Powder River Basin Resource Council
If there’s a political issue affecting Wyoming food producers and consumers, you can bet that the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC) will be in the middle of it. The group’s news releases often say that it “represents family farmers, ranchers and other rural residents.” But somehow PRBRC always seems to weigh in against the folks who raise hogs and cattle (by supporting draconian government regulations), and against consumers (by advocating policies that result in higher prices).
In truth, the group really represents the narrow interests of its own small membership, as well as the interests of big-money foundations that fund its operations from the East and West coasts. As with all the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) groups, PRBRC justifies its activist pressure tactics by its supposed concern for “the environment.”
In 1997 PRBRC pressured the Wyoming legislature into passing a law that the Natural Resources Defense Council admitted was “aimed at” large-scale hog farms, by mandating that the facilities were a certain distance from residences, schools and towns. WORC’s recent annual reports confirm PRBRC’s prevailing attitude toward successful, large-scale farmers. “A local PRBRC chapter,” the group wrote in 2000, “gained a moratorium on new or expanded permits for hog factories in July and petitioned the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to regulate odor from animal factories.”
Regarding PRBRC’s recent push to regulate odor controls, its activists are agitating for changes to the “ambient air standard” for certain hog feeding operations. In a nutshell, PRBRC’s master plan would require pigs not to stink.
In 2001, the PRBRC continued its anti-consumer barrage, mounting a campaign to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to multiply its rules regarding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (usually called “CAFOs”). That’s bureaucratese for the safe, efficient, and already heavily environmentally regulated places where livestock are fed before they become part of our food chain. PRBRC’s news release said that it wanted the EPA to “crack down on the mega CAFO operations that are polluting the water and desecrating the land.”
As is so often the case with farm activists on the left, however, PRBRC wants to employ government regulators as a uniquely advantageous double-edged sword: one side to protect its own interests, and the other to cripple its competitors. That same PRBRC press release pleaded with the EPA to continue “protecting our family farms and ranches from over-regulation” (emphasis added). Having it both ways by regulating your competition to death while winning special exemptions for yourself may hardly seem fair, but PRBRC calls it “balance.”
The Powder River Basin Resource Council’s desire to cripple its competition — those large farming operations whose consistent success has allowed them to grow — appears to be all-consuming. Why else would its officers have thrown their support behind a radical group like the organic food lobby’s Center for Food Safety (CFS)? PRBRC recently joined CFS and a dozen other foundation-dependent groups in a legal action that suggested that eating mainstream U.S. beef has become risky business. The 2001 petition was an attempt to pressure Agriculture Secretary Veneman and Health and Human Services Secretary Thompson “to take immediate action to protect Americans from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or ‘mad cow disease.’”
Never mind that there has never been a single case of an American contracting the disease from eating U.S. beef. The Powder River Basin Resource Council was eager to step into CFS’s limelight in order to help create a crisis of confidence among consumers. PRBRC appears to be hoping that if Americans lose faith in mainstream beef producers, its membership — made up of fringe producers who raise “organic,” “free range,” and so-called “sustainable” livestock — will swoop in to fill the void. That’s just the sort of “balance” that could put huge numbers of people out of work and raise prices for consumers.
For decades, the battles out West over natural resource and food production issues have been intense, but generally held with some decorum. Prior to the mid-1980s, critics would go after a company or a project, but not individuals — even professional environmentalists respected loggers and ranchers as individuals, and vice versa.
Thanks to groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, that line has been crossed and obliterated. In October 2001, PRBRC sponsored a forum on energy in Sheridan, Wyoming. At the event, former Denver Bronco cheerleader (and PRBRC activist) Mary Brannaman declared that the people working in the energy industry (a frequent PRBRC nemesis) are “methamphetamine-using boozers.” Pushing her tasteless rhetoric to full throttle, Brannaman went on to say that “they are trash,” adding that “they get away with murder.”
According to The Sheridan Press, the crowd of PRBRC faithful responded by giving Brannaman a standing ovation. Following widespread publicity of the event, Brannaman and PRBRC made a feeble attempt to backtrack. However, the group has never apologized to the coal miners and methane producers who were the targets of their venom.
Understandably, the Powder River Basin Resource Council will do just about anything to keep its grant money flowing unimpeded. Grants from private foundations made up over 90 percent of its income in the year 2000. And PRBRC’s biggest source of operating funds is the New York City-based Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.
The Noyes Foundation gave PRBRC $270,000 between 1998 and 2002, and has assets of more than $85 million. Noyes brags that it’s a philanthropic leader in “socially acceptable” investing, implying that it invests its millions according to an altruistic conscience. But the Noyes Foundation is certainly conscious of its bottom line. And what better way for a foundation to protect its investments than to bankroll a bunch of surrogates to beat up on their competitors?
While PRBRC fights against efficient, large-scale agriculture, Noyes invests heavily in United Natural Foods, the leading national distributor of “organic” and so-called “natural” foods in the country. In fact, United Natural is so big and so corporate (two things PRBRC purports to be against) that it claims to be “the largest publicly traded wholesale distributor to the natural and organic foods industry.” United Natural has subsidiaries stretching from coast to coast, including Albert’s Organics (“the only Certified Organic Distributor with nationwide coverage”) and Mountain People’s Warehouse (“the largest full line natural foods distributor in the West”).
While Noyes counts on United Natural to turn organic foods into the next “must have” item for American consumers, it also entrusts PRBRC with six-figure grants to clear the way for this so-called “progress” to come.
Another issue that PRBRC constantly fights is the “vertical integration” of the food market. For example, it runs a PR and lobbying campaign to prevent meatpacking firms from owning livestock before they’re sent to slaughter. Yet PRBRC is silent about the fact that the Noyes Foundation is accomplishing much the same thing in the “natural” and “organic” food sector. Not only is Noyes invested in United Natural, but also in United Natural’s top customers — giant retail corporations named Whole Foods Markets and Wild Oats. According to the online business information service Hoover’s, Wild Oats and United Natural have both expanded rapidly “by buying independent retailers and regional natural foods chains.”
When you criticize your neighbors for a living, hypocrisy sometimes comes with the territory. Before consumers in the West give these anti-corporate cowboys the benefit of the doubt, they’d do well to recognize the telltale signs of ulterior motives — in this case, determined by the hand that feeds them.