A progressive watchdog group has renewed its call for the IRS to investigate whether a Texas-based property rights organization is violating its tax-exempt nonprofit status as it campaigns against the Biden administration’s goal of conserving 30% of lands and waters by 2030, known informally as “30x30.”
Accountable.US filed an initial complaint with the IRS last year, accusing the fringe, right-wing American Stewards of Liberty of violating its 501(c)(3) status by lobbying against 30x30 at the federal, state and local levels. This week, Accountable amended its complaint with new evidence, including internal communications that HuffPost obtained via a public records request. Accountable argues that the new evidence further proves American Stewards is working to influence legislation in violation of tax code rules.
As HuffPost revealed last month, Margaret Byfield, the executive director of American Stewards of Liberty, developed a cozy relationship inside Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office, and worked behind the scenes to guide the Republican governor’s response to 30x30. Byfield advised Ricketts on the conservation initiative and other environmental policy issues, even playing a direct role in crafting an executive order, signed by the governor in late June, that aimed to prevent President Joe Biden from implementing his 30x30 plan in Nebraska.
In a supplemental letter sent to the IRS on Thursday, Accountable.US noted that American Stewards has “expanded its federal lobbying efforts” and is publicly backing a pair of congressional bills, dubbed the “30x30 Termination Act,” that seek to block Biden’s 30x30 pledge. Two of the bills’ main sponsors, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), were keynote speakers at American Stewards’ “STOP 30x30 Summit” in Lincoln, Nebraska, last month.
The letter also cites HuffPost’s recent reporting on Byfield’s influence within Ricketts’ office, and how she requested and apparently secured a statement from the governor in support of Boebert’s anti-30x30 bill.
“By its own admission, a significant portion of American Stewards’ activities involve attempts to influence legislation, and its primary objective can only be achieved through advocating for or against legislation,” Jordan Schreiber, energy and environment director at Accountable.US, said in a statement. “Such an approach violates their nonprofit tax status.”
American Stewards has advanced sweeping, evidence-free claims that the 30x30 initiative is a federal “land grab” in disguise. Its rhetoric is now being parroted by a growing number of Republican lawmakers and right-wing organizations. And the disinformation-rich campaign has succeeded in drumming up fear in rural communities about a looming federal takeover of private property rights.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist and ethics expert at the nonprofit consumer group Public Citizen, agrees that American Stewards’ activities run afoul of its tax-exempt status. He noted that in its newsletter, American Stewards has called on its audience to contact their elected representatives to urge them to back specific legislation.
“This constitutes ‘indirect lobbying,’ which is prohibited for charities,” Holman said via email.
The IRS did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. On its website, however, it explains that “a 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.”
“An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation,” the agency’s website reads.
In a May 2021 newsletter, American Stewards wrote: “If your Representative is not signed on, please call their office and request they co-sponsor Rep. Boebert’s ‘30 x 30 Termination Act.’ Deadline to sign on is this Friday.”
Additionally, Holman said the revelations in HuffPost’s report last month — namely, that Byfield helped craft Ricketts’ executive order on 30x30 and procure a statement from the governor in support of Boebert’s legislation — constitute “direct lobbying,” which is also prohibited for 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
“There appears to be many different activities that qualify American Stewards as an ‘action organization,’ and thereby disqualifying it from tax-exempt status,” Holman said. “By all accounts, the IRS should take a closer look at the operations of American Stewards of Liberty and decide whether the organization is worthy of its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.”
Byfield did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. She is, however, keenly aware of Accountable.US and its work. In emails to one of Ricketts’ top staffers, which HuffPost obtained as part of its records request, Byfield warned that Accountable.US had been filing public records requests for American Stewards’ communications with counties in numerous states — “Your office may receive a similar request,” she wrote — and scrutinizing the group’s tax status.
And at the “Stop 30x30 Summit” last month, Trump-era Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, one of the event’s keynote speakers, slammed the organization’s president, Kyle Herrig, for an op-ed he wrote about American Stewards ahead of its summit in Nebraska.
“I don’t like bullies,” Bernhardt said, referring to Herrig. “Where I’m from, people don’t bully each other.”