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UW-Madison’s Kemp Natural Research Station sponsors controversial speaker at conservation event

A conservation leader is criticizing the University of Wisconsin-Madison after one of its research centers sponsored a Tuesday event at which an anti-conservation speaker ridiculed environmental regulations.

A conservation leader is criticizing the University of Wisconsin-Madison after one of its research centers sponsored a Tuesday event at which an anti-conservation speaker ridiculed environmental regulations.

The Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, a nonprofit forest management organization, hosted a spring celebration Tuesday with UW-Madison’s Kemp Natural Research Station as an event sponsor. One of the event’s featured speakers was Margaret Byfield, executive director of the American Stewards of Liberty, a controversial Texas-based conservative group that has lobbied against conservation efforts.

The American Stewards of Liberty is a nonprofit organization run by Byfield and her husband Dan Byfield, the organization’s CEO.

The organization works to protect private property owners’ rights and “confront the radical environmental movement,” according to its website. It has advocated for delisting species from the federal endangered species list and lobbied against developing natural asset companies, The New York Times reported in February.

UW-Madison’s sponsorship of the event was a point of concern for Charles Carlin, director of strategic initiative at Gathering Waters, an organization that supports conservationist efforts throughout Wisconsin .

“American Stewards of Liberty has done real damage to conservation efforts in states around the country,” Carlin said.

The Kemp Natural Research Station is run under the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). The research station is dedicated to “research, instruction, and outreach” programs for conservation and sustainable use of northern Wisconsin natural resources, according to its website.

“When I saw University of Wisconsin-Madison [was] a lead sponsor where their executive director is the keynote speaker, that lends a certain credence or authenticity to what she's saying,” Carlin said.

Byfield was selected by a Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association conference planning committee as an event speaker.

Scott Bowe, a professor and wood specialist at UW-Madison and the Kemp Research Station superintendent, was a part of the planning committee that chose Byfield, according to Heidi Zoreb, an associate dean within CALS.

“The research station and the college do not have a position on the policies supported by [the] American Stewards for Liberty,” Zoreb told the Cardinal. “As a public land-grant university, we are committed to free speech and civil dialogue. We highlight speakers with many points of view to inform our audiences and strive to promote high-quality discussions on a range of topics.”

Bowe, the Kemp Natural Research Station and Byfield did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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What is the American Stewards of Liberty?

In the United States, the American Stewards of Liberty has criticized major conservation efforts, including the 30x30 initiative. Created by the Biden administration as part of the $1 billion America the Beautiful Challenge, the initiative aims to conserve 30% of U.S. land and waters by 2030.

The organization’s website describes the 30x30 initiative as an “unconstitutional policy” and a “land grab.” And in a clip posted by American Thought Leaders, Byfield said the 30x30 initiative will harm food production and cause starvation that will decrease the country’s population.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., suggested in a Jan. 9 Wisconsin Public Radio report that local governments work with Byfield regarding the recently finalized Pelican River Forest project, specifically mentioning the group's “coordination” work.

The American Stewards of Liberty describes “coordination” as a process of requiring federal agencies to work with state and local governments during policy conflicts, oftentimes regarding approval over the discretion of federal funds used locally.

American Stewards of Liberty has said over 100 local governments currently use the “coordination” approach.

However, “coordination” lacks legal basis, according to Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. In a 2010 opinion, Republican former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Wisconsin municipal planning statutes don’t contain a “coordination” power that would allow towns to ignore statutory obligations or impose non-statutory obligations.  

Carlin, the Gathering Waters director of strategic initiatives, similarly criticized the coordination theory.

“This is a completely made-up legal theory — it’s completely bogus,” Carlin said. “The main point is that the American Stewards of Liberty is a right-wing fringe group that just traffics in lies and misinformation.”

Tiffany was a featured speaker at the American Stewards of Liberty’s “Stop 30x30” summit last fall.

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