The king’s forest or the people’s lands

How Donald Trump Jr.’s Sportsmen for Trump campaign helped win the 2016 election and usher in unfettered fossil fuel extraction on public lands


With tin cup in hand, fully clad in hunting camouflage, and with binoculars for spotting game strapped to his chest, Donald Trump Jr. sits around a fire at “hunting camp.” This image of Trump Jr. as a rugged hunter came compliments of a 2016 presidential campaign ad entitled, “Heartland for Trump.”

“If you don’t start being vocal and show up, and vote your conscience on these things, it’s going to be gone because the other side — their hobby is getting rid of your freedoms and your pastime, especially when it’s hunting,” Trump Jr. proclaims in the video ad.

In this message and others that ran throughout the 2016 election on the internet, in print, and on television, Trump Jr. worked to embody the persona of a hunter and angler, aka a “sportsman” in political advertising vernacular. He also effected this persona at campaign rallies. Altogether, it was an effort to capture critically needed votes for his father, and it’s an effort Trump Jr. continues to this day.

The message during the election was clear: A vote for Hillary Clinton and/or the Democrats is a vote to have your guns taken away as well as your right to hunt and fish on our nation’s public lands.

While such claims were never true, a post mortem of the 2016 presidential election cycle confirms that this false messaging was a powerful component in Donald Trump’s victory.

Trump’s success was significantly aided by the micro-targeting of sportsmen voters in swing states across the country, specifically in the Midwest and West, via the subsidiary of the Trump campaign known as “Sportsmen for Trump.”

What makes this sportsman tactic even more interesting to political observers is that it directly mimics the efforts of oil and gas corporations operating in Colorado — as previously reported in BW’s article, “Sportsmen Beware.”

The similarity between the messaging coming from the Trump campaign and resource extraction industries is unlikely a coincidence. Sportsmen targeted by these ads make up a politically powerful constituency in regions where oil, gas and coal companies want to exploit public lands and where Trump needed votes in order to win the electoral college and set national natural resource policy.

In the end, it appears both groups behind the false messaging got what they wanted, which is the same thing. Trump is president and resource extraction industries now have nearly unfettered access to public lands in the name of “energy dominance.”

Among the ironies of this outcome is that sportsmen, who played a significant role in the election of Trump, did so to the detriment of the sanctity of their own sportsmen traditions while enabling the destruction of the very public lands they say they are fighting for. As the messaging is broken down, the reasons for this conflict emerge.

Screenshot of Sportsman for Trump Facebook post

Trump Jr. acted as a credible messenger to sportsmen voters not only by purporting a love of hunting and fishing on public lands, but also by shaping those activities as their own form of patriotism. It created a powerful combination designed to mingle with other fear-based, primarily xenophobic, political narratives.

Sportsmen saw this messaging as a call to preserve their God-given American right to take their children hunting and fishing on public lands. But the real goal appears to have been the Trump administration’s interest in multinational resource extraction corporations’ access to those very same lands.

In key regions, the Sportsmen for Trump strategy, and Trump Jr.’s role in it, appear to have worked. According to a May 2018 Guardian report, many American hunters and shooters “adore” Trump Jr. on social media, viewing him as authentic, and regularly exhorting him to run for office, which he has publicly entertained; the New York governorship being a potential goal.

But not all sportsmen are in agreement. Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of  Western Values Project (WVP), a Montana-based sportsmen rights group in the West, tells BW, “people can identify that faux hunting persona when they see it.” He adds, “We’ve seen Don Jr. visit out West several times and it seems like every time he does it, he’s got a new wardrobe to wear and to show off to people… but as most Westerners know, actions speak louder than words.”

It calls into question what type of sportsman Trump Jr. actually represented on the campaign trail, the subsistence hunter dependent on abundant and healthy public lands and wildlife or the wealthy, private-land trophy hunter who favors oil and gas extraction consistent with President Trump’s “energy dominance” policies.

But Trump Jr.’s legitimacy as a hunter or angler isn’t the primary point, rather it’s the political goals — and consequences — of his sportsman persona that are the root of the problem.

Requests for comment from the Trump organization were not returned.

