The Ravalli County Commission asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the funding sources of seven Montana-based nonprofit conservation and sportsmen organizations in a letter approved this week.
All five commissioners signed off on the letter that claimed they, as local elected officials, had been “attacked by well-funded organizations who engage in blatant and extremely misleading political activity with little or no public discourse on how much money is being raised or from whom the funding is generated.”
A former county commissioner who now works for a Ravalli County-based environmental organization said the commission was duped into moving forward with its request by a corporate-funded Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that specializes in attacking labor and environmental groups.
The commission’s decision followed the presentation of a Montana Outdoor Coalition report titled “Green Decoys. Montana in the Crosshairs: How Foreign/Out-of-State Money is Trying to Influence Treasure State Voters.”
The report was initially presented to the commission by Keith Kubista of Stevensville several weeks ago during an administrative session that allows people to speak on issues not on the commission’s agenda. Kubista serves on the advisory council of the Montana Outdoor Coalition, but said he had nothing to do with commissioning the report.
Kubista said he encouraged the commission to move forward with its investigation request during a formal meeting Wednesday where the letter was approved.
Kubista said he studied several reports that he said indicated large amounts of money from offshore accounts were being used to help fund organizations that he’s disagreed with in the past. As a result, he told the commission “you might want to have the AG see if anything is going on here.”
The “Green Decoys” report claims the state is being flooded with out-of-state money, including some “that may even be traceable to Russia,” with a goal to promote a “radical environmental agenda and weaken Montana’s economic sectors that utilize natural resources.”
In its letter, the commission asked the state Department of Justice to investigate funding sources for seven nonprofit organizations that include Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Montana Mountain Mamas.
“Through misleading and disingenuous media campaigns, we believe these groups have economically harmed several of Montana’s rural counties reliant upon agriculture, outdoor recreation, natural resources and real, meaningful multiple-use access to our public lands as fundamental components to our local heritage and economic vitality,” the letter said.
The commission’s request also included the locally based organization Our Land, Our Legacy, which took the commission to task last April over its decision to write a letter of support for Sen. Steve Daines’ bill that would end protection for five wilderness study areas, including two in Ravalli County. The group paid for a billboard and circulated yard signs that featured a photo of six county residents and the words: “Ravalli Commissioners: Respect the public you work for. Respect public lands.”
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said it wasn’t just that one challenge that pushed this issue to the forefront, but “it was one of them. It was the biggest and most recent one that we’ve had.”
In June, Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order that required recipients of major state contracts to disclose any “dark money” spending in elections.
“While the entities we are concerned with may not be contracting with the state, their actions are no less impactful to the citizens of Montana,” the commission’s letter said.
“Everyone wants everyone to play by the same rules,” Burrows said.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said he wrote the letter.
“I had a lot of input and advice on it, but most of the information came for the report and a little bit of Internet time,” Chilcott said. “In the end, we want Montanans to be represented by Montanans and not by someone who doesn’t live here and share our values. We want to know who it is that is spending so much money to try and shape our opinions.”
Chilcott said he plans to reach out to other counties in the state to see if there is an interest in joining in Ravalli County’s request for an investigation.
“This is all about transparency,” he said. “We want to let the public know who and why… When you start looking at the big money that’s being spent, it’s coming from international sources. It’s not even Americans who are trying to define what we do with our public lands. I find that curious… I question their motives.”
John Sullivan of Missoula chairs the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said the “Green Decoy” campaign is run by a D.C. lobbyist named Richard Berman “who has built a career attempting to undermine groups ranging from the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.''
"Take some time to learn about Mr. Berman and his smear tactics and look at BHA’s body of work,'' Sullivan said. “BHA has a long history of standing up for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife, in Montana and across North America. We operate financially with a very high degree of transparency. If you have questions about our work, we are ready and willing to have that conversation.
“Why has Mr. Berman been hired to launch a takedown campaign against BHA? For one simple reason: When sportsmen unite, we win. And in this battle, nothing less than our Montana outdoors heritage — the places and opportunities we want to be available for our kids and grandkids to enjoy — is at stake.” Sullivan said.
Former Ravalli County commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff now serves as communication’s director for Bitterrooters for Planning, which has successfully sued the county commission twice.
Grandstaff said she read the letter and does not believe the commissioners wrote it. She forwarded it to “our politically savvy membership and contacts” and received responses from several who said the letter had come from a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in attacking environmental groups and supports the sell-off of public lands through “state transfer.”
“By signing this enemies list, the county commission betrayed embarrassing foolishness and political naiveté,” Grandstaff said. “In short, they were conned.
"Meanwhile, actual county business goes on the back burner while the commissioners attack nonprofit citizen organizations like Montana Mountain Mamas, which has the audacity to advocate for clean air and water for their children.”