The American Lands Council, one of the main organizations behind the current movement to transfer Western federal lands to state control, has seen more than a quarter of its member counties defect in the past three years, according to research by conservation nonprofit Western Values Project.
ALC’s website once showed that over 50 Western counties had purchased memberships, ranging from $50 to $25,000. As of this fall, at least 15 have not renewed. The Western Values Project says that based on conversations with county commissioners and county staff, about 10 more likely have also left ALC, bringing the total to an estimated 25. Although this defection may reveal a slowing of enthusiasm for the organization, it doesn't necessarily signal diminished support for the transfer movement overall.
Three county commissioners founded the American Lands Council in 2012 as a way to rally support around the idea of large-scale land transfers. ALC and Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, the group’s former president, have helped raise the land transfer issue to a major topic of debate in several state and federal elections this season. Those in favor of a transfer cite over-regulation and mismanagement by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land management. Opponents of a transfer say it’s not legally defensible and would also put public lands in jeopardy of being sold for development or energy extraction.
The conservation-minded nonprofit Western Values Project has been compiling research on which counties currently have ALC memberships and which have opted out. This map combines information from the Project's direct correspondences with county governments, and research by HCN. If you have more up-to-date information about your county, please email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several commissioners in counties that have not renewed memberships say they still support ALC but don’t have the budget for it. “A large part of the decision to no longer maintain a membership was financial in nature,” Jerry Ewen, commissioner in Big Horn County, Wyoming, says. “Wyoming county governments have had to scale back their budgets a great deal the past couple of years, and the future looks like it will bring more of the same. This decision was made easier by the fact that the company has had a considerable amount of negative publicity.” (Ivory came under fire last year for fraud accusations related to his ALC work, but was cleared of the allegations.)
Box Elder County, Utah, Commissioner Stan Summers said his commission needed to put its funds toward other things as well. Summers still fully supports ALC ideologically and sees federal overreach as one of the biggest reasons Box Elder is struggling financially. Summers says a mining company wanted to set up a potash project recently that could have brought a much-needed influx of business. But there was too much resistance from the BLM, Summers says, and the company recently decided to abandon the project. “It’s not that we didn’t support (ALC),” he says. “It’s just that there are other ways to help our constituents.”
But other counties let their memberships expire for reasons beyond just tight budgets. Esmeralda County, Nevada, Commissioner Nancy Boland, says her county is no longer a member because ALC focused too much on federal land transfers. Boland says that they first joined because ALC provided information on federal land management and accessible backgrounders on laws and regulations. “But then the emphasis of this organization shifted to promote one single thing and the general information stopped,” Boland says. “It was no longer of value to us. Hence we stopped our membership.”
According to 2014 tax records, ALC earned $259,189 of its $336,524 in revenue that year from memberships, though it’s unclear how many were from counties (businesses and individuals can also buy memberships). At least 10 counties are currently members, and as many as 28 more may also be members, according to the Western Values Project. Last year, ALC stopped sharing its list of member counties publicly.
Elko County, Nevada, Commissioner Demar Dahl says county memberships at ALC aren’t the only barometer of the health of the land transfer movement: “The idea was always with American Lands Council to expand the support base beyond the counties. County support is not as important or sought after as before.” Instead, Dahl says focus in his state has shifted to backing HR1484, a federal bill introduced by U.S. House Representative Mark Amodei, R-Nevada. The bill would transfer millions of federal acreage in Nevada to state control.
Dahl says HR1484 would put no new restrictions on those lands for recreators and prospectors, and most of the land would not be sold off. But critics of the bill say that without formal restrictions, the state of Nevada would likely sell land or lease it for development in order to meet a fiduciary duty to earn revenue for its beneficiaries — Nevada citizens.
And the prospects for the wider movement took a hit this fall when a dozen Western state attorney generals released a report finding that the core legal arguments Utah has made to transfer lands were deeply flawed. In one section, the report stated: “Equality of sovereignty is an important constitutional principle that can help prevent federal intrusions upon the sovereignty and independence of the states. Court precedents, however, provide little support for the proposition that the principles of equal footing or equal sovereignty may compel transfer of public lands to the western states.”
Nevada’s attorney general, Adam Laxalt, was reportedly the only one who dissented in the vote to approve the report.
Representative Ivory, as well as Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder, who is the current CEO of ALC, did not respond to requests for comment.
Tay Wiles is an associate editor of High Country News. Email her at email@example.com Follow @taywiles