Sutherland Institute’s campaign against Bears Ears was relentless, effective and mostly funded by a tight circle of activists

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The conservative Utah-based Sutherland Institute played a big role in lobbying first against designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, and then directed efforts to shrink the monument. In this Nov. 3, 2017, file photo, conservative pundit Bill Kristol speaks at Sutherland's Annual Gala.

At 9:28 p.m. the night before President Donald Trump signed an executive order to slash Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, Matt Anderson, a policy analyst at Utah’s conservative Sutherland Institute think tank, sent an email to then-San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally.

Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, was set to speak at Trump’s proclamation signing ceremony and was one of the few Democrats in the country willing to praise what, along with a 50% cut to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, would soon be dubbed the "largest rollback of public land protections in American history.”

“I made those small changes we talked about,” Anderson said. “All the changes I made are highlighted in yellow.”

One of his proposed additions was a bit of praise for his employer. “Thank you, Sutherland Institute,” Anderson wrote for Benally’s speech. “You gave us confidence to raise our voices then amplified that voice to the nation.”

The email was included in a massive trove of communications released by the Interior Department after a public records request, and it offers an example of the type of influence the Sutherland Institute exerted over the course of its sustained public relations campaign against Bears Ears National Monument.

Benally then forwarded the email to Downey Magallanes, who was then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s deputy chief of staff but has since left to take on a senior role with oil and gas giant BP.

Almost immediately after President Barack Obama designated a 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in late 2016, the Sutherland Institute, which is dedicated to “defending each generation’s New Birth of Freedom,” began lobbying to rescind it. In January 2017, Anderson wrote the draft language on a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature urging Trump to undo the monument.

“The designation of the Bears Ears National Monument sets a dangerous precedent of allowing special interest groups to unduly influence the monument designation process,” read the resolution, which was sponsored by then-House Speaker Greg Hughes and then-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, both Republicans. Its language echoed a talking point used repeatedly by Sutherland as a coalition of five American Indian tribes with ancestral ties to Bears Ears and a number of regional and national environmental groups were spending millions on a pro-monument campaign.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo via AP) This Dec. 28, 2016, file photo shows the two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The monument created by President Barack Obama on his way out of office and shrunk by President Donald Trump has been at the center of the public lands debate in Utah and the nation.

Sutherland’s active role in lobbying against the monument prompted a wave of scrutiny at the time. The think tank, itself a special interest group, has ties to a network of organizations linked to the billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David H. Koch, including the Donors Trust and the State Policy Network, both of which have received millions in Koch money and both of which have donated to the Sutherland Institute.

Sutherland has insisted its Bears Ears campaign was primarily funded by in-state sources. A spokesperson told the Pacific Standard magazine in 2017 that Sutherland had “not received any out-of-state funds for research or communications related to the Bears Ears issue,” adding, “the vast majority of Sutherland funding comes from Utah foundations and residents.” While monument opponents decried the large amounts of money pouring in to defend the monument designation, Sutherland’s main funding sources went largely unreported.

“God, family, country”

According to an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune of publicly available tax documents, the majority of Sutherland’s funding for the past decade has come from a single Utah source — the GFC Foundation — which was established in 1994 by the late Utah investor Gaylord Swim a year before he founded the Sutherland Institute.

Swim named the think tank after George Sutherland, the only Utahn ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and who fought Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation with a group of conservative justices known as the “Four Horsemen.”

Swim was described as the Sutherland Institute’s “primary benefactor” in a 2004 Deseret News article on the think tank, and the tax documents indicate a cozy relationship has continued among the Sutherland Institute, Swim’s relatives and two foundations with ties to the Swim family.

When Swim died in 2005, the board of GFC Foundation, which stands for “God, family and country,” was run largely by family members, including his wife and their then-31-year-old son, Stanford Swim, who became its president in 2006 and was receiving a salary of more than $150,000 by the time he left the position in 2018.

