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I first learned of Arthur Blank not as the co-founder of Home Depot, or the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, or the billionaire investor and philanthropist — all of which he is. I knew him only as one of the unfathomably rich guys buying up ranches around the small town where I lived in south-central Montana.
Blank has tried to set himself apart from the other land barons of the New West. His philanthropic organization’s Western U.S. arm, AMB West, has given heavily to local causes. As of 2019, that includes $25,000 to the Livingston food pantry, $13,268 to the Park County Environmental Council, $17,500 to Yellowstone Forever and $110,600 to the Park County Community Foundation. He often invites local nonprofits to use one of his several luxury ranches for meetings and retreats. According to his statements and company websites, his interest in owning large swaths of my home state is driven not by profit, but by his environmental vision.
“This purchase is about conservation, not development,” Blank said in a statement after buying his third south-central Montana ranch in 2019. “We will respect the tradition of ranching while keeping our lands in their original, intact state for the sake of beauty and wildlife.”
I stumbled across Blank’s name again recently, this time in a different context — on a list of major donors to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the group funding the destruction of an urban forest near Atlanta to make way for the massive police training facility that activists, who have positioned themselves as defenders, have dubbed “Cop City.”
The sprawling South River Forest, which forest defenders have taken to calling by its Muscogee name Weelaunee, lies in a poor, majority-Black area of South Atlanta and is one of the last large, undeveloped green spaces in the metro area. In 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved a plan to clear 85 acres of the forest to build the $90 million police training center, which would include a shooting range, a driving course and “a mock city for real-world training,” according to the APF website.
The project has proved unpopular: Of the more than 1,000 people who called into the public comment period during the city council vote, around 70% opposed it. Community groups and environmental defenders have confronted the project with stiff — often militant — resistance, with some camping in the forest, blocking construction and sabotaging equipment. If built, these opponents argue, Cop City would destroy scarce wildlife habitats and a natural carbon sink, damage the watershed, facilitate further police militarization and more police violence, and introduce more police to already over-policed neighborhoods. Proponents, on the other hand, argue the new facility is necessary to boost police morale and help the department overcome difficulties recruiting more cops.
The issue has blown up from a local conflict into a battleground in the national fight over environmental justice and policing.
The conflict had been escalating for months when, during a January sweep to clear defenders from the forest, police shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a forest defender who went by the nickname Tortuguita. The official autopsy found more than 50 bullet wounds in Tortuguita’s body, including — according to an independent autopsy commissioned by Tortuguita’s family — exit wounds in the palms of both hands. The independent autopsy says the activist was likely sitting down when police fired. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says police shot in self-defense after Tortuguita wounded a Georgia state trooper.
Police have also arrested dozens of other forest defenders and charged them with domestic terrorism.
Despite the vehement opposition and the killing of Tortuguita, the city is pushing ahead. It’s a massive undertaking — and expensive. The APF, which is pushing the project as the “Public Safety First Campaign,” says the City of Atlanta will fund one third of the $90 million price tag. The APF will fundraise the remaining $60 million from private donors.
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation pledged $3 million to the Public Safety First Campaign, according to a September 2022 report presented at an APF board meeting, which the movement-aligned Atlanta Community Press Collective said it obtained through a public records request and shared publicly earlier this year.
According to the document, other major donors to the campaign include the Woodruff Foundation ($13 million), the James M. Cox Foundation ($10 million), and the Coca-Cola Company ($1 million).
In response to a request for comment, Caroline Huston, a spokeswoman for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, said the “information included in this document about our grant is inaccurate.” The Blank Foundation actually pledged $4 million to the APF in 2019, Huston said, for a police affordable housing project, with the final installment paid in 2021. She’s not sure why this APF document lists the donation as part of the Public Safety First Campaign, but said “it’s not correct.” The APF did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Despite any discrepancies, what’s clear is that the Blank Foundation has been a major donor to the APF for some time. In addition to the grant at issue here, the foundation donated $1 million to the APF in 2017 and $737,000 in 2016. I asked Huston whether Blank saw any contradiction between conserving Montana’s wild land and funding an organization that is destroying part of an urban forest in Atlanta. Huston responded this way: “We’re proud of our track record and efforts in conservation beyond what you already know about in Montana. This is evident across the Blank Family of Businesses.”
Around the time the Blank Foundation made its most recent pledge to the APF, and around the same time many families in Montana were searching desperately for ways to hang on as a wave of rapid gentrification displaced workers and longtime locals, Blank was adding a fourth Montana ranch to his portfolio — the 5,300-acre Dome Mountain Ranch, listed for $45 million.
For many Atlanta residents, meanwhile, the South River Forest may be the closest thing to a “ranch” they will ever have access to.
Blank isn’t alone in this kind of hypocrisy. I’ve noticed that a great many of the wealthy elites so interested in “conserving” my home state have no such environmentalist sentiments about other landscapes.
This incongruity is part of a larger, longer tendency in U.S. conservation politics, which too often fixates on dramatic, mountainous landscapes at the expense of flatter, more easterly, less pristine places populated by poorer people. It’s the logic that creates a national park here and a national sacrifice zone there. And it’s the tendency at work now, gentrifying rural Montana into a picturesque playground for the rich and destroying one of the last urban forests in a poor neighborhood of Atlanta. This tendency can be called by other names too, like “environmental injustice” or “environmental racism.”
But what’s happening in the two places is not so much a contradiction as two sides of a coin: Blank’s philanthropy and conservation in Montana provide cover for the violence against the forest and its defenders perpetrated by the group he helps fund in Atlanta. In this way, the nonprofits and conservation NGOs that take Blank’s money in Montana and elsewhere collaborate in environmental injustice by greenwashing and burnishing his image. If they really care about environmental justice, they should immediately and publicly cut all ties with Arthur Blank — unless, and until, he cuts ties with the Atlanta Police Foundation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Shadowbox Studios was affiliated with a construction project in Intrenchment Creek Park.
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Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.