An anti-development pressure group with close ties to organized labor and environmental activists is scandalized because “industry-friendly” individuals have been selected to serve in President Trump’s Interior Department.

While it’s fair game to debate the merits of nominees who have been tapped to fill key positions, it’s not fair or honest to posture as champions of the public interest when in reality you are advancing the policy preferences of narrow special interests. But that’s what a group known as the Western Values Project has been doing since the time of its inception in 2013.

The self-described “government and industry watchdog organization” has been sharply critical of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his efforts to rollback Obama-era regulations. He is, for example, moving forward with modifications to land use rules impacting 10 of 11 western states with habitats for a chicken-type bird species known as the sage grouse. Zinke’s “Sage Grouse Review Team” recommended that he provide states with more flexibility to manage the conservation plans while also removing some restrictions on ranching operations and industrial activities. He is now acting on those recommendations. In contrast to former President Barack Obama’s top-down approach to conservation, Zinke supports local initiatives that balance habitat preservation with energy production.

What the Western Values Project, and other critics fail to acknowledge is that the sage grouse population has actually increased in recent years thanks in large part to local efforts detached from federal directives. So why not foster federal-state partnerships that allow for local stakeholders who are most familiar with the habitats to have greater say in plans that directly affect their communities?

Well apparently, Zinke’s efforts are tainted because he has ties to oil and gas interests in the sage grouse habitat, according to a press release from the Western Values Project. The “watchdog” group argues that because certain appointees and nominees to the Interior Department have worked with conservative think tanks and some of those think tanks have received funding from energy companies Zinke’s plans should be viewed as illegitimate. Well, that argument can cut both ways.

Chris Saeger, the director of the Western Values Project, has served as the communications director of both the Montana Democratic Party and for the Service Employees International Union in Arizona and Colorado. This makes sense. The SEIU figures prominently in the network of labor unions that have financed the Democratic Party and its allied organizations. The Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based nonprofit group that favors greater accountability and transparency in organized labor, has published a report that identified hundreds of special interests, candidates, and pro-labor organizations aligned with the Democratic Party that received nearly $765 million in funding from union member dues from 2012 to 2016. The SEIU is on the list.

If Western Values Project were a genuine “watchdog” group, it would see fit to question the expenditure of union dues from rank-and-file members who do not support their leadership’s political activism. The timing would be ideal since the Supreme Court is now hearing a free speech challenge to mandatory union dues. But it’s clear the Western Values Project has its own agenda and it’s not one the lines up with the interests of average citizens who stand to benefit from the extraction affordable and reliable sources of energy.

I submitted a media inquiry to the organization asking why it was inappropriate for Trump’s Interior Department to include new staff members who have some connection with industry, regardless of how loose and indirect some of the connections might be, while Western Values Project carries the water for green groups that jeopardize the economic livelihood of average citizens. I did not receive a response.

The Western Values Project is an offshoot of an organization called the Checks and Balances Project and has offices in Bozeman, Montana, and Denver, Colo. The financial support for the pressure group’s media campaigns against regulatory reform, and other left-of-center activism, flows from the New Venture Fund, a 501(c) 3 public charity that has a history of supporting environmental advocacy groups.

This past summer, the Western Values Project spearheaded “a six-figure TV, digital, and print campaign in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming” that targeted Zinke for his efforts to alleviate the sage grouse regulations. That’s just a small part of the whole. The latest 990 tax form for the New Venture Fund shows it donated more than $500,000 to the Sierra Club Foundation, more than $200,000 to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and more than $300,000 to the National Wildlife Federation, just to name a few of the big green groups. And, keep in mind those figures are just for one tax year. Since it was first incorporated in 2006, public records show the New Venture Fund has operated almost 300 projects for at least 50 big foundations.

In light of the support it receives from the New Venture Fund, it’s evident that the Western Values Project is not in the poor house. Given how well-connected it with green advocacy groups, it’s also evident that it is not a genuine “watchdog” group.

Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, said it very well in an email.

“Western Values turns out to be just another deep-pocketed elitist group with its own green special interests,” he said. “Under the guise of ‘protecting’ federal lands from the ‘attacks’ by the Trump administration, the group seeks to restrict Americans' access to their own natural resources. By tilting the federal-lands playing field to favor wind and solar energy, which are neither reliable nor affordable, Western Values and its cronies are the antithesis to what struggling rural western communities need. The more the Trump administration ruffles Western Values’ feathers, the better off ordinary westerners will be.”

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.

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