“GFC and Sutherland were founded by the same person,” Kelsey Witt, a spokesperson for the think tank, confirmed in an email. “Naturally, GFC (a private family foundation) has provided varying degrees of support to Sutherland, a public 501(c)(3). GFC has also been a primary supporter during times of growth and transition.”

Most of the younger Swim’s tenure as Sutherland Institute board chairman, from 2013 to 2019, overlapped with his presidency at GFC, the source of most of Sutherland’s funding. And after Paul Mero resigned his roles as the president of Sutherland and as a paid board member of GFC in 2014, Stanford Swim served as interim president of the think tank for a year and a half during its initial anti-monument campaign.

“While he was interim president (August 2014-March 2016), he provided general management,” the Sutherland spokesperson said. “As board chair for Sutherland Institute, he (along with all other board chairs) abstained from any policy oversight.

“GFC supports general operations," Witt added, “and not specific policy issues.”

In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the GFC Foundation donated a total of $4 million to Sutherland, accounting for more than 70% of the think tank’s total revenue.

The GFC Foundation also gave substantial donations to two other entities — Donors Trust and the Foundation for the American West — which in turn granted similar amounts to Sutherland each year.

From 2012 to 2017, for example, GFC gave $1.4 million to Donors Trust, while Donors Trust granted Sutherland a total of $1.3 million during that same time period.

As a “donor advised fund,” Donors Trust makes it difficult to track its funders, but the organization grants millions to conservative policy institutions and media organizations each year. The Washington Post has described it as an “ultra-conservative funding entity” that is “staffed largely by people who have worked for Koch Industries or a nonprofit financed by brothers Charles Koch and David H. Koch.”

Foundation for the American West, which was also established by Gaylord Swim, received $1.34 million from the GFC Foundation from 2010 to 2016. Over that same period, the Foundation for the American West granted a nearly identical amount of $1.36 million to the Sutherland Institute.

(Sutherland did not receive a donation from Foundation for the American West in 2017, and the spokesperson said the two organizations do not “have a current relationship.”)

In the lead-up to Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument, nearly 83% of the Sutherland Institute’s annual revenue came from the GFC Foundation, the Foundation for the American West and Donors Trust.

Stanford Swim — who left his position at the GFC Foundation in 2018 and his role at Sutherland last year, according to his LinkedIn page — served for over a decade on the board of the Koch-linked State Policy Network, which funds conservative think tanks like Sutherland that lobby state policymakers.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Stanford Swim, board chairman of the Sutherland Institute, stands with Janice Shaw Crouse, executive director for the World Congress of Families, during the latter's conference at the Grand America in Salt Lake City in the fall of 2015.

The Sutherland Institute has been the primary beneficiary of the GFC Foundation’s donations through the years, but the foundation also has funded a number of anti-gay rights organizations like the Marriage Law Foundation, whose director, William C. Duncan, now runs the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society.

(The Marriage Law Foundation’s website is no longer online, but in 2015 it described itself as “a nonprofit organization which provides legal resources to defend and protect marriage between a husband and wife.” Sutherland declined to say whether the think tank currently opposes gay marriage. “Sutherland advocates policies it believes to be in the best interest of Utah families,” its spokesperson said. “It is particularly interested in the protection of religious liberty, which enables established religions to hold their own doctrinal views.”)

Fighting Bears Ears

The Sutherland Institute has a history of promoting climate change denial and arguing that federal lands should be transferred to the state of Utah. Sutherland helped the Utah Legislature advance a plan to sue the federal government for state control of public lands, but the $14 million price tag meant it never got off the ground. It has also advocated reforming the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to create national monuments by executive order.

“The Sutherland Institute has taken Utah taxpayers on a wild ride to amplify their extremist and blatantly unconstitutional anti-public lands agenda,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of Western Values Project, a Montana-based advocacy group. “When it comes to valuing and protecting America’s and Utah’s public lands, they’re uniquely pro-industry, pro-special interest, and anti-public lands.... They’re looking to take a public resource and shift it into private hands for their benefit.”

