Northern Plains Resource Council
Food and drink activists can put down roots in just about any environment, from big cities to small-town rural America. Even in Montana, where the big sky is the skyline, anti-consumer activity is alive and well.
The Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) was formed by a group of cattle ranchers in the 1970s, and is now a member of a six-activist-group collective called the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). Working together with the other WORC groups and a handful of “family farming” organizations, NPRC is the driving force behind an effort to topple the national Beef Checkoff, a livestock program that collects money from cattle ranchers ($1 per head) and applies the funds to agricultural research programs. Beef Checkoff funds are also used to promote U.S.- and foreign-grown beef products sold by American companies.
In 2001, two prominent NPRC members named Steve and Jeanne Charter refused to pay the legally-required checkoff fees on their cattle, and a court battle ensued. The Charters insist that the program is “undemocratic” and “unfair” — they would prefer that the money be devoted instead to promoting their views on “sustainable” animal agriculture. NPRC spokespeople called the Charters “courageous heroes” and spun the conflict as a David-vs-Goliath scenario where local, grassroots groups should, and would prevail.
So why should the rest of America care about what happens with a handful of Montana ranchers? Good question. It turns out that NPRC isn’t really a grassroots operation at all. It’s mostly an East-coast propaganda machine. Also, the group’s small-town members (and their big-city funders) want to topple more than just the Beef Checkoff. They want to do away with the modern beef industry as a whole, a supposed monster that they derisively describe as “corporate” and “globalized.” No wonder NPRC has accepted more than $150,000 in grants since 2000 specifically targeted “to organize citizens and promote public policy that… challenges corporate control of the food industry.”
Those who deal with NPRC on a regular basis know it to be a well-funded, anti-business group that routinely doles out criticism and bites back hard at anyone who dares criticize its methods. NPRC spokespeople frequently claim that anyone who dares disagree with them is flatly dishonest.
When Montana state representative Keith Bales informed the public (in writing) that these “local” NPRC activists were largely bought and paid for by the foundation funds of “some of the wealthiest people in the nation,” many of whom “have never been to Billings, let alone Alzada or Otter,” long-time NPRC board member Wade Sikorski replied in the Fallon County Times (March 1, 2001) that Rep. Bales should “quit telling lies about his opponents.” In the same issue, NPRC member Dena Hoff called Bales’ op-ed a “misinformed diatribe.” Neither Sikorski nor Hoff, however, was able to deny the substance of Bales’ critique.
It’s worth noting that Montana’s Beef Checkoff funds are sent by the US Department of Agriculture to a trade group called the Montana Beef Council, which distributes the money to programs and projects within the state. NPRC has attempted to join the Council (perhaps to force change from within), but it can’t meet the group’s standard as a “livestock production organization.” In other words, the beef industry and the USDA consider the Northern Plains Resource Council more political agitators than ranchers.
Still, NPRC has avoided criticizing at least one prominent large-scale Montana “rancher”: Ted Turner. The largest private landowner in the state, Turner and his buffalo ranch have raised the ire of both cattlemen and sportsmen by running cattle off the range and trapping elk in what locals call the “Turner death fences.” However, Turner has given NPRC nearly $200,000 in recent years (via his Turner Foundation). NPRC seems to have given his “corporate” enterprise a free pass.
Getting black eyes comes with the territory for bullies. And if you throw enough wild haymakers, sometimes those shiners are self-inflicted. For instance, in 1997 the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices ruled that NPRC and six other environmental groups were guilty of “violating the most basic of Montana’s campaign finance laws” with regards to a so-called “clean water” ballot measure. The Commissioner determined that NPRC led what amounted to a shadow campaign called the Public Education for Water Quality Project. This PEWQ Project (now affectionately called the “Puke” project in Montana) spent thousands of dollars on advertising and other materials, in blatant violation of campaign finance laws.
In a post-election memo to other PEWQ member organizations, NPRC Staff Director Teresa Erickson wrote: “We may want to keep some PEWQ structure if for no other reason than not to fall into the trap of proving that we only existed for the initiative. Should this thing blow up into a huge legal fight, and since we are all somewhat implicated, we will need to figure out how to finance defense.” In 1998 the Beldon Fund wrote NPRC a $25,000 check specifically for that purpose.
One of the NPRC campaign’s strategy documents listed tasks that needed to be completed, including the need to “approach laid-off or about to be laid-off Greenpeace canvassers.” That same document also directed the steering committee to “depict the opposition as vile scumbags so that any other organizations or individuals (such as [then-governor Marc] Racicot and the [Montana] Stockgrowers [Association]) will be more reluctant to associate themselves with them.”
That same year (1998), NPRC received a $5,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a project that “motivates and increases the level of citizen involvement in environmental issues.” On their annual IRS return, tax-exempt groups like NPRC must disclose whether the group has received any “Government contributions, (grants).” Despite receiving direct financial support from the Clinton Administration, NPRC’s returns reported a big fat zero.
The Northern Plains Resource Council, like much of the radical protest culture, thrives on conflict. In fact, you could even say that NPRC can’t live without it. Like many environmental groups, NPRC has far outgrown its original mission. While the group’s founders (in the 1970s) were real-live ranchers with real-world concerns, today the organization has degenerated into a mere puppet for moneyed interests in the environmental “conflict industry,” most notably the wealthy foundations that keep it afloat.
Put simply, NPRC’s staff and organizers need money, and are paid for “deliverables,” including the illusion of “grassroots” and “local” credentials for the enormous and wealthy national groups (and foundation investors) who really pull the strings. Meanwhile, the group assures the media that it’s only interested in “saving” family farms and ranches. NPRC’s income has nearly quadrupled since 1990; the group’s professional staff has mushroomed; and its legal activity has become much more aggressive along the way.
When NPRC demands that the beef industry distribute its Checkoff funds to “sustainable” agriculture programs, and cites “local” and “grassroots” support for its goals, you can bet that it’s not mainstream farm interests talking. While it may be fashionable among some activists to “challenge corporate control of the food system,” it’s certainly not what most ranchers want.