A billionaire bidding to build an “environmentally friendly” Highland golf course on protected sand dunes has been branded a “Trumpian climate denier” over donations to US groups and politicians who have challenged climate science.
Mike Keiser, a US entrepreneur deemed one of golf’s most powerful people and a business rival to Donald Trump, hopes to create an 18-hole course at Coul Links, north of the Dornoch Firth, if development plans are approved by Highland Council.
The area, near the village of Embo, is subject to conservation laws because its unique sand dune network is home to rare and endangered plants, insects and birds. The Coul Links development plans are opposed by a coalition of seven conservation groups who claim it would “destroy part of irreplaceable protected site for nature”.
Communities for Coul, the group behind the proposed development, described Keiser as “a committed environmentalist” in a recent Northern Times newspaper advert, which encouraged locals to write to the council in support of the plans.
However, Keiser, who previously attacked Scotland’s environmental rules, is associated with – and a significant donor to – US think tanks and politicians that have challenged the scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change.
The Scottish Greens accused Keiser of being a “Trumpian climate denier with his eyes on profit rather than saving our planet”, and determined to “rip the heart out of the local environment”.
Communities for Coul said it would not be “appropriate” to comment on Keiser’s donations. It claimed its plans for Coul Links, which “have measures for the restoration and perpetual protection of the environment at their heart”, would also remove invasive species.
In 2015, Keiser’s company damaged a state park in Oregon, US, when it started to build a golf course without permission from authorities.
An Oregon coastal protection group warned Scottish regulators and communities to “be wary” of Keiser who, they claimed, seeks to “encourage residents and governments to let him compromise their environmental treasures for the sake of his profits”.
A former bid at Coul Links involving Keiser was rejected by Scottish ministers in 2020 after they found it could harm the protected area. But Communities for Coul, revived the bid in 2021.
Keiser’s political donations and support
In 2020, we revealed that Heartland, which received funding from oil and gas giant, ExxonMobil, planned to hold a “climate reality” event during the COP26 international climate summit in Glasgow. Heartland’s events series has previously been used to challenge the scientific consensus on man made climate change.
Keiser is also a national council member of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank whose staff have cast doubt over human causes of climate change, and deemed the environmental impacts of fracking as “baseless”.
AEI “does not take institutional positions and does not engage in lobbying or advocacy work,” a spokesperson told The Ferret. “…our scholars do not conduct contract research, and have complete academic freedom to follow their own research to conclusions, even if they disagree with management or each other.”
Keiser is a notable political donor, mostly to the US Republican Party and associated groups. Data compiled by OpenSecrets, and shared with The Ferret, shows he has given around £3.6m to political causes. Keiser has also offered in-kind support to other groups.
In 2013, he hosted a fundraiser for the Exxon Mobil-funded, Heritage Action for America, at his golf cresort in Oregon. The event, which brought together conservative leaders, cost around £12,000 per person.
Heritage Action was reportedly part of Trump’s transition team when he entered the White House. In 2016, one of its representatives called climate change “a contentious and unproven scientific theory”.
In 2017, a tiny airport in central Wisconsin saw a reported influx of private jets after Keiser’s golf course opened nearby. A Republican-controlled committee in the US state announced around £3.2m in improvements to the airport after Keiser gave £20,000 to the party, the Associated Press found.
Politicians Keiser has financially backed include congressman Steve Scalise, majority leader of the house of representatives, who said the earth “gets warmer and gets colder, and that’s called Mother Nature”, in 2019.
Between 2019 and 2020, Keiser gave around £4,800 to Scalise and around £3,000 to North Carolina senator Thom Tillis, who in 2017 urged Trump to pull the US out of the Paris agreement – an international treaty which aims to limit global temperature rises.
Trump withdrew the US from the deal but Joe Biden reversed the exit when he became president.
The long-running Coul Links saga
Keiser and others launched a bid to build the Coul Links course in December 2015. The plans were compared by some to Trump’s course in Menie, Aberdeenshire, which damaged rare sand dunes and forced NatureScot to strip part of the site of its special status.
One leading dune expert – commissioned but ignored by Trump for his Menie course – claimed the Coul Links plans could destroy more than double the area damaged at Menie. A petition to block the Coul Links development received 93,000 signatures.