While companies like Patagonia were running expensive campaigns in favor of the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, Sutherland worked a counteroffensive, churning out a series of web videos and other material arguing that the monument was opposed by local residents and that it would devastate the local economy.

After the monument’s designation, the group shifted focus, arguing that Trump should rescind the monument.

One video linked to the now-deleted website RescindBearsEars.org and had local schoolchildren describe their dream jobs — an astronaut, a football player, a doctor — before a child asked the question: “When someone takes away your land and livelihood, can you really be anything you want to be?”

Another video profiles Logan Shumway, a manager at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States, in which Shumway says, “One of our permitted mines is within [the monument] proposal.” The video was posted to YouTube on March 15, 2017, 10 days before Energy Fuels’ CEO sent a letter to the Interior Department urging it to reduce the monument size.

Sutherland also partnered with the Stewards of San Juan County, a local anti-monument group incorporated by former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman in late 2016, to produce the video series.

Meanwhile, San Juan County was spending nearly $500,000 on a high-priced law firm in Louisiana that was lobbying on behalf of the county for the monument’s reduction. Invoices obtained by The Tribune show the law firm coordinated with Energy Fuels and Matt Anderson at the Sutherland Institute throughout early 2017.

After Trump slashed the size of Bears Ears by 85% on Dec. 4, 2017, Sutherland boasted that it “persuaded the Trump administration to reconsider harmful national monument designations” on its since-deleted list of 2017 successes (along with “protecting Utah’s most vulnerable and taxpayers from Obamacare)."

Matt Anderson left Sutherland in 2018 and currently works for Republican Sen. Mitt Romney as his northern Utah director.

Boyd Matheson served as chief of staff to GOP Sen. Mike Lee, another vocal monument opponent, before becoming the president of the Sutherland Institute in March 2016. Over the next 20 months leading up to his departure in January 2018 to take a job as opinion editor of the Deseret News, Matheson earned a total salary of over $500,000.

Since the most recent tax information for the GFC Foundation or the Sutherland Institute is for 2017, it’s unclear whether Stanford Swim’s departure from both organizations has affected their funding relationship. Swim did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

He currently is the vice president of programs and partnerships at the Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute, an institution founded by Charles Koch in 1999 and a regular recipient of Donors Trust grants.

Local voices

Almost all of the op-eds written by Sutherland Institute employees from 2015 to 2017 mentioned “local opposition” as one of the major reasons for reducing the size of the monument, but in the absence of reliable opinion polls in San Juan County, public sentiment there has always been difficult to gauge.

Environmental groups sided with indigenous-run organizations like the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a major proponent of the monument designation made up of elected representatives from the Diné, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes — and Utah Diné Bikéyah to cite local and regional support.

Sutherland’s campaign, by contrast, featured numerous local Native American voices who opposed the monument such as Benally. And the think tank repeatedly asserted, without citing evidence, that the “overwhelming majority of local Native Americans oppose the Bears Ears National Monument.”

Utah Diné Bikéyah and others have presented some evidence to the contrary, arguing that in fact most Native Americans in San Juan County favored the monument. And since Trump’s rescission, a voting rights lawsuit brought against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation led to the redrawing of the county’s commission districts to favor Native Americans, who account for the majority of the county population. Benally lost the Democratic primary to pro-monument activist Kenneth Maryboy who, along with former Utah Diné Bikéyah board chairman Willie Grayeyes, won the 2018 special election and became members of San Juan’s first majority-Native American County Commission.

Grayeyes and Maryboy moved quickly to reverse the county’s official position on the monument and passed resolutions in favor of an even larger monument than the boundaries designated by Obama.

Five sovereign Native American tribes sued the Trump administration over the monument cuts along with numerous environmental groups in 2017, and the litigation remains pending in federal court, with appeals likely whatever the ruling.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.