Messengers and motives

Analysis shows Trump Jr.’s sportsman persona was a carefully constructed political narrative deployed to elicit a fear-based response in voters. The fear came from the narrative that without President Trump, gun ownership and hunting would cease to exist, and gone with it would be integral parts of the sportsmen’s tradition and healthy economies dependent on such outdoor recreation.

The Trump campaign’s effort to target sportsmen included Trump Jr.’s close friend and trophy hunter, Gentry Beach, and Tom “Tommy” Hicks Jr., the son of a Texas billionaire. Both worked as Trump campaign strategists and fundraisers in the last stretches of the 2016 campaign. Beach and Hicks Jr. were part of a small group that coordinated campaign contributions from north Texas that nearly equaled all contributions raised for Trump from California and New York combined, according to a Nov. 2016 Dallas News report.

Trump Jr. has also invested in oil and mining business ventures with Beach and his family and connected Beach with a Saudi Arabian contact when Beach was working on a potential oil purchase, according to a March 2018 Associated Press report.

But Don Peay of Utah, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and Big Game Forever, both conservative sportsmen’s organizations, seems to be among the primary drivers of the Sportsmen for Trump narrative.

Peay’s Big Game Forever is currently leading the charge in Colorado to vilify wolves and prevent their reintroduction here (see BW’s “Will Coloradans free wolves on the state’s public lands?”). It has also been paid millions of dollars by the State of Utah to prevent protections for sage-grouse and wolves under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) via lobbying in Washington, D.C. The Trump campaign, including Trump Jr., has referred to the ESA as a “Trojan horse” by which “access” to public lands is restricted, meaning that it largely protects public lands and wildlife from resource extraction.

Peay, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, also has financial ties to oil and gas, previously founding a petroleum environmental management company and facilitating the transfer of public lands to an oil and gas company in Utah. Reportedly, this company also financially benefitted his group, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. Peay has also disparaged the public ownership of public lands and wildlife, which he referred to as “socialism.”

In a Sportsmen for Trump video dated Jan. 21, 2015, presidential candidate Trump is shown directing a group of people, including Peay, to focus on winning the battleground state of Iowa. And in a video dated days later in Des Moines, Peay appears directing strategy targeting sportsmen to this end. And so it appears the Sportsmen for Trump effort began in Iowa and included the launch of Trump Jr.’s sportsman persona.

In these videos, Peay details the method: “What we’ve learned in the past is if you can find leaders in each county, find out who these people are, see who wants to get involved, and then they have networks already through their experience and relationships. You push one button, they talk to 20; they talk to 100; they talk to 1,000. And at some point we get critical mass.”

Peay says this won Trump the presidency, according to a post-election KUTV-Utah report. He claims he helped his campaign “engineer a strategy for the Midwest that worked” because there are 500,000-800,000 hunters in the Midwest states who tipped the election.

A post-election analysis by The Washington Post found that of the more than 120 million votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the outcome. These states were Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, which account for 46 electoral votes. And according to a national poll conducted in May by Public Opinion Strategies for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), 27 percent of sportsmen voters surveyed reside in the Midwest.

Further, Jon Lauck, a Midwest political expert, says that perhaps the biggest story of the 2016 presidential election was in fact Trump’s victories in the Midwest, which he argues occurred largely because Trump won in “outstates,” places outside of metro areas of a million-plus people.

“Outstate areas accounted for 61 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 47 percent in Michigan, 100 percent in Iowa (where there is no metro of over a million people), and 44 percent in Ohio,” according to Lauck. He goes on to say that Trump won 93 of 99 counties in Iowa, and flipped 32 counties that had voted for Obama in 2012. Additionally, Trump won 88 of 92 counties in Indiana; 75 of 83 counties in Michigan; 61 of 66 counties in South Dakota; 81 of 88 counties in Ohio; and 59 of 72 counties in Wisconsin.

Screenshot of Sportsman for Trump Facebook post

The TRCP poll also found that of the sportsmen surveyed, including those in the Midwest, nearly 65 percent of those who voted live outside of cities. Thus the Sportsmen for Trump effort may well have had a major impact.

Doug Holt, a leading expert on branding and marketing, says sportsmen are a crucial constituency that operates as a political faction, “similarly to the Moral Majority back in the 1990s.”

