe the next battle may take place in the Conservation Alliance’s backyard. Zinke’s monument report was released publicly earlier this month, and it recommends that Trump reduce the acreage of four monuments, including Oregon’s Cascade–Siskiyou.
Cascade-Siskiyou was established in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, and expanded to its current footprint of about 113,000 acres this January, about a week before Trump was inaugurated. The 48,000-acre expansion, which includes 5,000 acres in Northern California, was unpopular from the outset with timber organizations in the region, and has been the subject of several lawsuits. As a result, there is widespread speculation that the controversial Southern Oregon monument could be the next monument to face reductions.
Earlier this year, the Conservation Alliance provided $10,000 to the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, a conservation organization based in Southern Oregon. Dave Willis, chair of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, said the organization has used much of the funding to show journalists, politicians and other stakeholders around the monument, as a way to show off the unique elements of the protected area.
“We feel that one trip is worth 1,000 PowerPoint photos,” Willis said.
Willis said he doesn’t know when or if a presidential announcement is coming, but added that the organization is standing ready with a lawsuit based on the federal Antiquities Act should the boundaries be reduced.
“National monuments are gifts from former presidents to future citizens,” Willis said.
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