Non-profit

American Conservation Coalition (ACC)

Website:

www.acc.eco

Location:

APPLETON, WI

Tax ID:

82-2038028

Tax-Exempt Status:

501(c)(4)

Formation:

June 30, 2017

Type:

Right-Leaning Environmental Advocacy Nonprofit

President:

Benjamin Backer

Latest Tax Filing:

2018 Form 990

The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) is a nominally right-leaning environmental advocacy organization with financial and advisory board ties to left-wing environmentalist groups. The Wisconsin-based organization was founded and is headed by Benjamin “Benji” Backer, a student at the University of Washington. [1]

ACC says its goal is “giving conservatives a voice on the environment” and aims to present environmentalist issues as a conservative policy concern.[2] Despite presenting itself as a center-right advocacy group, ACC proposed a policy of taxing carbon dioxide emissions in September 2017; it has since removed that issue from its platform. [3] [4]

American Conservation Coalition Campus (ACC Campus) is a 501(c)(3) college activism and mobilization arm of ACC. In 2018, ACC Campus reported a 2-year $100,000 grant from the left-of-center William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its “clean energy program,” representing at least one-third of the $149,000 the group received in total contributions in 2018 (divided over 2 years). [5] [6]

ACC has received at least one grant from the left-of-center National Audubon Society, an environmentalist organization, which granted it $10,000 in 2018. [7] ACC is also closely connected with the group; according to ACC’s application to the IRS for recognition of tax exempt status, all of its assets are to be distributed “exclusively to National Audubon Society” in the event that ACC is dissolved. [8] David Yarnold, president and founder of the National Audubon Society, is a member of ACC’s advisory board. [9]

While ACC claims to be conservative, the National Audubon Society does not. The group has sued the Trump administration for allegedly “stripping vital protections for migratory birds” and accused it of “hand[ing] industry a blank check for bird deaths.” [10] The National Audubon Society has criticized the Trump administration for withdrawing from the environmentalist Paris Climate Accords, criticized President Trump’s decision to undo President Barack Obama‘s Clean Power Plan as “shortsighted and reckless,” and argued for the unfounded and scientifically challenged claim that “more carbon in the air means worse natural disasters.” [11] [12]

Background

ACC was founded in June 2017 by college student Benjamin “Benji” Becker to advocate within the Republican Party for environmentalist-aligned energy policy. [13] The ACC website had up until August 2018 indicated that it was part of a coalition with other environmentalist organizations including the left-wing Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES), and Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund (OEC Action Fund), alongside the right-of-center R Street Institute and ConservAmerica. [14] However, the organization officially claims no connection to Citizens’ Climate Lobby as of April 2020. [15]

Environmental Activism

Platform

ACC states that its “limited government environmentalism” is “pro-market,” adding that “competition and free-enterprise are vital to effective environmental stewardship.” ACC also claims that “the climate is changing and modern science proves humans are playing a significant role”: [16]

Climate change is real and humans have been a contributing factor. While there is no consensus on the severity, we believe it is a threat that must be responded to. The private sector, innovation, and common-sense legislation are best suited to address climate change and the threats associated with it.

The group advocates for a transition from traditional energy sources to “clean energy” (defined as nuclear, hydro-power, wind, and solar). It supports “tax cuts on investments” in alternative energy sources, “international cooperation” to reduce the use of conventional energy sources in poor countries like India and China, lower tariffs, and “improved trade deals.” ACC supports expanded use of carbon capture and storage technology, nuclear power production, and the use of natural gas as a “transition fuel” from coal and oil to alternative energy sources. [17]

Many of ACC’s projects focus on the theme of losing future Republican electoral support by pointing to the high level of interest in environmentalism in the Millennial voting demographic, using these statistics to pressure the Republican Party into adopting a global warming agenda or else lose future voters to the Democratic Party. Backer himself has argued that “the Republican party has refused to accept the severity of most environmental issues, including climate change.” [18]

ACC promotes a “conservative” approach to global warming on college campuses, particularly among College Republicans. It runs a Clean Energy Coalition—essentially an open letter from 30 College Republican state chairs—calling on the Republican Party to endorse “free-market environmentalism” so that “conservative values are not lost in the next generation and generations to come.” [19]

Support for and Criticism of Carbon Taxes

As of October 2018, ACC does not take a position on a carbon dioxide emissions tax as a policy solution to global warming. An August 2018 article by ACC entitled “Let’s Stay Away from the Carbon Tax Debate” criticized a carbon tax proposed by centrist Republican then-U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), arguing it would “stifle economic growth and hinder the country’s progression towards energy independence.” [20]