Holt, who has done work on the politics of public lands, says as a political faction sportsmen are super powerful in the states dominated by public lands and extractive industries such as the intermountain West and Alaska. Concurrently, 45 percent of those in the West who consider themselves sportsmen voted for Trump in 2016, according to the Colorado College Conservation in the West poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies. Trump won nearly all intermountain Western states, only losing Colorado and New Mexico. And according to the same poll, those who identify as sportsmen comprised 41 percent of the voting population in the West.

Trump Jr. was prominently featured as a hunter in an article covering the Great Lakes, including Michigan and Wisconsin, which appeared in over half a dozen local publications. His sportsman persona was also broadcast by Pennsylvania media, and extensively in Iowa.

And as for the national news media, many outlets — among them CNN, The New Yorker and The New York Times — amplified the Sportsmen for Trump narrative via profiles of Trump Jr. throughout the campaign, further legitimizing his sportsman identity. This continues today, including a November 2018 feature of Trump Jr. in The Washington Post.

Likewise, sportsmen-related forums, organizations and publications like Bowhunter, the TRCP and Field and Stream, along with a swath of local and regional publications, gave Trump Jr. an unscrutinized platform to deploy this narrative, legitimizing it all the more.

And although many media outlets throughout the campaign noted Trump Jr.’s targeting of sportsmen voters, none have yet delved into the strategies or strategists behind this effort, the impact — if any — it may have had on Trump’s election, nor the relationship between Trump Jr.’s sportsman persona and his father’s subsequent unleashing of resource extraction upon America’s public lands and wildlife, his cutting of national monuments, and his rolling back of environmental protections; all antithetical to sportsmen’s concerns.

Drilling for patriotism

According to the Colorado College poll, 73 percent of Western voters perceive dependence on foreign oil as a serious concern. And a January 2017 poll conducted by Quadrant Strategies of the Upper Midwestern states, reveals that 96 percent of Trump supporters believe American-made energy sources should be used to reduce dependence on foreign hostile nations.

The production of this narrative functions to manufacture sportsmen-voter consent for extraction and mining access to public lands for the benefit of multinational corporations, along with the multifarious impacts of those extractive industries, even when a majority of sportsmen voters oppose them. And since sportsmen comprise over 40 percent of voters in the West and a significant portion of the rural electorate in the Midwest, it is a narrative with potentially significant electoral force, apparently putting those voters into ideological checkmate.

The full arc of this narrative is evidenced by the words of Peay in a 2007 High Country News report, where he says he believes predator control will be one of the main tools needed to protect big game and other wildlife as oil and gas extraction expands on Western public lands. Implicit in his statement is a tacit admission that oil and gas extraction in fact does impact big game populations, which is contrary to assertions made by that industry. In Peay’s view, it is in fact inevitable. “[I]f you don’t think we need energy independence, you are wrong. … Wildlife is not as important as having 22-year olds dying overseas for oil,” Peay says.

Thus domestic oil and gas extraction on public lands is only necessary inasmuch as it fulfills the myth of energy independence, aka granting multinational oil and gas corporations — whose allegiance is with no country, state or sportsman, only with shareholders — with expanded access to public lands, which is precisely what the Trump administration has done.

Like Peay’s comments, Trump’s campaign platform asserts that any impacts to big game populations must be accompanied by “predator management,” which appears to be a policy akin to the one apparently deployed by the oil and gas industry to scapegoat predators for its impacts on wildlife habitat in Colorado. For more see BW’s “Off Target” series.

It’s similar messaging, if not exactly the same, as that deployed by the oil and gas industry’s propaganda machine, CRED (Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development) in Colorado. And therefore, the cumulative impacts of that industry on public lands and wildlife is framed as an unavoidable consequence of a necessary solution to dependence on foreign oil.

Akin to CRED, the Sportsmen for Trump webpage also specifically linked veterans to sportsmen, bolstering the myth that resource extraction on domestic public lands prevents wars. Both components of these websites have been taken down but are still available for view via internet archive tools.

