Last week, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation (MWF) has issued its Notice of Claim with intent to sue the Foundation for Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Mississippi Fair & Coliseum Commission and others for violation of constitutional, contractual and property rights and for conspiring to take over the annual Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganza held historically at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, as well as denying MWF access to state owned public space paid for by state and federal public funding.
The Notice of Claim, sent by the law firm of Pittman, Roberts, & Welsh, PLLC on behalf of MWF on April 24, also names Don Brazil, chief executive officer of FMDWFP; Sam Polles, executive director of MDWFP; Andy Gipson, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce; and Steve Hutton, former director of the fair commission; and event promoter Jack Fisher.
Claims against the defendants allege that they collaborated and conspired “under the color of state law” to retaliate against MWF for its political stance on an environmental issue, specifically the Yazoo Backwater Pumps, and in so doing deprive MWF of its constitutional rights.
MWF claims the named parties conspired to use government power to deprive MWF of its contractual and property rights, and/or to otherwise cause injury to MWF by denying the group use of exhibition space at the State Fairgrounds for its annual Wildlife Extravaganza, as well as access to other public facilities. MWF contends that the Foundation “was a willful participant with MDWFP, the Fair Commission, and the named individuals (either in their official or individual capacities)” in a series of actions aimed at taking over MWF’s Extravaganza and violating its constitutional right to use state owned facilities.
Also in its Notice of Claim letters, the MWF states, “In an effort to subvert the efforts of MWF to put on a successful event, four days before last year’s Extravaganza, the MDWFP publicly withdrew its support of and participation in the event and indicated it would withdraw all future support and funding. Privately, MDWFP employees were informed by Polles, the MDWFP’s executive director, that they were not allowed to attend the event in any capacity, either as a volunteer or for personal enjoyment, and that such attendance (even in plain clothes) would result in the termination of their employment. In the past, MDWFP employees routinely attended the event in support of MWF’s efforts and to provide services where needed, such as scoring buck deer brought in by attendees. At all times, MDWFP acted with clear knowledge of the adverse financial impact that the MWF would incur.”
In a rural state like Mississippi with avid outdoorsmen in every region, such wrangling of wildlife interests seems odd to most. The majority of members that support MWF are hunters and outdoorsmen that politically are not likely aligned with the policies and politics of MWF’s national affiliate organization.
The Mississippi Wildlife Federation is an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, a non-profit organization based in Virginia. According to its website, it is the largest conservation advocacy organization in the United States with over 4 million members and affiliates in 52 states and territories. The Mississippi affiliate pays a mere $37 per year (not per member but total) to its national organization, and in exchange receives annual grants in the thousands of dollars as well as other support.
Dating back to 1990, the national organization’s members and its Action Fund have heavily supported Democrats through PAC or candidate donations. Thus far in the 2020 cycle, 93% of the donations coming from the organization’s PACs, their individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals’ immediate family members have gone to Democrats such Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Contributions from the Action Fund PAC to federal candidates show 80% to Democrats versus 20% to Republicans.
The National Wildlife Federation “aspires to be an inclusive multicultural organization that celebrates the rich dimensions of diversity, such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, age, ability, religion, and political philosophy,” according to their ‘About Us’ page.
The NWF gears itself to “Confronting Climate Change,” saying it poses a significant long-term threat that demands our collective action.
“The National Wildlife Federation’s vital efforts include the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution through wildlife-friendly clean energy policies and projects, as well as reducing deforestation both nationally and internationally…,” the NWF says of environmental threats. “…In addition to deforestation, burning fossil fuels contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. The National Wildlife Federation addresses this issue by reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and advocating for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.”
The Mississippi Wildlife Federation has a “Position Statements” page on its website but it says, “Coming soon.”
In an effort to learn more about the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and see how it aligns with their national organization, Y’all Politics interviewed Ashlee Ellis Smith, the CEO of the MWF, who has been hired since the Extravaganza dust up last year.
“We are an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation,” Smith said. “We are allowed to set our own issues that impact our organization. National Wildlife Federation supports us on that.”
Smith, a Republican who is active in party politics, she says, emphasized that the MWF is an autonomous organization that does not always agree with the national counterparts.
The National Wildlife Federation was the first environmental group to endorse Joe Biden this cycle, doing so in March. In a Washington Post story, CEO Collin O’Mara said Biden has “the best skill set to bring different interests together,” including oil, gas and coal workers who often don’t align themselves with the wildlife conservation movement.
“Though the National Wildlife Federation has backed several Democrats in House races, this is the first time it has endorsed a candidate for President,” per the WaPo article.
“They only endorsed Joe Biden in the Democratic candidate field so that was amongst other Democratic candidates, not in the overall Presidential race,” Smith said. “Their PAC tries to evenly split their endorsements between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, they offered to endorse Delbert Hosemann in this past year’s race but he declined to take the endorsement just because of the perception that they were sort of left leaning.”
However, Smith says the MWF is looking out for Mississippi’s outdoors as a watchdog apart from politics.
“Nothing about what we do is politically motivated,” Smith said.
This story has been updated to reflect NWF Action Fund PAC donations.