Foundation shuns 'polarizing' issues, enlists strange bedfellows

Posted: Jul 12, 2007

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The House International Conservation Caucus has become one of the larger bipartisan groups on Capitol Hill by keeping its agenda noncontroversial and its profile low.

Since its founding in 2003, the caucus has amassed a healthy mix of 66 Democrats and 64 Republicans and spawned legislation that offends few (the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act of 2004, for one) — all with the help of a conservative Republican activist and a new 501c3 that supports its mission.

The International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) is as inclusive as its namesake, uniting non-governmental organizations, major corporations and former lawmakers in lunch discussions and hot-ticket events with a protect-nature theme.

The two-year-old foundation has held a dinner with actor Harrison Ford, an event with animals from an Anheuser-Busch menagerie and a luncheon at which Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's wife, Wendy Paulson, rhapsodized about migratory birds. It is planning appearances at both political parties' national conventions next summer and has booked space for an inaugural ball the night before the next president is sworn in.

The foundation's president, David Barron, said his group focuses heavily on international wildlife and habitat management issues and shuns argument-starters like global warming. Barron, a conservative Republican, said his foundation wants to fix environmental debates "polarized" by "center-left liberals and the 'hard left.'"

"Important issues aren't being addressed because of the extremism," Barron said in a recent interview.

Barron, 54, is a college dropout and an unsuccessful City Council candidate in his native Columbia, S.C. He worked for groups in the 1980s that supported political dissidents in Russia, Africa and Latin America. He served as president of the Jefferson Educational Foundation, a Reagan-era group that ran education programs for young conservatives overseas, and as president of the Young Republican National Federation. And he's now working for Sen. Sam Brownback's (Kan.) campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The House conservation caucus seemed to Barron to be a model of bipartisanship on resources issues.

Founded in 2003 by two Republicans and two Democrats, the caucus now manages to bring together Democrats like Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Russ Carnahan (Mo.), James Clyburn (S.C.), and Henry Waxman (Calif.) — all of whom had perfect scores in the League of Conservation Voters' legislative scorecard last Congress — with Republicans like Don Young (Alaska), Dan Burton (Ind.), John Carter (Texas), and Don Manzullo (Ill.), who got LCV goose eggs.

In 2005, Barron pitched the caucus foundation proposal to four big conservation groups — the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Conservation International. They hired him to use his connections to businesses and other nonprofits to run the operation that he started in a small Georgetown office with borrowed furniture and a few interns.

Today, he's got six full-time staff members and revenue that last year approached $500,000. Barron's goal is to recruit more Republicans for both the caucus and the foundation. He believes he's done especially well in luring Blue Dog Democrats, a group of largely Southern fiscal conservatives.

"You can't have too many Democrats," Barron said.

Key rule change

The concept of caucus foundations got a boost from a 1995 change in House ethics rules by Republicans who wanted to prohibit members from using office allowances to support caucus activities.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the move was aimed at strangling the liberal Democratic Study Group. "They wanted to cut it off at the knees," he said.

The rule change spurred caucuses to seek outside cash. It gave birth to groups like the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation.

ICCF is modeled on foundations for the two largest caucuses, the Sportsmen's Caucus (more than 300 members) and the Congressional Black Caucus (83). Both use foundations to connect members with issue experts and the public.

The foundations are required to stick to educational activities to maintain their nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service. As 501c3 organizations, they can use as much as 20 percent of their revenue to support lobbying.

ICCF says it spends nothing on lobbying. That's convenient because ICCF was founded a few months before both the House and the Senate tightened ethics rules to cut off lobbyist-funded trips for lawmakers — including wilderness excursions that Barron maintains are effective in conveying the importance of conservation. An ICCF representative said the group hasn't led any "educational field missions" but would like to in the future.

"The way it's organized, there are fewer concerns, legal or ethical, about organizing a trip," said Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International.

Invoking Teddy Roosevelt

But being nonpartisan does not mean the foundation is non-ideological.

Barron said ICCF espouses what it calls a "Teddy Roosevelt" approach to conservation and encourages market-oriented sustainable development.

"American and European dilettante charity will not sustain conservation permanently in the world," Barron said. "The United States has exported freedom, capitalism and human rights. We should export good natural resource management too."

The foundation is also skeptical of government resources management. It focuses on community initiatives, such as the Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) in Namibia, in which American non-governmental organizations work with local residents rather than the central government.

That approach helped lure corporations and trade groups to ICCF's Conservation Council. So far, ten have signed up — Exxon Mobil Corp., International Paper, Wal-Mart, JP Morgan Chase, the American Petroleum Institute (API), Tudor Investment Corp., Schering-Plough, Goldman Sachs, Anheuser-Busch and BP.

Corporations support ICCF financially (ICCF declined to release donation numbers and has yet to file a 990 form with the IRS), and their representatives meet quarterly with those of the council's nonprofits. Sometimes, they find ways to work together on projects that they can display on company Web pages that trumpet social responsibility.

"API signed on as part of a show of support for the conservation efforts of our members and of the oil and gas industry in general," API spokesman John Bisney said in an interview. "It's a useful place for us to be members because it's a forum where parties ... can discuss very important wildlife issues without a lot of partisan overtones."

'Public relations ploy'?

Some are skeptical about the involvement of big business on conservation issues. Tim Reiser, a staffer who's worked on conservation for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, is among them.

"Many corporations bear responsibility for the damage that has been done to the environment," Reiser said. "Anything they do to reverse that is welcome, but sometimes it seems more like a public relations ploy than a genuine effort to solve a problem."

But World Wildlife Fund lobbyist Randall Snodgrass said the foundation helps conservation groups and corporations work together.

Individually, the four conservation organizations in a partnership that became ICCF have disagreed about whether to ally with certain corporations, Snodgrass said. For example, Conservation International partnered with Exxon Mobil to create elephant migratory corridors in Angola, while WWF fought the corporation on harming sperm whales off the eastern coast of Russia, he said. But working through a foundation allows all parties to participate without contradicting their positions.

ICCF wants to preserve its confined mission. While organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have begun to speak out on issues like global warming and other aspects of administration policy, Barron said he'll avoid polarizing topics like climate change.

"Many Republicans in Congress are more scared of the global warming debate than they are of global warming itself. And I am too," he said. "Most of the organizations are completely prepossessed with global warming."

'Bigger than us'

Barron is hoping to promote the growth of a more robust Senate conservation caucus.

Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Brownback co-founded the Senate International Conservation Caucus in 2005, but the group has languished as Durbin got busy with his Democratic leadership duties and Brownback with his presidential campaign. Calls to both lawmakers' offices were not returned.

"It is more a problem of apathy, not opposition," Reiser said. "But there are also some who oppose anything that would limit the pace of development or the extraction of natural resources."

Snodgrass, though, said several senators are "waiting in the wings" to get involved. Barron said Leahy and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) are among those who'd like to become more involved.

Conservation International's Prickett said such caucuses can be important. The House caucus' influence, he said, can be seen in appropriations for the Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for resource projects, and restored funding for the Agency for International Development's conservation programs.

According to the International Conservation Partnership, the U.S. government will spend about $310 million on international conservation programs this year. Barron wants that number to climb to $1 billion and for the United States to establish an Office of International Conservation.

"This thing is bigger than us," he said.

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