Highland Council officials warned the course would have a “detrimental impact” on the protected area. But, in 2018, the council’s planning committee decided the potential economic benefits of Coul Links “outweighed the detrimental effects on ecology”.
However, the government reigned in the bid for further scrutiny, due to its “national importance”. Government reporters then threw it out, citing the environmental risks. In 2019, a report commissioned by ministers said half of Coul Links’ visitors were expected to come from North America.
Keiser later came under fire after complaining his plans had been delayed by Scotland’s “extremely restrictive” environmental rules, “bureaucracies” and “people who hate development of any kind”.
The new proposed development sits within the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area.
Among the opponents to Coul Links are a conservationist coalition of Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust for Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Butterfly Conservation told The Ferret that “at first glance, the developer has not presented any new evidence or made a material change from the previous application that was turned down by the Scottish Government”.
Keiser ‘not a committed environmentalist’
Dr Tom Dargie, an ecologist and a lead campaigner with Coul Future, which opposes the development, claimed Keiser has a track record of “imposing golf courses on natural ecosystems, sometimes under the guise of using environmentally-friendly methods.”
One of Keiser’s most notable US sites is the Bandon Dunes luxury golf resort on Oregon’s coastline. He also sought to purchase public land nearby to build a new course opposite the Bandon State Natural Area – a designated state park due to its natural beauty.
The land was not for sale. But in an unprecedented move, the state provisionally agreed to sell him 280 acres, the Oregonian newspaper reported.
Keiser was slammed by authorities after his crews started constructing the course without permission, and while the land was still owned by the state. This included cutting a road across sand dunes and drilling bore holes. Keiser eventually backed out of the deal.
“The heavy equipment smashed local forests, drove through sensitive bogs and wreaked havoc wherever it passed,” Cameron La Follette of the Oregon Coast Alliance (ORCA), which campaigned against the course, told The Ferret.
Keiser had pledged non-refundable money as part of the deal to tackle an invasive plant on the Oregon coast. The state used it, in part, to fix the damage caused by Keiser’s construction crews, according to the Oregonian.
Keiser’s business strategy often involves building courses close to, or within “spectacularly beautiful” and “ecologically protected areas,” La Follette said. “Keiser is not, in my experience, a ‘committed environmentalist’ at all.
“Keiser is skilled at portraying his golf course plans as environmentally neutral, or even beneficial. But his actions are not those of a businessman with concern for either ecological integrity of protected areas, or the community livability of nearby towns.
“He hopes to encourage residents and governments to let him compromise their environmental treasures for the sake of his profits, and the reputation of his golf courses as vacation getaways of unique and stunning beauty.”
Golf course would ‘rip the heart out of the local environment’
The Scottish Green Party, which has campaigned against the Coul Links development plans for years, said it was “deeply concerning to see the developers attempting to ruin this magnificent site once again.”
“Given the developer’s determination to rip the heart out of the local environment near Embo it should come as no surprise that he has been funding climate denial candidates for election in the United States for years,” said Ariane Burgess, Scottish Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands.
“We are facing a climate emergency. Those willing to deny this fact in order to turn a profit should not be allowed to develop in our protected areas.”
Walking charity Ramblers Scotland said it was “shocking” to learn of Keiser’s donations, including to “the extremely controversial Heartland Institute”.
“We are deeply concerned that Coul Links is again under threat, given a very similar application was rejected just three years ago after a lengthy public inquiry,” said Brendan Paddy, director.
“This internationally-protected wetland landscape has huge value for residents and visitors seeking to access and enjoy its rare, tranquil dunes. It should not be simply up for sale to the highest bidder.”
He added: “The more we learn about the true nature of the renewed plans, the more concerning they are. I urge concerned locals and all lovers of the outdoors to stand up for access and this special landscape”.
Plans have environmental protection measures ‘at their heart’
Asked about Keiser’s donations, the group said: “We do not feel it would be appropriate for us to comment on the issues raised.
“The fresh plans we have developed for the golf course have measures for the restoration and perpetual protection of the environment at their heart. Mike Keiser will pay for those measures if the planning application is approved and he then comes on board to develop the course.
“We have not seen any credible, alternative proposal to restore and protect the delicate ecosystem at Coul Links.”
The Ferret contacted Keiser via his Bandon Dunes golf club, but did not receive a response. We also contacted all the individuals and organisations we revealed that he had donated to, but did not receive a response.
Header image thanks to Craig Allardyce