The counterattack

With a friendly Bush administration in the White House, a trio of anti-environmental groups and companies is launching a multitiered attack on the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Best known for its headline-grabbing campaigns to protect forests, RAN has a proven track record of altering corporate behavior through a range of pressure tactics.

A conservative group called the Frontier Freedom Foundation (FFF) — heavily supported by tobacco, oil and timber money — is lobbying the IRS to revoke RAN’s nonprofit status. At the same time, logging company Boise Cascade has aggressively targeted RAN’s funders with threatening letters, trying to undermine the organization by drying up its cash flow. Both are working with the anti-green Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise to cripple RAN’s effectiveness.

RAN executes highly visible, aggressive campaigns primarily against corporations destroying old-growth forests in North America and around the world. Its tactics include consumer boycotts and symbolic efforts designed to capture media attention, including rappelling down corporate buildings and unleashing giant banners. Along with Boise Cascade, RAN has also targeted Mitsubishi and Occidental Petroleum, among other corporate giants.

The first attack came from the FFF (founded by former Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallup, a close associate of Vice President Dick Cheney), which charged in a letter to the IRS that RAN routinely engages in noneducational activity, violating the legal requirement that it be “operated exclusively for educational purposes.” The FFF’s executive director, George Landrith, called RAN “fundamentally radical, anti-capitalist and lawless.”

In response, RAN says that the FFF is using the tax codes to attack its First Amendment rights. As many have pointed out, civil rights groups such as the NAACP wouldn’t have been able to organize sit-ins to fight segregation if such a standard had been in place.

“We believe when laws are unjust, they can be broken in a symbolic way,” RAN Executive Director Christopher Hatch told the Wall Street Journal.

Nevertheless, some other groups are expressing anxiety about the IRS case. They fear a chilling effect on anti-corporate protests if the FFF is successful. Indeed, the FFF’s Landrith sees the RAN effort as a test case with many more to follow if successful. Thus far, the Bush administration hasn’t been shy about employing hardball tactics with its enemies, and the prospect of politicizing the IRS is not out of the question. Also, experts note that the IRS language in this arena is vague and the rulings on the books are close to 20 years old. New language could be more narrow and restrictive.

If the FFF is successful, RAN would not be out of business, but would have to raise what’s known as “hard money” from its donors and members. Put simply, donors wouldn’t be able to claim a tax deduction for supporting specific RAN activities, which could discourage them from giving. Michael Klein, a business entrepreneur and one of RAN’s key funders, said, “I don’t think there is any merit in this case and feel confident that the IRS will rule in RAN’s favor. But I stand behind the RAN’s work in this area, and would be willing to more than make up whatever shortfall might result.”

Michael Shellenberger, a RAN spokesman, calls the whole effort with the IRS a canard. “The only activities that would result in revoking nonprofit tax status are felonious activities, like embezzlement,” said Shellenberger. “The FFF is trying to scare our supporters, but they won’t be scared.”

“Let there be no doubt,” Hatch adds, “the work to protect our forests will not only continue, but escalate.”

Exploiting IRS codes is only part of the attack on RAN. Boise Cascade Corporation is trying to cut off RAN’s financial support in a different way. Boise Cascade is currently RAN’s Public Enemy No. 1 for its role as a “global forest destroyer.”

According to RAN, “data shows that BCC engages in global rainforest timber trade and contracts with companies that cut down old-growth forests in the United States, Chile, Indonesia, Canada, Brazil and Russia.” Furthermore, Boise Cascade was the lead plaintiff in the effort to reverse the Clinton administration’s Roadless Initiative for National Forests, strongly supported by the American public in polls.

The negative public attention and pressure on Boise Cascade generated by RAN has produced a chain reaction within the company, resulting in threatening letters written to many of RAN’s funders. Vincent Hannity, a Boise Cascade vice president, wrote to RAN funders, “We are frankly struggling to understand how and why RAN receives the support of reputable, responsible, well-intentioned organizations. ... If RAN’s lawless, radical agenda and methodology are consistent with your organization’s guidelines, objectives and ethics we ask that you share those criteria with us.”

Insiders say that Boise Cascade has even contacted principals of schools where students have written to the company urging the protection of old-growth forests.

Students aren’t the only ones worried about forest conservation. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that nine out of 10 people believe protecting wilderness is important, and six out of 10 say we shouldn’t build more roads in national forests.

According to Hatch, rather than admitting that the strong public sentiment against irresponsible forestry might be cutting into its bottom line, Boise Cascade is trying to blame RAN for its economic problems. The company lost $35.5 million in the first quarter of 2001. Clearly, RAN’s success in reducing demand for products made from old-growth wood — including its groundbreaking agreement with Home Depot and a deal in Canada to preserve large portions of the Great Bear rainforest — has motivated Boise Cascade. But instead of working with RAN to clean up its act (which numerous companies have done), Boise Cascade has chosen a more hostile route.

Boise Cascade’s aggressive strategy and denial of public opinion places it among a group of conservative corporations that are highly resistant to change, including oil giant ExxonMobil, which still refuses to acknowledge global warming. Also like ExxonMobil, Boise Cascade enjoys long-standing and close relationships with key members of the Bush administration.

A second right-wing group, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, headed by notorious “wise use” advocate Ron Arnold, is working with the FFF and Boise Cascade to undermine RAN’s standing.

A press release from the FFF said that “Arnold would present RAN as an attack group and not an environmental group. He will present RAN’s anti-capitalist and anti-corporate agenda of force, intimidation and unlawful actions. Arnold will also show suspicious links between RAN’s rhetoric and Earth Liberation Front acts.”

RAN denies such charges of unlawfulness, and a connection to more militant groups. “RAN is strictly a nonviolent organization strongly opposed to property destruction of any kind,” said RAN communications director Shannon Wright.

It seems clear that RAN’s efforts to protect old-growth forests are not going to be seriously inhibited by attacks from right-wing groups and angry corporations. On the other hand, major companies with billion-dollar investments in their brands are increasingly vulnerable to the effective tactics — advertising, public education, and direct action protest — employed by RAN and pioneered decades ago by groups such as the United Farm Workers.

As more corporate money flows into the coffers of elected officials, government often produces policies that protect corporate interests at the public’s expense. The only realistic shot at reform becomes public campaigns aimed at the reputation and the bottom line of the corporate behemoths. Ironically, as Boise Cascade’s example may soon show, exercising overwhelming influence in politics may lead to more financial losses in the long run, if a company becomes a target for activist campaigns. If only it understood the need to balance its interests with the public and become a better corporate citizen.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of Alternet. Send comments to [email protected]
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