In August 2019, ACC chief operating officer Danielle Butcher criticized Curbelo’s proposed carbon tax in a Washington Examiner article entitled “Ditch the Carbon Tax and Embrace Less Divisive Climate Change Solutions.” She argued for the need to implement “immediate and tangible” strategies to reduce negative effects of climate change, adding that the debate over Curbelo’s carbon tax drowns out viable solutions. [21] “Since its introduction in the 1990’s,” she wrote, “a price on carbon has gained little traction . . . a political consensus supporting carbon pricing has still not materialized, and it likely never will.” [22] Butcher also recognized that carbon pricing, despite being branded as a “free market solution” to climate change by supporters, is nevertheless “the addition of regulation and extra costs in the market” and “a form of government intervention.” [23]

Butcher also criticized the opponents of carbon taxes for “their failure to showcase alternatives,” accusing them of “cling[ing] to a tactic of denying any problem exists at all.” She offered an “All Of the Above” approach to reduce carbon emissions through lowered taxes and trade barriers, greater investment in battery storage and carbon capture and storage technology, and reducing the government’s role in the marketplace. [24]

In October 2019, ACC criticized Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s (R-PA) 2019 MARKET CHOICE Act (a successor to the 2018 Curbelo carbon tax), calling it “doomed legislation.” The group pointed out that Rep. Fitzpatrick’s own state, Pennsylvania, “relies heavily on natural gas production”—one of the targets of any tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The group has also credited the expansion of natural gas with reductions in the country’s carbon dioxide output. [25]

Despite ACC’s criticism of carbon tax policies, an archived snapshot of the group’s website from September 2017 reveals a part of its platform calling for a “carbon pricing policy,” a euphemism for a carbon tax or similar policy. The text was later removed. [26]

Experts agree: climate change is occurring, and human actions contribute to it in a significant and measurable way. ACC is open to all proposals focused on curbing the effects of climate change. The United States has convincing moral and financial incentives to invest in renewable and alternative energy and curb its carbon footprint. Government must implement regulations in a fiscally responsible manner, acknowledging the utility of the free market in curbing carbon emissions.

There is a need to take action with a measure such as a carbon pricing policy that is noninvasive, fair for both businesses and citizens, and cuts costly and ineffective regulations [emphasis added].

Lobbying

In December 2019, ACC hired Natural Resource Results LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm that has also lobbied for the center-left Nature Conservancy, the liberal pass-through and fiscal sponsorship nonprofit New Venture Fund (managed by the consulting firm Arabella Advisors), and Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited (nominally moderate groups for promoting outdoor sports that advocate for left-wing positions on global warming policies). [27] [28] According to lobbying filings with the U.S. Congress, it is the first and only lobbying firm hired by ACC (as of April 2020). [29]

Legislation Supported

ACC has supported a number of environmental regulation bills, mainly related to renewable energy storage and carbon capture and storage technology.

The group supported the 2019 USE IT Act (H.R. 1166), a largely Democratic-backed bill which would have awarded federal funding for carbon capture research, costing some $85 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). [30] [31] [32]

ACC also backed the 2019 Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act (S. 1602) introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and largely co-sponsored by Senate Democrats. [33] [34] The bill would have provided federal funding for battery research to store electricity generated via environmentalist-favored means, with nearly $1 billion funded over 2020-2024, and another $405 million after 2024. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Congress appropriated $46 million to such research in 2019. [35]

Founding Coalition

Although ACC no longer claims to be part of any coalition, its website listed in September 2017 a “founding coalition” consisting of a number of right-leaning and left-leaning organizations. The web page has since been deleted. Members of the coalition included:[36]

A number of ACC’s founding coalition members, including the R Street Institute, have received grants from the environmentalist Energy Foundation and liberal billionaire George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society. [37] [38] The OEC Action Fund (related to the left-wing League of Conservation Voters) has received grants from the left-wing Joyce Foundation, Energy Foundation, and Rockefeller Family Fund. [39] [40] [41]

Conservatives for Environmental Reform

Conservatives for Environmental Reform (CFER), a PAC also founded by Benji Backer, stated in 2017 that it supported a carbon pricing initiative promoted by Advocates for a Carbon Tax (ACT) Now in Washington state. [42] However, ACC claims no affiliation with CFER. [43]

According to Backer, “As long as the carbon pricing initiative in Washington state is approached from the right perspective, we believe it is the best way to reduce emissions, all while promoting conservative values.” [44]

