Sunday, Feb. 27, 2000 | 10:16 a.m.
WASHINGTON - The House GOP has been taking on Democrats, President Clinton and environmental groups for years in their fight to keep federal land available for recreationists, cattlemen and loggers.
But now the lawmakers are taking aim at a new target they see as an increasingly powerful menace: foundations.
Organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts and Turner Foundation are pouring millions of dollars into environmental groups, which launch campaigns and use White House access to influence natural resource policy decisions, GOP lawmakers and foundation critics say.
The environmental groups - while well-funded and powerful - don't represent a broad base of people and are accountable only to foundations that fund them, said Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho.
"This is a malignant mess and the metastasis is growing very quickly," said Chenoweth-Hage, who chairs a House Resources Committee panel that held a hearing on foundations earlier this month.
Ron Arnold, executive vice president of a Bellevue, Wash., non-profit group, said foundations, environmentalists and federal agencies form an "iron triangle" that unfairly influences policy to devastate local economies and private property.
"This is an intolerable program of rural cleansing," Arnold, of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, said at the hearing. "Foundations are not accountable to anyone. They are totally unregulated."
Political attacks on foundations are not new, but Democrats and environmentalists say the GOP has little to gain.
Foundations' practice of giving grants to environmental groups is not only legal, they say, but fairly typical of what foundations do for a score of causes - liberal and conservative - from education and health care to property rights and religious freedom.
A Portland, Ore., environmentalist whose group has received foundation money dismissed Chenoweth-Hage's effort as a "groundless witch hunt" designed to squelch public participation in government.
"The Resources Committee's desperate inquisition is little more than an attack on democracy," said Ken Rait, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the forests and forest health panel that Chenoweth-Hage chairs, said corporations form trusts dedicated to extracting natural resources.
"It's not fair to stand up here and say, 'How dare these folks advocate for a position,"' Smith said. "What should be the policy - are we saying the Pew Trusts doesn't have the right to exist?"
No one disputes, however, that environmental groups rely on multimillion-dollar donations from foundations to fund sophisticated, high-tech campaigns geared to influence policy makers and the public.
Bruce Lovelin, executive director of a Portland, Ore.-based river industries group, last summer tried to publicize the fact that foundations had given millions of dollars to salmon restoration groups.
Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance said he raised the issue not to say that foundations were doing anything wrong, but to try to knock down perceptions that environmentalists are the Davids facing industrial Goliaths.
"They've got the cash and we don't," Lovelin said. "We're just being out-funded out here in the Pacific Northwest on these salmon issues."
But Dan Beard, senior vice president at the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C., said even with the foundation grants to environmentalists, resource extraction groups have the upper hand with money.
"I have always felt that in this town on environmental issues it was a contest between the peanut and the elephant," Beard said. "We're the peanut."
Pew, a Philadelphia-based foundation with $4.9 billion in assets, has especially been a GOP target.
The organization gave nearly $3.5 million to finance the Heritage Forests Campaign, which has pushed for a rule-making process that could protect up to 50 million acres of already roadless federal forests.
GOP lawmakers, recreationists and other land users view the process, announced last October by President Clinton, as a federal land grab that attempts to sidestep Congress.
In hearings and reports since Clinton announced the plan, GOP lawmakers have carefully structured a case to argue the rulemaking is not only flawed but illegal.
"The roadless initiative was hatched in a back room with special interests," Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said at a hearing Tuesday.
The complaints could lay the groundwork for legislation to revamp the plan and lawsuits to derail it.
But Joshua Reichert, director of the environment program at Pew, said he was befuddled by Chenoweth-Hage's hearing.
Reichert said the foundation's job is to help the public better understand the nature of the roadless debate. He said the success of the initiative so far has more to do with the public support for protecting forests than the influence of any particular group.
"Congress has given us and other foundations in the country the right to do what we do on issues that we care about - and we care about wilderness," Reichert said.