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Kane County paid $483,000 to nonprofit fighting Biden conservation plan

American Stewards of Liberty’s push against Biden’s 30 by 30 conservation initiative violates tax-exempt status, watchdog says.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sky transforms as the sun dips below the horizon surrounding the hoodoos of Devil's Garden in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Kane County.

Utah’s Kane County has handed nearly half a million dollars in recent years to a Texas-based nonprofit for consulting and legal services regarding public land management. The spending comes on top of the millions it has spent litigating legal claims based on “R.S. 2477,” a frontier-era law that allowed counties to own roads built across public land.

Now that organization, American Stewards of Liberty, or ASL, has emerged as a leading voice against President Joe Biden’s conservation agenda in potential violation of its tax-exempt status.

The group, run by wife-husband team Margaret and Dan Byfield, enjoys 501(c)(3) status, which would restrict it from engaging in political action, that is activities aimed at promoting or blocking legislation. Its campaign against Biden’s “30 by 30” initiative appears to brazenly flout federal rules for tax-exempt groups, with direct appeals to pressure elected representatives at all levels of government, according to Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group that filed a complaint Friday with the Internal Revenue Service.

Available data does not suggest any of Kane County’s payments to ASL were improper, but they illustrate the large sums rural Utah counties and the state are willing to spend to push against federal oversight of the public lands within their borders.

The fight against ‘the federal government and the environmental elite’

ASL describes its mission as “protecting private property rights, defending the use of our land, and restoring local control.” According to the group’s federal tax filings, the Byfields’ combined salaries were $233,000 in 2017 and $181,000 in 2018, the most recent year available.

Last month, the Biden administration released its framework, dubbed America the Beautiful, for conserving 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. Although Biden’s plan emphasizes locally driven conservation projects and job creation, ASL denounces the program as a “land grab” orchestrated by radical environmentalists bent on destroying rural America.

“What we’re witnessing is the transformation back to that feudal state where, not kings today, but the federal government and the environmental elite own the land and decide what’s going to be done with it. And they tell us what we can grow, if we can grow and where we can grow. That’s where we’re headed with 30 by 30,” Margaret Byfield said at an April 20 presentation. “We either have the right to own things — our land, our guns, our bank accounts — we either have that right or we are property.”

ASL’s executive director, Byfield is the daughter of Wayne Hage, the late Nevada rancher who waged a long-running legal battle with the federal government over access to public lands. He became emblematic of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement in the 1970s and ′80s that revolted against federal land management in the West. Hage was among the first to push the claim that a federal grazing allotment was tantamount to private property.

Through its website and social media feed, ASL is urging state lawmakers and county leaders to adopt model resolutions it has produced opposing 30 by 30.

Such activity crosses into territory that tax-exempt groups are obligated to avoid, according to the complaint submitted by Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig.

“These resolutions provide language for opposing the 30 by 30 agenda and are intended to be modified, as appropriate, by the approving entity. Both of these resolutions can also be used by a special district, or even a State,” Herrig wrote. “The ASL Guide is therefore not nonpartisan analysis — it advocates for specific legislation.”

Byfield did not respond to a voicemail left at her Texas office.

Blurring the line between nonprofit and lobbyist

Some lobbying is OK for a 501(c)(3), but too much puts the organization’s tax-exempt status at risk, according to the IRS’s website.

“In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly) known as lobbying,” states the website. “An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.”

Accountable.US contends American Stewards’ anti-30-by-30 campaign clearly qualifies as lobbying.

Environmental groups active in Utah, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Trust, are also 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Their advocacy is generally directed at federal land management agencies, as opposed to lawmakers, but occasionally they engage in activity that could be considered lobbying. SUWA’s recent statement praising the reintroduction of an 8.4-million-acre wilderness bill, for example, asks supporters to urge their U.S. senators to co-sponsor that legislation.

Over the years, Kane County has paid American Stewards handsomely for Margaret Byfield’s services, although these payments do not appear to support lobbying as defined by the IRS. From 2014 to 2019, the county shelled out $483,000 for various consulting services having to do with land-use planning and legal work, according to the Utah State Auditor’s public finance transparency website.

Margaret Byfield has met regularly with rural county commissioners across the West, advising them of the deference she believes federal agencies owe local authorities when they make land-use decisions.

According to her presentation to the Kane County Commission in February 2019, federal law requires the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to “coordinate” with local governments. These federal agencies’ land-use plans and decisions should either be “consistent” with local counties’ resource-management plans or provide detailed explanations why they aren’t, she told the Kane County Commission.

At the time, she was working for the county under a $24,000 contract to assist Kane officials to persuade the Dixie National Forest to revise its travel plan to allow greater motorized access, especially on the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

Both Kane and Garfield county commissions were deeply upset with road closures under the forest’s 2009 travel plan and filed formal challenges.

Kane dropped its challenge when the U.S. Forest Service agreed to consider designating a motorized route onto the plateau though Robinson Canyon from the town of Alton. Byfield met personally with Dixie National Forest officials as the county’s representative in 2019 and continued drawing a $1,500-a-month retainer for much of the year. Two years later, the Robinson Canyon matter remains unresolved, although negotiations are ongoing.

Former commissioner Dirk Clayson, who chaired the County Commission when the county contracted with ASL, did not respond to a voicemail.

Small counties, big spending

When it comes to paying outside groups to oppose federal land-use policies, Kane and San Juan counties have been the biggest spenders.

According to the state database, for example, Kane has paid $8.3 million in fees to a single Salt Lake City law firm over the past seven years. Much of that went to Holland & Hart to litigate ongoing road claims against the BLM. Utah is using Kane County as the test case in its costly and drawn-out legal battle seeking title to 36,000 miles of routes crossing public land, citing a law known as R.S. 2477, which was repealed by the U.S. Congress in 1976.

Kane has paid another $203,000 to Fennemore Craig, a Phoenix law firm. These two law firms litigated another case American Stewards orchestrated in 2016 to fight the BLM’s planning framework, known as Planning 2.0, adopted as President Barack Obama’s tenure was ending. Kane County was among six Western counties listed as plaintiffs in that suit, which was filed in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court shortly after Donald Trump was elected president.

According to the suit, these counties had hired Byfield to engage the BLM on their behalf to revise the planning rule.

The suit alleged then-BLM Director Neil Kornze ignored Byfield’s entreaties and the resulting rule illegally limited the ability of local governments to participate in land-use planning. It was quickly rendered moot when the Trump administration abandoned those planning rules, but they could very well be resurrected by the Biden administration.

Around the same time as the lawsuit, Utah’s Piute, Wayne, Carbon, Juab and Sevier counties paid membership dues to the group and two Utah county associations paid a total of $7,600 for its services.

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