As of December 2019, the PAC appears to be defunct, with its website no longer live. [45]

Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund

The OEC Action Fund, a PAC of the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC)—itself the Ohio state affiliate of the left-wing League of Conservation Voters—directly advocates for carbon taxes or other government-imposed anti-carbon regulations. [46]

ConservAmerica

A list of advisory board members on ACC’s website previously included Rob Sisson, the executive director of ConservAmerica, another nonprofit organization that aims to be a center-right environmentalist group. [47] Despite declarations that it is a conservative group, ConservAmerica also opposed the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline and has been generally critical towards natural gas exploration. [48] [49]

Endorsements

Endorsements of ACC

At its launch, ACC’s endorsement page on its website indicated endorsements from public officials and other right-leaning environmental activists, as well as the co-founder of the far-left Sunrise Movement. That page has since been removed and replaced with endorsements by ACC of politicians running for office.

As of September 2017, however, the endorsements of ACC included: [50]

ACC has also received modest support from a handful of Republican Members of Congress, such as Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA), who co-authored a December 2019 Fox News online op-ed with ACC president Benji Backer asserting, “The climate is changing. Humans and global industrial activity are contributing.” [52]

ACC Endorsements

ACC regularly endorses Republican politicians running for elected office. [53]

In the 2018 midterm election, the ACC endorsed the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Governors Charlie Baker (MA), Larry Hogan (MD), and Chris Sununu (NH). [54]

ACC endorsed the following candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018: [55]

  • Mark Amodei (R-NV)
  • Don Bacon (R-NE)
  • Mike Coffman (R-CO)
  • Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
  • Rodney Davis (R-IL)
  • John Faso (R-NY)
  • Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
  • Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE)
  • Russ Fulcher (R-ID)
  • Mike Gallagher (R-WI)
  • Jody Hice (R-GA)
  • Will Hurd (R-TX)
  • Dave Joyce (R-OH)
  • John Katko (R-NY)
  • Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)
  • Mia Love (R-UT)
  • Brian Mast (R-FL)
  • Erik Paulsen (R-MN)
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA)
  • Dino Rossi (R-WA)
  • Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL)
  • Mike Simpson (R-ID)
  • Bryan Steil (R-WI)
  • Elise Stefanik (R-NY)
  • Greg Walden (R-OR)
  • Bruce Westerman (R-AR)
  • Lee Zeldin (R-NY)

ACC also endorsed the 2018 U.S Senate campaigns of Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). [56]

Leadership

President

Benjamin “Benji” Backer, the president of ACC, was formerly the co-chair for Young Americans for Mitt Romney in Wisconsin and has written for right-of-center websites such as the Daily Caller, RedState, and the Blaze. [57]

Backer is a volunteer and has never been compensated by ACC, according to the organization. [58] Tax filings show that in 2018 he received no compensation from either ACC or its 501(c)(3) affiliate, ACC Campus, organizations of which he is president. [59] [60] According to the founding documents of its 501(c)(3) affiliate, ACC Campus, filed with the IRS (Form 1023), Backer is an uncompensated volunteer. [61]

Board of Directors

In 2018, ACC’s board of directors consisted of six individuals; ACC president Benji Backer was the group’s sole officer. [62]

Heather Reams is executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES), an right-leaning environmental advocacy group that has produced at least one poll in conjunction with ACC that purports to show that climate change is a major issue among Republicans, which the groups distributed to lawmakers over a multi-month advocacy campaign in late 2019. [63]

Brent Fewell is founder of Earth and Water Law Group, an environmental law firm. Fewell was previously principal deputy assistant administrator in the EPA Office of Water in the George W. Bush administration. [64]

Todd Myers is director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington state. [65]

Holly Fretwell is the director of research and a research fellow for the Property and Environment Research Center, a center-right conservationist think tank based in Montana, and a former economics professor. [66]

James “Jim” Connaughton is president and CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies, a for-profit firm that develops waterborne data centers. Connaughton is the former chairman of the George W. Bush administration’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (2001-2009) and later directed environmental and energy policy for the natural gas company Constellation, a subsidiary of the oil and natural gas producer Exelon. [67] [68]He is also an adviser to the right-leaning environmentalist group ClearPath Foundation. [69]

Advisory Board

ACC’s advisory board consists of 33 individuals, as of April 2020. Notable members include: [70]

  • Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), whose carbon tax bill in 2018 was criticized by ACC
  • Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), a liberal Republican who called for the impeachment of President Donald Trump in November 2019 [71]
  • Former Rep. Bob Dold (R-IL), a gun control advocate [72]
  • Collin O’Mara, president of the left-wing environmentalist group National Wildlife Federation
  • David Yarnold, president and CEO of the center-left National Audubon Society
  • Jason Grumet, founder and president of the center-left Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Eli Lehrer, president of the right-leaning R Street Institute
  • Paul Bodnar, managing director of the left-wing environmentalist think tank Rocky Mountain Institute
  • Andreas Merkl, former president of the left-wing group Ocean Conservancy
  • John Seydel, sustainability director for the City of Atlanta, Georgia, and a former campaign staffer for two Colorado Democrats, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall. An environmental activist, Seydel was reportedly tasked by Atlanta as part of his job to craft “a strategy for how the city will meet its 100 percent renewable energy goal.” He’s also a supporter of Fossil Free Stanford, a student movement demanding Stanford University “fully divest from fossil years within five years” of 2018. [73]

But an archived snapshot of the board from September 2017 reveals a handful of members no longer listed on ACC’s website: [74]

  • Rob Sisson is executive director of right-leaning environmentalist group ConservAmerica
  • Sarah Hunt is former general counsel and director of state affairs for the libertarian-turned-liberal think tank Niskanen Center.

Sarah Hunt now co-manages the liberal Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, a self-described “cross-partisan” think tank she co-founded with Bishop Garrison, an ex-adviser to the Obama administration. [75] She previously ran the Energy Innovation Project for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was reportedly created with funding from the electric car manufacturer Tesla. [76] Hunt is also a carbon tax supporter, calling the policies “a more elegant, cost-efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” [77] According to ACC’s IRS application for recognition of tax exempt status, Hunt was also a founding board member for its 501(c)(3) arm, ACC Campus. [78]

Key Staffers

Danielle Butcher is the chief operating officer of ACC and is responsible for the group’s national strategy. She previously worked as an outreach coordinator for Future Female Leaders. [79]

Nicholas Lindquist is ACC’s national policy director. His responsibilities within ACC include creating and implementing strategic visions for the organization. [80]

Funding

Financial Overview

The American Conservation Coalition is a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit formed in 2017. [81] In 2018, ACC reported total revenues of $224,043, total expenditures of $130,329 (including grants paid totaling $6,583), and net assets of $107,095. [82]

The IRS reports that in 2017, ACC reported revenues less then $50,000 in gross receipts. [83]

However, according to its IRS filing for recognition of tax exempt status (Form 1023), ACC expected to earn $2 million in contributions between 2017 and 2020. [84]

According to those initial filings, in the event that ACC is dissolved all of its assets are to be distributed “exclusively to National Audubon Society.” The National Audubon Society is a center-left environmentalist organization. [85]

American Conservation Coalition Campus (ACC Campus) is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm of ACC. In 2018, neither group reported any paid staffers; ACC only paid $652 in salaries and compensation while ACC Campus paid $0 in salaries and compensation. [86] [87]

Connection to the National Audubon Society

ACC has received at least one grant from the left-wing National Audubon Society, a left-wing environmentalist organization, which granted it $10,000 in 2018. [88]

ACC’s IRS application for tax exempt status indicates that, in the event that the nonprofit is dissolved, all of its assets are to be distributed “exclusively to National Audubon Society,” whose founder and president, David Yarnold, is a member of ACC’s advisory board. [89] [90]

While ACC claims to be conservative, the National Audubon Society is not. The group has sued the Trump administration for allegedly “stripping vital protections for migratory birds” and accused it of “hand[ing] industry a blank check for bird deaths.” [91] The National Audubon Society has criticized the Trump administration for withdrawing from the environmentalist Paris Climate Accords, criticized President Trump’s decision to undo President Obama’s Clean Power Plan as “shortsighted and reckless,” and argued for the unfounded and scientifically challenged claim that “more carbon in the air means worse natural disasters.” [92] [93]

Donors to ACC

Few donors to ACC are known as of December 2019. ACC is not required to disclose its donors under IRS rules.

In 2018, ACC reported total contributions of $223,564. [94]

The Capital Research Center obtained a redacted copy of ACC’s 2018 Form 990 containing its list of donations, but not contributors’ names (archived here): [95]

  • $90,000
  • $60,000
  • $50,000
  • $5,000

In 2018, the National Audubon Society donated $10,000 to ACC. [96]

ACC’s 501(c)(3) affiliate, ACC Campus, received a 2-year $100,000 grant from the left-of-center William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its “clean energy program,” representing at least one-third of the $149,000 the group reported in total contributions in 2018 (divided over 2 years). [97] [98]

Financial Documents

ACC’s IRS Form 990 filing for 2018, including its redacted Schedule B (containing donation amounts but not contributors’ names) is available here.

