Jayne Morley wasn’t born in Craig, Colorado, but when a lawsuit from the environmental group WildEarth Guardians threatened to shutter the Colowyo coal mine that was the economic lifeblood of her beloved adopted hometown, she vowed to “fight tooth and nail.” Morley went on the organization’s website, looked at the businesses the environmental group listed as its supporters, and began e-mailing them about a boycott. Their responses surprised her.
“Several of the businesses said they’ve never had a relationship with WildEarth Guardians, and they don’t know why they were listed,” Morley tells National Review. “In some instances, there was a very small donation, like a gift card, when someone came around and asked for a prize in a raffle. It may have been many years ago, but WildEarth Guardians listed the entire company as supporters. In other instances, when I wrote to businesses, they told me, ‘We’ve never had anything to do with these people.’”
WildEarth Guardians had initially listed 605 businesses as supporters; by June 18, that list had been amended to include only 151, and it has since been taken down altogether. Some businesses apparently asked to be removed after threats of boycotts in the wake of the group’s controversial Colowyo coal lawsuit, but many others said they’d never given permission to be listed and had been included inappropriately.
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Denver-based climate and energy program director, tells National Review the organization maintained a list of supporters to thank businesses that had donated money, gift cards, or offered other support, big or small.
“One would think if they’re in the business of giving back, part of the calculus is they want some acknowledgment for that,” Nichols says. “I guess we were just heeding our intuition here. If people want to perceive it as misleading or that we were sending the wrong message, that’s okay. . . . People can perceive that however they want. If they want to perceive it as us lying, that’s their perspective.”
National Review reviewed some of Morley’s e-mail correspondence with these businesses, directly contacting some of them in the process.
Denver Botanical Gardens, one of the companies listed on the group’s site, had not only never partnered with WildEarth Guardians in any way — it had also “never had any communication with them prior to seeing ourselves listed as a supporter,” Erin Bird, the garden’s communications manager, told National Review. She adds: “It’s not like we used to work with them and no longer do; we were never involved. It was a miscommunication — a misrepresentation — from the beginning.”
Nichols says Denver Botanical Gardens gave them a gift card for a raffle, which he actually won. “They have a stack of hundreds of gift cards they give out to 501(c)3s, and they give them out to the community,” he said.
Cherry Creek Shopping Center’s spokesperson, Dave Dixon, says they became aware they were on the list after shoppers contacted them, and they asked to be removed.
“WildEarth Guardians were representing us as having supported them, and we hadn’t, so we just wanted them to have it factually correct,” Dixon says.
Breckenridge Brewery told Morley in an e-mail that the business’s only interaction with WildEarth Guardians was in 2011, when “one of our affiliated restaurants donated a $30.00 gift card” for a fundraising event. “We did not know that this contribution put us on the organization’s list of supporters,” wrote spokesman Terry Usry, adding that “since the 2011 donation, we have made no other contributions to WildEarth Guardians.”
Though WildEarth Guardians’ Nichols says the controversy over the supporter list has “made us rethink how we thank businesses for being generous to nonprofit organizations,” he would not identify any policy that would prevent it from happening in the future “because the discussions are ongoing.”
Nichols acknowledges that “we engage in tactics that some people view as controversial sometimes,” adding that group has sent a letter of notification to some of the businesses listed as supporters. But he also asks: “What are we supposed to do? Lay out every day-to-day activity we do and then ask them if they want to support? . . . If you run a business, obviously you are sophisticated.”
But nonprofit best practices mandate complete honesty and transparency, says Sandra Miniutti, the spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, the nonprofit sector’s leading watchdog.
“I don’t think there is anyone who studies nonprofit best practices who would say it’s okay for a charity to list people or companies as supporters if that wasn’t the truth,” Miniutti says. “Rather, a best practice is to obtain permission, in writing, before using an endorsement.”
WildEarth Guardians isn’t the only environmental organization to run into issues after listing business supporters. Earlier this year, Charity Navigator placed the Sierra Club on its watch list after allegations that it had listed several North Carolina businesses as co-signatories on a letter calling for Duke Energy to retire its Asheville coal plant.
But in Colorado, the controversy surrounding its list of businesses is only the latest of several for WildEarth Guardians. The environmental group successfully brought suit against the Department of Interior, claiming the federal government had not properly considered climate change before awarding a 2007 expansion permit to Colowyo coal mine.
A federal judge concurred with the lower court ruling on May 4, giving the agency 120 days to conduct the review over again — a decision that may force the mine to shut down for good.
That would be a devastating blow for Craig, Colorado, a town of 9,464 residents. The Colowyo mine employs around 220 workers; energy is the largest employer in Northwest Colorado, which includes Craig.
Morley, who works for the electric-power company Tri-State Generation but doesn’t speak on its behalf, says her activism was inspired by how important the energy sector is to her community.
“My neighbors either work at a mine or work at a company supporting the energy sector,” Morley says. “The entire economy around me is built on coal. We eat, sleep, work and play here, and we don’t want to leave this area. We, the residents, are actually the better earth guardians of this area than some organization that sits at a desk and files bogus lawsuits.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.