New leader steps up for the American Lands Council

Montana lawmaker takes over lands transfer group, as a new tendril of the movement emerges.

 

The organization leading the charge for Western states to take over federal lands has a new leader. Montana State Sen. Jennifer Fielder is stepping up as CEO of the American Lands Council, while founding president and Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory is moving on to become director of the “Free The Lands” Project with Federalism In Action. The latter is a nonprofit policy group that supports states’ rights and public-lands transfers to states or local communities. The shift comes as the ALC and the public-lands transfer agenda have faced growth and criticism, and as militant fellow travelers gain notoriety for the movement.

Ivory cofounded the ALC in 2012 to push for the transfer or seizure of national forests and rangelands to states or local governments. Since then, Ivory has rallied Sagebrush Rebels and anti-government supporters and shepherded a West-wide public-lands crusade that has gained traction from county commission offices to state legislatures. Fielder, already a frequent speaker on behalf of the ALC, moves into her position with her own connections to right-wing extremists.

A businesswoman who specialized in outdoor recreation planning and community projects, Fielder was elected as a state senator in 2012, representing Thompson Falls and surrounding counties in Northwestern Montana. She quickly emerged as a leading voice for the ALC and the public-lands takeover movement in Montana. In 2013, she successfully introduced a resolution authorizing a legislative working group, which she then chaired, to carry out a survey of federal land management in the state. Critics said the group’s 2014 final report had “a hidden agenda” promoting transferring federal lands to the state. A 2015 bill she backed to create a public-lands transfer task force made it through the state legislature, despite opposition from conservation and sportsmen’s groups, but was vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock, D.

“It won’t be a whole lot different than what I’ve been doing, educating people and trying to keep moving in a positive direction,” Fielder told the Helena Independent Record, of her new position. “I believe (federal lands transfer) is the right thing for Montana and that’s the whole reason I support local decision making. But I realize that to help Montana you have to get other states to see the plight.”

Montana State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, the new CEO of the American Lands Council.
Thom Bridge/Independent Record

Fielder is vice chair of the Montana Republican Party and has served as a board member of the Sanders Natural Resources Council, a county natural resources advisory committee that has backed county “coordination” and local authority over federal lands. John Trochmann, founder of the anti-government Militia of Montana, which has ties to white-supremacist groups, started the council in 2006, according to a 2012 Montana Human Rights Network report. Fielder also has connections with the Oath Keepers, a constitutionalist militia group.

The transition comes after the ALC — and Fielder — have weathered ethics complaints in several states, suggesting the group was illegally lobbying, in the past year. In Montana, an aide for Fielder resigned after it was disclosed he was also working as a lobbyist for the ALC, a potential violation of state legislative rules. This January, a report revealed that Ivory made $135,000 as president of the ALC in 2014, accounting for half of the group’s revenue, which comes through memberships to counties, businesses and individuals. Fielder said her CEO position is “voluntary and unpaid.”

During the recent standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Fielder penned an op-ed, supporting the protesting militants’ cause and the Oregon ranchers whose prison sentences set off the occupation, while bashing federal land management and promoting the ALC. “But rather than take up arms in what could become a deadly outcome,” she wrote, “there is a better way to increase the local people’s voice in how our public lands are managed. Over 1,000 elected officials already support transferring federally controlled public lands to willing state or local governments, as do several presidential candidates. Support is growing as more and more people learn the facts about this issue.”

“Good luck to Sen. Fielder with her working for any organization she wants to,” Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dave Chadwick also told the Helena Independent Record, “but I certainly don’t think it reflects any growing Montana support for the cost of transferring federal lands.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.