A dark money group backed by Charles and David Koch is behind a well-funded effort to undermine protections at the Grand Canyon and overturn the Antiquities Act, the law President Teddy Roosevelt used to permanently protect the area in 1908. If successful, the campaign could stop a permanent ban on uranium mining near the canyon’s rim, despite support for such a ban by a vast majority of Arizonans.
“Dark money” groups can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors they do not have to disclose, thanks to two infamous Supreme Court decisions. The Koch brothers’ anti-park effort is being run through the Arizona-based Prosper Inc. and its sister organization the Prosper Foundation Inc., which share a physical address, a logo, a staff, and a founder — Kirk Adams. Adams served as Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives from 2009 to 2011, ran a failed attempt for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, and is currently the Chief of Staff to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. Earlier this year, Prosper co-authored a report with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which declared that protecting the public lands around the Grand Canyon National Park as a national monument would be a “monumental mistake” that represents “unwarranted and unwanted federal overreach” and would “undermine” the state of Arizona. It calls the Antiquities Act — which has been used by 16 out of the last 19 American presidents to protect places like the Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon, and Arches — “the worst kind of federal overreach.”
The joint Prosper/Arizona Chamber of Commerce effort is part of an organized campaign to enable uranium mining on public lands next to the Grand Canyon. The campaign opposes the creation of the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, which would permanently ban uranium mining in the area. A broad-based coalition, which includes Arizona’s Native American tribes, small businesses, and conservation groups, have asked President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to protect the 1.7 million acre gateway to the Grand Canyon and permanently prohibit new uranium mines on the canyon’s rim.
Havasupai Tribal Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi, a proponent of the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, told the The Arizona Republic that “everybody has a right to go to their church and enjoy peace and quiet and not be disrupted by truck hauling uranium, and not be contaminated.”
Prosper, which was formed in 2013, covers nearly its entire budget with funds from Koch-backed American Encore — formerly known as the Center to Protect Patient Rights. According to tax filings, American Encore has funded 83 percent of Prosper Inc.’s total budget since its creation, donating over $1.5 million to the organization in 2013 and 2014. The President of American Encore is Sean Noble, a longtime Koch lieutenant who was “plucked from obscurity” in 2009, according to ProPublica, and quickly ascended as a key player within Koch’s dark money network. Noble’s organization is placed squarely in the center of the Koch’s funding network. American Encore (and the Center to Protect Patient Rights before it) was described by the New York Times as a “conduit for tens of millions of dollars in political spending, much of it raised by the Kochs and their political operation.” The organization has donated over $177 million to conservative causes between 2011 and 2014. This is not the first time Kirk Adams and Sean Noble have made headlines for their ties to Koch money. In 2012, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership — another dark money group run by Kirk Adams — were fined $1 million by the state of California for failing to disclose its donors, a violation which amounted to political money laundering. And Noble has been a long-time financial supporter of Adams’ political career: Noble donated to Adams’ 2010 reelection to the Arizona House and Noble and his ex-wife maxed out their donation to Adams during his failed 2012 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kirk Adams, Sean Noble, and Prosper also have deep ties into the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which is partnering with Prosper to fight against protections at the Grand Canyon. Noble’s business partner at Axiom Public Affairs — an Arizona-based lobbying firm — is Jim Norton, who is also the Arizona Chamber’s contract lobbyist. And the Chamber’s Chief Operating Officer, John Ragan, is married to Prosper’s Vice President, Ashley Ragan. Protecting the Greater Grand Canyon as a national monument has an extremely high level of support in the state. A poll released in February by the Grand Canyon Trust found 80 percent of Arizonans support the proposed monument — including 65 percent of Arizona Republicans. But most of Arizona’s congressional delegation — including Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, and Representatives Paul Gosar, David Schweikert, Trent Franks, and Matt Salmon — want the gateway to the Grand Canyon open to uranium mining. Local news reports have noted that these politicians’ views are out of the mainstream in Arizona, even within the Republican Party.
“It wasn’t clear why some Arizona leaders would defy overwhelming support for protecting the Greater Grand Canyon region,” said Roger Clark, the Grand Canyon Program Director with the Grand Canyon Trust. “Now we know: backing a national monument would undercut their political patrons who are invested in undermining efforts to protect public lands.” Just last month, Senator John McCain was the beneficiary of Koch-backed dark money when the Judicial Crisis Network ran paid ads on the senator’s behalf to provide cover for obstructing consideration of Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement.
A recent report from the Center for Western priorities highlights the long history of private interests opposing protections for America’s public lands. In the late 19th century, early attempts to permanently protect the Grand Canyon were called “a fiendish and diabolical scheme.”
In the final year of the Obama presidency, groups are urging the White House to do more to protect lands in the face of congressional gridlock. In February, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to declare three new monuments in California. The focus has now turned toward proposals to protect the Greater Grand Canyon and Utah’s Bears Ears regions.
Greg Zimmerman is the Policy Director at the Center for Western Priorities. Nicole Gentile is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow them on Twitter at @GregorZimmer and @nicolegentile.