NAS Plans and Conflicts of Interest

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

Audubon should not adopt a Nature Conservancy (TNC) fund raising model because it may be raising money from the same people with whom chapters have pending litigation against. Activities, projects and programs completely appropriate for the TNC if done by Audubon, may create conflicts of interests or be unethical and improper. Various sources/types of conflicts of interest are reviewed. Posted to an Audubon list 08/00.

This essay discusses potential conflicts of interest that may arise if NAS creates fund raising campaigns to establish 1000 new nature centers and endowments for state offices in states where chapters are active in stopping the developments which destroy bird habitat. It argues that there are activities, projects and programs acceptable and appropriate for the TNC or the Trust for Public Lands, which if done by Audubon, may create conflicts of interests and be unethical or improper.

A unique contribution KAS might bring to this discussion is the fact that our chapter's founder was an elected politician. From our beginnings 20 year ago many of our chapter activists and officers have been elected politicians, campaign managers or fund raisers (in our personal capacities of course and not through our 501c3). Most have worked actively in political campaigns. So we understand the power of personal access to decision makers to pre-position issues.

I have learned from this list that in some states apparently many Audubon chapters do not see as their proper chapter function the stopping of over-development, sprawl, wetlands fill, golf courses and other destruction of bird habitat. Apparently some chapters just don't do this kind of work. These "education" or "non-activist" chapters would probably have little concern about who the state office fund raises from. However chapters that conduct active and aggressive local campaigns to protect the environment must be concerned about the people that Audubon officials solicit for funds because there is a big potential overlap between those willing and able to contribute funds to large conservation projects like refuges and centers and those who develop projects that destroy bird habitat and may have adversarial relationships with chapters.

TNC people seem not to know or perhaps do not want to know or don't care that federal, state and local laws which control grazing, logging, water pollution and development are enforced only to the extent that local environmental groups like our Audubon chapters force agencies to do so. Thus many of our chapters serve as defacto or quasi-law enforcement entities. Since TNC has no interest in filing appeals or making sure our laws are enforced they can freely raise money from people Audubon ought not, because it compromises us to take money from people with whom we may engage in adversarial legal relationships.

Lax environmental enforcement always creates financial windfalls for some people and corporations and such people and corporations are always keen to donate to politicians or environmental organizations because they want influence over them. For example it might be OK for a city to accept a large contribution from a person with possible organized crime connections to build a new symphony hall or art museum. But it would definitely NOT be OK for them to take the same contribution to fund an interagency drug intervention task force. And this is not a speculatory concern, if you look at the list of big contributors to NAS and the list of the top 100 corporate polluters you will see the overlap.

For Audubon (NAS) to take money from corporations and foundations with whom chapters have adversarial relationships over environmental enforcement is not a problem of marketing, or "getting our message out". To employ a management consulting company to create "branding" or other campaigns to ensure that all our state and local offices are forced to solicit money from compromised sources does not solve problems, it just exacerbates them.

For example: If NAS was to decide to create an Audubon refuge in our chapter's assigned service area which consists of 2000 square miles with only 10,000 adults, and 70 miles of undeveloped pristine coastline constantly under threat of development, the main people capable of writing the $5000 or $10,000 checks necessary to construct it would be the same people whose developments we routinely oppose in the land use process. I am sure many of them would be delighted to contribute to NAS just to have someone in Audubon to talk to and perhaps get the national office to reason with the local chapter to soften our chapter's will to oppose bad projects - which often run in the million $ range. It would simply be good business for the developers. Setting up big time local/regional fund raising within an organization whose chapters oppose bad local environmental projects is tailor made for conflicts of interest and has the potential for large "contributions" to the State Chapter and refuges to function as simple bribery. Easy access to make a case better, earlier and at greater length than your opponent is often the main purpose of "contributions".

