The concrete parking lot was radiating heat outside of Mercury Studios in Irving, home of notoriously weepy conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s media empire. A faux colonnade painted on one side of an otherwise unremarkable building presaged the menagerie of kitschy Americana inside, where the far-right True Texas Project was about to hold a meeting. Headlining the event was Margaret Byfield, executive director of American Stewards of Liberty (ASL), a nonprofit based in Georgetown, Texas, that is best known for trying to whittle down the number of animals on the endangered species list.
Byfield had come to North Texas to discuss a relatively new initiative for ASL, one she and her husband Dan have spent the last year and change traveling the country promoting. They were there, in Margaret’s words, to “build the fighting force” to lobby against what she frames as one of the largest “land grabs” in history.
The Byfields have led fights over property rights and habitat protection with great intensity for decades. Margaret’s father, Wayne Hage, was the subject of one of the largest takings cases in history, Hage v. United States, for failing to pay grazing fees after using public land. Margaret Byfield launched the property rights group Stewards of the Range in 1992, which later merged with American Stewards of Liberty in 2009. ASL is now leading the crusade against a conservation agenda known as the 30 by 30 Initiative. Under 30 by 30, countries are encouraged to voluntarily set aside 30 percent of their ocean and land as protected areas by 2030 in order to reduce threats posed by climate change. It first emerged in 2019 as a proposal in the journal Science Advances and was quickly championed by a number of organizations, including the Center for American Progress—a fact that Byfield presented as a dire portent.
The 30 by 30 Initiative was later incorporated by President Joe Biden as a part of his 2021 Presidential Executive Order on Tackling Climate Change at Home and Abroad. Climate scientists describe it as a bold plan to preserve biodiversity and limit the global increase in temperature to below extinction levels. Byfield frames 30 by 30 as an ominous “international agenda” that will erode American values and property rights, echoing the bogus “Agenda 21” theory which falsely purports that the United Nations seeks to force the United States to eliminate private property rights. Agenda 21 was a relatively sensible nonbinding planning document that Republican President George H.W. Bush and other world leaders signed during the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. In the decades since, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Agenda 21 has been twisted by groups like the John Birch Society into a “destructive and insidious scheme” that is meant to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.”
Thus far, the Byfield’s have secured the support of at least 21 Republican senators and 15 Republican governors. Dozens of county-level governments have passed form resolutions opposing the 30 by 30 Initiative. They’ve done all this under the banner of American Stewards of Liberty, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, while raising at least six figures in donations from Koch brothers-backed dark money groups. According to tax filings, over fifty percent of the nonprofit’s expenses have gone toward payroll since 2017. In 2020, ASL spent just over 94 percent of its budget on the Byfields’ salaries.
Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the influence of corporations and special interests, believes that such activities may run afoul of various laws governing the lobbying activities of nonprofit groups. According to their research, the Byfield’s have conducted the Stop 30 by 30 campaign without registering as lobbyists. The CEO of American Stewards of Liberty, Dan Byfield, is a former professional lobbyist but hasn’t reported lobbying activity since 2006. In May 2021, Accountable.US filed a complaint alleging ASL has been lobbying in violation of its nonprofit status.
In response to such criticism, ASL included a pie chart in their 2021 annual report which suggests that 77 percent of all expenses are categorized as “program services” and only 3 percent are considered “advocacy.” When approached for comment, a representative described ASL as an “educational organization,” and the Texas Project event as a part of their “educational activities.”
The Internal Revenue Service website defines lobbying as “attempting to influence legislation.” They then define legislation as “action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies.”
“ASL is not advancing form resolution legislation,” a representative wrote via email. “We do make available to the public a model ‘resolution’ local governments, associations, and anyone wanting to take a reasoned position opposing 30×30 can use to state their position. This is a part of our educational activities. The model form is not an ordinance or legislation.”
That distinction, however, may not pass the sniff tests if their other educational activities are anything like the True Texas Project event where Margaret Byfield spoke.
According to nonprofit law experts, advocating for a “resolution” to be voted on or passed by county elected officials would be included in the definition of lobbying. During Margaret’s presentation to the True Texas Project, she boasted of their success in getting counties to pass the form resolution. In the past, she’s described them as “resolutions that we have passed.”
IRS rules say that nonprofits are allowed to lobby as long as lobbying is an “insubstantial part” of their activities. Should lobbying constitute a “substantial part” of their activities, a nonprofit could face fines or even the revocation of their nonprofit status. But multiple nonprofit law experts told the Texas Observer that it is not often that nonprofits face serious consequences, particularly in the wake of the gutting of the IRS budget for enforcement.