Screenshot of Sportsman for Trump Facebook post

Drawing tighter the connection to CRED, Peay’s quote about 22-year-olds and wildlife appeared just before Pac/West Communications began its efforts on behalf of the oil and gas industry to target conservative sportsmen organizations via the oil and gas industry group known as the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States (IPAMS), now known as the Western Energy Alliance, whose president Kathleen Sgamma is a former U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer. After successful fracking bans in Colorado municipalities, Pac/West launched and began managing CRED on behalf of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy. Most recently CRED led the effort in defeating Colorado Proposition 112.

Managing the CRED campaign and President of Pac/West is Paul Phillips, a trophy hunter himself, who was also appointed this year to the board of the Boone and Crockett Club, a conservative trophy-hunting organization with ties to the Trump campaign. Phillips was also appointed by soon-to-resign Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke as an alternate to the Federal Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council in May 2018.

Peay, along with National Rifle Association-Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director Chris Cox and Congressional Sportsmen Foundation representatives Jeff Crane and John Green, was also appointed to this Council (for a look at the sportsmen-related efforts of CRED, CSF, NRA and Safari Club International on behalf of oil and gas, see BW’s “Sportsmen Beware”).

The NRA contributed significantly to Trump’s campaign via its Institute for Legislative Action and Political Victory Fund, while Trump stoked fear that guns would be taken from citizens by his political opponents during the campaign. This became an integral part of Trump’s fear-based political brand, interrelated with the Sportsmen for Trump component. Trump Jr. also co-chaired the campaign’s “Second Amendment coalition” with Cox.

Trump Jr. put this narrative into action thoroughly on the campaign trail, including a Sep. 22, 2016 rally in Grand Junction, Colorado, where Peay played emcee. On Colorado’s Western Slope, Grand Junction is a prime example of the intersection of oil and gas and sportsmen’s concerns.

The rally began with Mark Geist, a military veteran who was also featured in the “Heartland for Trump” ad and provided the energy independence component of the narrative. It then segued into Trump Jr., who, according to reports prior to the event, was to speak on issues related to wildlife and conservation. In his speech, the “sportsman” talks about hunting and fishing, livestock grazing, and of course, oil and gas extraction, all in the context of “multiple use” federal public lands, saying we can have “the best of all worlds… We can multi-purpose those lands.”

By the rally’s figurative pairing, the Trump campaign essentially links oil and gas extraction on public lands with a patriotic Western identity, attempting to cause any sportsman who considers themselves a patriot to reconsider any opposition to domestic oil and gas extraction on public lands. After finishing his speech, Trump Jr. refers attendees to watch the “Heartland for Trump” ad online.

Trump Jr. gave similar speeches, specifically targeting sportsmen, throughout the Midwest, and went on several other publicized pheasant hunts in Iowa on behalf of Sportsmen for Trump across the campaign trail. In late October 2016, he and his brother Eric, went on a much-publicized pheasant hunt on a private farm in Akron, Iowa, a key Midwestern swing state that Trump Sr. eventually won. Just days before the election, Trump Jr. held another rally at the massive outdoor gear retailer Bass Pro Shops in Altoona, Iowa.

Days later, Trump Sr. won the election. And with this victory, Trump Jr. appears to have helped usher in an era of unprecedented resource extraction on America’s public lands via his father’s policies and appointments of fossil fuel lobbyists to key positions within his administration, making him seem a sportsman less like Teddy Roosevelt and more like a fossil fuel investor dressed in brand-new camo with a shiny new rifle.

Truth or consequences

Since the election of Trump Sr., the U.S. has surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production, producing more oil than in any time in the country’s history, amid dire and imminent threats and catastrophic impacts from fossil fuel-caused and -driven climate change detailed in both federal and international scientific reports.

By the end of the 2018 fiscal year, more than 12.8 million acres of federally controlled oil and gas parcels have been offered for lease, triple the average offered during President Barack Obama’s second term, according to a recent analysis by The New York Times. Furthermore, on Dec. 6, the Trump administration detailed its plan to open some 9 million acres of sage-grouse habitat to resource extraction.

And on Dec. 11, the Trump administration proposed eliminating an Obama-era rule designed to limit pollution in about 60 percent of the nation’s bodies of water, removing protections for drinking water sources for about a third of the U.S. The proposed elimination is a stated goal of Trump’s “energy independence” policy.