This is a special problem in the last few years when almost all really bad projects have come attractively packaged to appear to benefit people. Many projects seem to create trails for handicapped people, assist struggling native Americans, promote tourism, create nice clean jobs, or build or promote various environmental concerns. Last year our chapter stopped the construction of a 20,000 square foot nature center with 300 parking spaces right on the pristine undeveloped coast. Millions were available for construction. The developers would probably have been delighted to let NAS manage it if NAS wanted to. As it was, all Oregon Audubon chapters opposed it. Would an Oregon State office of NAS have opposed it too? We shudder to think how NAS might have reacted to a multi-million $ proposed gift to develop this parcel of land. Bad guys have learned well that really bad projects must be attractively packaged because big enviro groups will often take a pass on "politically correct" projects in pretty wrappers. Since these days threats are usually not simple things to understand such as clearcuts, early access to pre-position a project in a decision maker's mind through creative "hand waving" is essential. If there are two call back slips on a busy Audubon State official's desk - one from a Chapter conservation chair, and another from a potential $10,000 contributor, who is most likely to get the first call back? I remember back when Oregon was under the California State office our calls to them were NEVER returned but they did so well at their corporate fund raising that they are being held up as a model for the whole country.

This is a scenario those of us active in stopping over-development and sprawl greatly fear. A chapter wants to oppose a developer with an ongoing fund raising relationship with the Audubon state office; and the developer has access to State NAS staff through fund raising contacts and solicitations to make his case first.

I know if we converted KAS tomorrow over to a "nature conservancy"-type outfit and stopped filing land use appeals, concentrating instead on building nature and eco-tourist centers I could easily raise 5 million for Audubon in the first year. In fact in the last 5 years I know I could have raised many times that because I was offered it and turned it down. We have even been offered free trips to foreign countries just to talk about projects to be done locally. People troll for us all the time. One wimpy local board member and one persuasive state office official is all it often takes to get a local chapter to pass on opposing a project. And developers know that.

Four of our chapter presidents (including myself currently ) are or have been on our local planning commissions. So I know well that it is a fundamental principle and a legal requirement of land use planning that deciding officers must adhere to the following principles: prior contacts with developers must be fully disclosed, ex-parte contacts (conversations) are forbidden and conflicts, or even appearances of conflicts of interest must be fully disclosed before the start of any land use hearing.

Around here, this is how land use works. For land use applications i.e. applications for rezoning, subdivisions and conditional use and for permits for water rights, wetlands fill, river and ocean rip-rap and gravel removal, if our Audubon Chapter does NOT appeal or object, 95+% are approved. But when we do appeal or object, 80% of the applications are likely to be denied. So practically speaking, the defacto decision on whether a project goes forward or no, occurs at the meeting where our chapter decides whether to oppose it. In short, if we oppose them, they do not happen; if we do not appeal them, they go through. (We have appealed/involved ourselves in 100+ land use developments in the last 10 years.) Legal disclaimer: we are scrupulous to ensure that people handling any appeal on a land use issue never even speak in general terms about the case to any Audubon Chapter member who will be hearing the case at the planning commission. Nor would they speak to any chapter members who serve at the higher level of government that hears appeals from planning commission decisions - this would be either a city council or county supervisors depending on the project's location. (Usually we have our members serving on them too.)

In 12 years of doing activism never, ever has any paid staff member of NAS except Mike Leahy or Brock Evans ever encouraged us, acknowledged this work, funded us or even commented on the many dozens of articles in our newsletters that have discussed these projects and our "victories". So the very idea of placing a full time Audubon staff member in our state or region who thinks "all money is green" and is in friendly contact with any our adversaries while we aren't on their "A" list or even their "C" list fills us with foreboding.

A profound conflict of interest is created when a State office fund raises from and thus has a present or potential financial relationship with a developer AND a chapter might oppose that developer in a land use action, AND the state office has ex-parte, private unrecorded contacts with that same developer AND the State office has ANY power or authority over the chapter.

On our present course, the TNC mindset will likely have two possible outcomes: we will engage in unethical behavior, or we will stop doing environmental advocacy and enforcement. Neither possibility is acceptable to Audubon Chapters.

A NAS or State Office might assume that when the money is flowing, "all is well", but remember your Bible: "No man can serve two masters."

©2000 Jim Britell
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