“Unfortunately, it’s a really murky gray area,” said Jordan Schreiber, director of energy and environment at Accountable.US. “It’s really hard to prosecute.”
Byfield’s engagement at the True Texas Project could be considered lobbying behavior, given her specific calls to action to the audience regarding a form resolution she seeks legislative bodies to pass. It could also be considered an exercise in spreading disinformation.
A chunk of Byfield’s speech focused on federally protected “wilderness areas” in the American West. She claimed that the increase in forest fires in the West are not due to climate change but rather federal mismanagement. She made two specific assertions about conservation that appear to be complete inversions of the truth.
First, Byfield claimed that wilderness areas are “so exclusive and restricted … they become these monocultures where the big predators dominate. And the grazers are pushed out. So what you end up with is all this burning fuel at the bottom of the forest.”
“That doesn’t have any support in science or policy,” said Gregory H. Aplet, senior forest scientist at The Wilderness Society. “Grazing is allowed in the wilderness. So the idea that grazers are being chased from the wilderness is lunacy. I’m not aware of any evidence, anywhere that suggests that predators are in greater abundance in wilderness than they are outside wilderness. The idea that the recovery of vegetation from grazers being chased from the wilderness causing fires is just not supported. At all.”
Second, Byfield asserted that federal mismanagement of wilderness areas is the leading cause of forest fires spreading onto private property. “A fire starts, okay, and they don’t put it out, because doing so would be unnatural, so they let the fire burn,” Byfield said. “And nobody is allowed to start fighting it until it starts spilling over on other people’s property.”
“There was a study released recently that looked at what they called cross-boundary fires, fires that start in one ownership and burn across the boundary onto another,” Aplet told the Observer. “It was found that by a ratio of greater than three-to-one, fires tend to start on private property and burn into the public lands.”
Despite the scientific illegitimacy of Byfield’s specific claims, the True Texas Project audience followed along intently. When Byfield said that Representative Lauren Boebert, the QAnon-supporting firebrand, was among the first supporters of ASL’s Stop 30 by 30 effort, the audience “oohed” and “ahhed” at the name drop.
A representative from ASL pushed back on the idea that they are climate science deniers, and argued that “climate data has been misreported, for political purposes, to mislead the public into believing we must make extreme lifestyle changes, including permanently protecting 30 percent of our lands and oceans from human use.”
This past April, Boebert attended the ASL summit with a number of other Republican politicians. She claimed the Chinese government is buying up large swaths of land in the United States with the help of the Democratic party.
“I work with people on a daily basis who are envious of the [Chinese Communist Party], who want to be modeled after the [Chinese Communist Party], and are perfectly fine with China buying up our land right here in America,” Boebert said.
Although Chinese nationals have purchased land in the United States, it’s a small percentage relative to that owned by nationals from Europe or Canada, and the federal government has actually found bipartisan support to limit land purchases by Chinese nationals given recent concerns around land deals near sensitive locations, like Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.
Back at the True Texas Project event, the first audience question from an older man in the back of the room echoed Boebert’s statements at the ASL Summit.
“Is this, uh, do you know the fact that the government is helping the Chinese to buy land, is it a part of this subjugation?” the man struggled to ask.
“So, here’s the way I usually address that,” Byfield began, implying this is a rather common line of questioning she’s learned to deflect without condemnation. “I don’t really know what role China has in this, but they’ve got their own agenda,” Byfield continued. “China’s not looking for a seat at the table, they want to be the superpower. But what I do like to explain to people is with international agendas like these, you have to remember what motivates people. There’s three things: power, money, and cause. And you have all of that going on right here.”
Byfield went on to assert that all of the most radical environmental activists are atheists. “We worship the creator, they worship the creation,” Byfield said. “How often do they talk about Mother Earth? The concept of us having dominion over the land and nature, they disagree with that.”
In the past, Byfield hasn’t been so reserved when it comes to the topic of China. In 2021, she “investigated” an allegation that “Chinese individuals” spent $100 million in cash on farmland. She did so by driving past a private farm and counting grow houses with Trent Loos, a right-wing radio personality and conspiracy peddler who has occasionally acted as a spokesman for American Stewards of Liberty.
Despite being based in Texas, most of ASL’s success in getting counties to vote on their form resolution has been outside of the state. Only seven Texas counties have joined in the opposition to 30 by 30. But that’s something the Byfield’s hope to change with the help of groups like True Texas Project.
“They have very little federal land in Texas,” Byfield said balefully to the True Texas Project audience. “And Texas would be a big acquisition for them.”