ACC’s Form 1023 application for IRS recognition of tax exempt status is archived here.

References

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  58. Email from American Conservation Coalition to Capital Research Center. April 20, 2020. ^
  59. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. Part VII (Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees…). ^
  60. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990-EZ). American Conservation Coalition Campus. Part IV (List of Officers, Directors, Trustees…). ^
  61. “Form 1023: Volunteer Officer Agreement.” American Conservation Campus Coalition. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/01/ACC-Campus-Form-1023.pdf

    Obtained via public records request by the Capital Research Center. See page 32 (PDF). ^

  62. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. Part VII (Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees…). ^
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  71. Slade Gordon. “Slade Gorton: Please, my fellow Republicans, follow the facts.” New York Times (retrieved from Salt Lake Tribune). November 27, 2019. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2019/11/27/slade-gorton-please-my/ ^
  72. Katherine Skiba. “Rep. Bob Dold, an Illinois Republican, backs gun control bill.” Chicago Tribune. June 24, 2016. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-bob-dold-gun-control-bill-20160624-story.html ^
  73. Elizabeth Daigneau. “This Millennial Is Helping a Major City Go Green.” Governing.com. October 2017. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-atlanta-sustainability-john-seydel.html ^
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  81. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. 2018. Part I. Line 1. ^
  82. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. 2018. Part I. Lines 12, 13, 18, 22. ^
  83. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990-N, E-Postcard). American Conservation Coalition. 2017. Accessed October 10, 2019. Filing available: https://apps.irs.gov/ ^
  84. IRS Application for Recognition of Tax Exempt Status (Form 1023). American Conservation Coalition. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/01/American-Conservation-Coalition-Form-1023.pdf

    Obtained by the Capital Research Center in January 2020. See page 12 (PDF). ^

  85. IRS Application for Recognition of Tax Exempt Status (Form 1023). American Conservation Coalition. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/01/American-Conservation-Coalition-Form-1023.pdf

    Obtained by the Capital Research Center in January 2020. See page 15 (PDF). ^

  86. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. Part VII (Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees…). ^
  87. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990-EZ). American Conservation Coalition Campus. Part IV (List of Officers, Directors, Trustees…). ^
  88. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). National Audubon Society. 2018. Schedule I. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/04/national-audubon-society-2018-form-990.pdf

    See PDF page 58. ^

  89. IRS Application for Recognition of Tax Exempt Status (Form 1023). American Conservation Coalition. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/01/American-Conservation-Coalition-Form-1023.pdf

    Obtained by the Capital Research Center in January 2020. See page 15 (PDF). ^

  90. “Board of Advisors.” American Conservation Coalition. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://www.acc.eco/board-of-advisors ^
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  93. Hannah Waters. “Five Reasons Why Ditching the Clean Power Plan Is Shortsighted and Reckless.” National Audubon Society. October 12, 2017. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://www.audubon.org/news/five-reasons-why-ditching-clean-power-plan-shortsighted-and-reckless ^
  94. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). American Conservation Coalition. Part I. Line 8. ^
  95. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax. American Conservation Coalition. 2018. Schedule B. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/01/American-Conservation-Coalition-Form-990-2018.pdf ^
  96. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). National Audubon Society. 2018. Schedule I. Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2020/04/national-audubon-society-2018-form-990.pdf

    See PDF page 58. ^

  97. “Grants: American Conservation Coalition Campus. For the Clean Energy Program.” Hewlett Foundation. October 29, 2018. Accessed December 16, 2019. Original URL: https://hewlett.org/grants/american-conservation-coalition-campus-for-the-clean-energy-program/ Archived: https://www.influencewatch.org/app/uploads/2019/12/Hewlett-Foundation-2018-grant-to-ACC-Campus.-12.2019.pdf ^
  98. Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990-RZ). American Conservation Coalition Campus. Part I. Line 1. ^

Directors, Employees & Supporters

  1. Heather Reams
    Board Member
  2. Nicholas Lindquist
    National Policy Director
  3. Danielle Butcher
    Chief Operating Officer
  4. Benji Backer
    President
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Nonprofit Information

  • Accounting Period: December - November
  • Tax Exemption Received: February 1, 2018

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    American Conservation Coalition (ACC)

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