This has all been enabled by the Trump administration’s appointment of former oil and gas executives and lobbyists to top positions within the federal government, a far cry from his “drain the swamp” campaign chant.

While former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was exposed in 2014 by The New York Times to have had a secretive alliance with oil and gas corporations to oppose federal regulations while Oklahoma Attorney General, resigned earlier this year, he was replaced by EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Just prior to joining the EPA, Wheeler was a lobbyist representing the coal company Murray Energy, as well as the Lakewood-based uranium company Energy Fuels Resources. On behalf of the latter, Wheeler lobbied DOI Secretary Zinke to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in the spring of 2017 to gain access to uranium deposits. Wheeler was also a long-time staffer of leading climate change-denying Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).

Similarly, David Bernhardt, who’s poised to succeed Zinke, has questionable connections to the oil and gas industry.

(Before announcing his resignation on Dec. 15, Zinke faced an ethics probe for establishing a foundation that is playing a key role in a real-estate deal backed by the chairman of Halliburton. Zinke has also tried to embody the sportsman persona, prominently flubbing it when in an interview involving flyfishing he attached his reel improperly. His Twitter photo also features him in blaze orange, required for big game hunters using a rifle in Colorado and other states.)

Bernhardt, a prominent oil and gas lobbyist formerly employed by Colorado-based law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), the second largest such firm in the nation, carries a list of over 20 associations and corporations with which he cannot be involved because of potential conflicts of interest.

Among the lengthy list of mostly petroleum and mining companies and associations are the oilfield services corporation Halliburton and CRED co-founder Noble Energy.

According to an August 2018 report by the Center for American Progress, the Trump administration political appointees at the DOI, specifically Bernhardt, can exploit federal ethics guidelines weakened by Trump to work in positions where they can deliver favorable decisions to past clients and mask their portfolio of responsibilities from public inspection. For example, the report lists four past clients of Deputy Secretary Bernhardt who have received or stand to receive financial benefits from specific decisions by the Trump administration’s DOI, including oil and water interests.

Bernhardt was also among the individuals who have benefited from Trump’s elimination of the two-year lobbying ban, which until Trump removed it, prevented individuals from seeking or accepting employment with any executive agency that they lobbied within the previous two years, the report says. Wheeler may also benefit from this ban’s elimination.

Further, information from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that in recent years CRED co-founder Noble Energy has frequently lobbied DOI on issues relating both to oil and gas permitting and to the greater sage-grouse. Both issues are now under Bernhardt’s oversight, who has appeared as a hunter in photos and worked on behalf of Safari Club International while with BHFS.

In sum, the report finds the DOI has built a “favor factory” that remains largely hidden from public scrutiny, concluding internal policy strengthens the executive branch’s ability to curb transparency and deludes oversight of America’s public lands. And not much is expected to change under Bernhardt.

“That will be part of the legacy of, not only this administration, but also Ryan Zinke and Don [Trump] Jr.,” O’Neill from WVP says. “So when the next generation comes up and says, ‘Why can’t I fish this trout stream?’ It’s from the policies that are going to have lasting impacts implemented under the guise of ‘energy dominance.’”

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The real choice

In speech after speech on the campaign trail, Trump Jr. spun a tale to capture sportsman voter perception by embodying a sportsman identity. Atop his idyllic storytelling about learning to hunt from his grandfather, he drummed up a kind of folksy ethic, born, he said, of the hunting and fishing life he’s led.

However, the facts presented here call into question what type of sportsmen Trump Jr. and company actually represent; the subsistence hunter dependent on abundant and healthy public lands and wildlife, the wealthy private land trophy hunter who favors oil and gas extraction consistent with President Trump’s swampy “energy dominance,” or maybe just the person that likes to believe they’re a sportsman.

Regardless, American sportsmen are left with a choice, the king’s forest or the people’s lands — land and waters fit to eat from, or polluted waterways and well-pad strewn wildlife habitats? Depending on their answer, they would be wise to re-examine their perceptions of Trump, especially the true intentions of Trump Jr.’s sportsmen persona and its consequences.    

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