For the past nine months, Matt Lee-Ashley has grown increasingly bewildered by President Donald Trump’s onslaught against climate agreements, water-quality protections, and other environmental safeguards. But his breaking point came when the Interior Department—Lee-Ashley’s former employer—suggested scaling back the national monuments.
“It’s been a longstanding assumption that when a place is protected as a national park or wilderness area or national monument, a promise is made that future administrations and future Congresses will protect the place,” Lee-Ashley says. “But that promise is at risk right now.”
In response to the monuments review, Lee-Ashley, who is currently a senior director at the Center for American Progress, Adrian Saenz, a former staffer in the Obama White House, and Lucinda Guinn, the vice president for campaigns at Emily's List, have started the Democratic Conservation Alliance, a political action committee (PAC) that will fund candidates who prioritize conserving federal land. Since Trump’s election, a groundswell of support for public land protection has emerged. DCA hopes to monetize that support to drive change in Congress during what could be a pivotal midterm election next year.
The Interior’s review of national monuments rankled Lee-Ashley, but it also served as a proof of concept: the process generated 2.8 million public comments, with the vast majority in favor of retaining the monuments as they are. “What we have on our side is people power,” says Lee-Ashley. “The goal here is to help connect regular citizens and voters who are out hiking and hunting and fishing to that political process.”
That political process happens to rely heavily on money. Extraction-industry PACs spent $16.6 million during the 2016 election cycle. Environmental and conservation groups contributed less than a tenth of that. Lobbying expenditures are similarly disparate. ExxonMobil spent nearly $12 million to influence legislation in 2016. Patagonia, arguably the most politically active outdoor recreation firm, spent just $90,000.
Ponying up cash like that tends to pay off. Crude oil production in the U.S. is at levels not seen since the 1970s, natural gas production hit an all-time high in 2015, and a lot of those rigs are on public land. Meantime, most sweeping gains in conservation have come courtesy of protections created via the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to unilaterally create a national monument.
But public lands also generate huge amounts of revenue, and ire over Trump’s public land policies is beginning to dovetail with efforts to turn proof of that economic clout into political capital. Research from groups like Headwaters Economics shows that the oh-so-controversial national monuments help the economy of surrounding counties. And after Utah politicians called for federal land to be sold back to the state and for Bears Ears National Monument to be rescinded, the $45-million Outdoor Retailer, the flagship trade show of the outdoor recreation industry, bailed for Colorado.
Politicians would do well to take note, which is where DCA hopes to come in. Since corporate lobbying and campaign finance among public land stakeholders is so lopsided on the national scale, the PAC’s leaders hope to make a difference through targeted campaigns at the grassroots level. Lee-Ashley says the board hasn’t yet picked races to target or candidates to fund, but it will exclusively assist Democrats in 2018. The Republican party has offered public-land advocates little to cheer: the GOP’s 2016 platform endorsed the transfer of federal land to states, and former Utah representative Jason Chaffetz introduced legislation that sought to sell off 3.3 million acres of “excess” public land.
But by targeting Democratic candidates alone, DCA has the potential to alienate some of the strongest advocates for conservation and federal-land access out there: hunters, many of whom are politically conservative. Chaffetz, after all, pulled his bill after being castigated by hunters. He even announced the reversal an Instagram post donning camo and hunter’s orange.
Lee-Ashley hopes that passion for public lands as an issue that might flip disaffected Republican voters. “There are conservation voters out there, and many are sportsmen,” he says. “We’re hopeful that voters from across the political spectrum will support the PAC.”