‘Green Robber Barons’

The environmental council’s willingness to invoke what turns out to be dubious history as a way to restrict Boneta’s farming operations points to the disproportionate influence green groups have acquired across the country, an energy policy analyst who has followed the story closely told The Daily Signal.

“Under the guise of practicing conservation, land trusts—operating with little, if any, oversight—are becoming states within a state,” said Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, adding:

Lording over millions of acres throughout the U.S., they have learned that they can harass property owners and force them into prohibitively expensive litigation with impunity.  By claiming—in the absence of any evidence—that Martha Boneta’s farm was of particular historical significance, the PEC could both limit her ability to use her land and line their pockets by jacking up the sales price of the property they sold her.  We’re living in an age of green robber barons.

In November 2014, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds the easement with the Piedmont Environmental Council, “indicated that there was no accurate historical evidence in support of the PEC’s claim,” according to the suit.

In response to requests from The Daily Signal under the Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation released email records detailing the role it played in obtaining historical information that raised questions about Jackson’s precise location on July 18, 1861.

Reached by telephone, a spokeswoman for the Piedmont Environmental Council told The Daily Signal that the land trust “disputes the claims” in Boneta’s suit but “cannot comment further” on ongoing litigation.

Jason McGarvey, spokesman for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, told The Daily Signal that his agency had done its own research before hearing from the local historian who disputed the claim that  Jackson camped on what is now Boneta’s property.

“We had already determined that the documentation supporting the restrictions in the deed did not meet our standards for stewardship,” McGarvey said in a June 17 email.

‘Well-Heeled’ Activists

Matthew Vadum, senior vice president of the Capital Research Center, which studies politically oriented nonprofits, describes the Piedmont Environmental Council as a “well-heeled activist group” that is well positioned to wage legal battles. Indeed, from 2005 through 2014, the land trust pulled in $55.4 million in donations and other revenue, according to publicly available tax  filings.

Notable backers include left-leaning philanthropies such as the Tides Foundation ($155,000 since 2000) and the Surdna Foundation ($150,000 since 2002), as well as environmental donors such as the Agua Fund ($1.8 million since 2003) and the Mars Foundation ($500,000 since 2004).

Boneta’s suit says she fenced about 18 acres of her property in response to the environmental council’s historical claim. Erecting, maintaining, and removing the fencing cost about $18,000, the suit says.

Boneta also spent thousands of dollars to trademark the name Liberty Farm with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so her property could be marked for guided historical tours.

Her suit calls for the environmental council to be charged with fraud and breach of contract. She asks for no less than $325,000 in compensatory damages to cover what she considers an inflated sale price and her loss of the use of her property,

Cohen, the energy policy analyst, said he sees a financial motivation behind the environmental council’s tactics.

“By boasting about all the land it has ‘saved,’ including the Stonewall Jackson fabrication,” he told The Daily Signal,  “the PEC can receive millions of dollars in government grants and it can hustle donors to write even bigger checks to the green money machine.”