How an East Coast think tank is fueling the land transfer movement

ALEC is becoming increasingly involved in the public lands debate by providing model bills for Western states.

 

This week, Idaho senators met to vote on a new bill that would let county sheriffs, commissioners, and mayors decide if an area of federal land is at risk of wildfire, and demand that the federal government fix it. If the feds – usually Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service – don’t respond, local officials could coordinate with the state to take legal action.

But the bill didn’t come to a vote – it was met with contention from the Idaho Senate largely because it was aligned with the effort to transfer federal lands to state control. The law is also an example of a larger trend of legislation in Western states being derived from model bills created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC – not to be confused with the Utah-based American Lands Council (ALC) – is a nonprofit organization founded in 1973 by conservative activist Paul Weyrich that works to push principles of free-market enterprise, limited federal control, and more power for state governments. The conservative policy group based in Arlington, Virginia, whose corporate advisory board includes Exxon Mobil and tobacco giant Altria, is funded largely by the Koch family and is becoming increasingly involved in the land transfer movement by providing bill templates, research and public support to Western legislators.  

Bureau of Land Management land in Idaho, where senators are considering ALEC-backed land transfer legislation.

The Idaho bill illustrates a pattern that seems to be developing in the West, says Center for Western Priorities policy director Greg Zimmerman. “Utah comes up with these ideas, passes them into law through their legislature, and through the ALEC network, [legislators] try and pass them in other states,” he says.

For instance, Utah Rep. Ken Ivory sponsored the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that Congress give states control of public lands. It passed in 2012, but little action has been taken to fulfill the bill's goals. About a year later, ALEC wrote a similar model bill for land transfer laws, urging “all executive officers of this State, to exert their full powers to cooperate and assist Utah and the other States” to sell public land to state governments. In 2014, Ivory received ALEC’s “legislator of the year” award.

Soon after Utah passed its Catastrophic Wildfire and Public Nuisance Act last year, ALEC released model legislation for other states using almost identical language. Last month, a bill with that language was brought to the Arizona state Senate, but it was killed because the counties opposed it.

“It’s a cookie-cutter bill,” Idaho state Sen. Roy Lacey, a Democrat, says, referring to Idaho’s Abatement of Catastrophic Public Nuisance bill. “When you see the same thing being done in Utah and other states, it smacks of ALEC. It’s a toe in the door [of land transfer legislation]: telling the federal government they’re not doing a good job.” 

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank and ALEC member, played a major role in the bill proposal. Catastrophic wildfires are only worsening in the West, and fighting them already counts for over half the Forest Service’s budget. In Idaho, hundreds of thousands of acres burned last year, and the foundation places blame on the feds’ management decisions, underplaying the exceedingly complex impacts from drought and climate change. “It’s a simple bill and notion,” said Idaho Freedom Foundation vice president Fred Birnbaum. “Passing one piece of legislation won’t solve it but it does highlight the fact communities are threatened by federal forest land [management].” Birnbaum said the foundation was fully aware it was ALEC model legislation when they proposed it. 

As the land transfer movement gains traction in the West, the links between ALEC and Western lawmakers become more clear. For instance, the Federal Lands Action Group, a relatively new organization started by U.S. Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop from Utah, held a forum in Washington, D.C., to introduce land transfer legislation to interested politicians earlier this month. The first speaker at the forum was Karla Jones, an ALEC staffer. Stewart said ALEC was chosen to present because its views on public lands “aligned well” with the Federal Lands Action Group. Jones talked about ALEC’s model policies, urged a timely transfer of federal lands to states, and showcased ALEC’s available resources to help states successfully transition to state-based land ownership.

“There is a widespread narrative, especially among Americans living in the East, that the federal government serves as a better environmental steward of the Western lands than states or private entities would,” she said in a statement. “This is a fiction.”

ALEC has played a role in public lands debates as far back as 1995, when it drafted the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act,” to establish mechanisms for public land transfer to state control, though the act never passed. The Center for Western Priorities estimates that up to six of ALEC’s model policies advocate public lands transfer. Four years ago, ALEC provided model legislation to undermine the Antiquities Act and give states power in designating national monuments. Then in 2015, the organization released a white paper, which it cites regularly for legislators, that concluded states would serve as “superior environmental and economic stewards of select lands within their borders.”

Though some legislators, like Ivory, are publicly open about their ALEC membership, the group does not release who its members are. ALEC did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. But according to Jones’ statements, more than 200 state legislators are members, and 85 members of Congress, seven governors, and four presidential candidates are alumni. In 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal watchdog organization started by former Department of Justice official Lisa Graves, launched a project to identify legislators in the U.S. with ALEC ties. According to the center’s latest data, each state in the West has at least a handful of politicians involved with ALEC – with the most being in Utah and Idaho. 

The Center for Western Priorities reported that, of the 36 public lands transfer bills introduced in state legislatures in the first half of 2015, a third were parroting ALEC legislation, either directly using its land transfer model policy or its other model policies, such as setting up land transfer studies or state public lands offices. This year, 14 bills have been introduced, Zimmerman says, and half have already been killed, including a transfer study bill in Washington and two bills regarding public access and land transfer in Wyoming.

Though the public nuisance bill doesn’t allow state officials to override federal decisions in wildfire management, it is an example of the burgeoning relationships between ALEC and Western legislators, says professor Robert Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah: “It seems to be directed at providing [more power] for state and local officials to influence on-the-ground-management of Forest Service, BLM, or other federal agencies.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets