Land transfer battles rage on, county by county

The American Lands Council supports local control but keeps its list of member counties secret.

 

Earlier this year, members of the sportsmen’s group Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership sent letters to commissioners in Montezuma County, Colorado, strongly criticizing them for supporting the Westwide movement to transfer federal lands to states. “We got bombarded by emails,” says Commissioner Larry Don Suckla. What did the county do then? It got help from the American Lands Council, an organization dedicated to the transfer of lands, of which the county has recently been a member. The ALC unleashed its public relations machine, posting an article that called TRCP a “green decoy” that was helping to wage an environmentalist fear campaign on unsuspecting Colorado residents. It was a decent return for the county’s $1,000 ALC membership fee, Suckla says. Nevertheless, the county has yet to re-up its membership this year, and several other Western counties are re-evaluating whether to support the organization.

It is now far more difficult than it used to be to find out whether a county is a member or not, since the organization has donned a veil of secrecy. As of a year ago, most of the ALC’s county members were listed on its website. That’s no longer the case. Their upcoming events page is empty and the person answering phones at the group’s headquarters in Utah isn’t authorized to provide any information — about anything. “ALC kind of smartened up and is no longer as transparent,” says Greg Zimmerman of the Denver-based progressive research group Center for Western Priorities.

[The above map shows the most recent information we could find at time of publication on which counties have officially supported the American Lands Council by purchasing a membership. Click on a county for more information. Red indicates counties that have purchased memberships in recent years; pink counties were once members but are no longer. Dark blue counties actively opposed federal land transfers; light blue counties are not members but they have also not passed opposing resolutions. In the information window, “silver,” “bronze,” “gold,” and “platinum” indicate which level of ALC membership the county pays for. Utah information originates largely from utah.gov/transparency. Do you have more recent information or information on the counties colored gray? Contact .]

The ALC started offering memberships in 2013, ranging from $50 to $25,000, to counties, individuals and businesses. It paid off. Of ALC’s $336,524 in total revenue for 2014 — the latest data available — $259,189 came from memberships. Another $59,729 was from other donors, according to tax records. It’s not clear how much of this is from the 50 or so member counties, nor how much is from supporters like Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing advocacy group funded by billionaires David and Charles Koch. (ALC’s founding president, Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, has said ALC never received donations from the Kochs, but Americans for Prosperity has appeared on ALC’s list of donors in the past.) Three counties, Iron, Washington and Kane in southwestern Utah, recently topped the list of counties, each with either “Gold” ($10,000) or “Platinum” ($25,000) memberships.

As of late last year, Nevada and Utah appeared to have the strongest support for the ALC. Twenty-two of Utah’s 29 counties, and ten of Nevada’s 16, supported the land transfer group. Nevada now has its own land transfer nonprofit: the Nevada Lands Council. It's headed by Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, who also co-founded ALC. The group launched in March of this year and offers $1,000 memberships for local governments. 

Yet even in those stronghold states, some counties have reduced their contributions. Daggett County, Utah, for example, decided this year it could no longer afford the membership it had held the previous three years.

A view from Sheep Creek overlook in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Daggett County, Utah.
J. Stephen Conn/CC Flickr

Following the early 2016 arrests of Cliven and Ammon Bundy and others who faced off against federal agents in Nevada in 2014 and occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon this year, opposition to the land transfer movement appears to be growing in some areas. At least five counties in Washington state have been paying members of the ALC in recent years, but at least one has let its membership expire. Blaine County, Idaho, and Pima and Coconino Counties in Arizona, have passed resolutions to oppose a federal land transfer. Nine counties in Colorado have passed similar resolutions: Park, Pitkin, Eagle, Boulder, La Plata, San Miguel, Ouray, Summit and San Juan. Montezuma County's ALC membership lapsed a couple of months ago. “We have not made the decision — because of how much flack we have caught from the opposing groups (who disagree with the land transfer idea),” says Commissioner Suckla, an ALC supporter. Commissioners are still in the process of deciding whether to renew.

Suckla says the biggest reason he wants to support the ALC is that the organization is able to keep the topic of federal land management in the news. The more the issue appears in the media, he says, the more likely it is there will be change.

And by change, Suckla means more local control over the 39 percent of his county that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. He points to Phil’s World, the regionally famous mountain bike hotspot, as an example. For several years, a regional bike club and now the county have been trying to double the size of the BLM trail system. Suckla says doing so would attract even more bikers and be a boon to the local economy. But the BLM, he says, is dragging its feet on making a decision. (A planner with the agency said they are creating alternative expansion proposals in order to avoid disturbing a golden eagle nest, as well as cultural sites.) Suckla is one of many rural Westerners who are exasperated by what they see as mismanagement of public lands by out-of-touch bureaucracies.

If the state or county controlled the land, Suckla says, his county would more easily be able to expand the trail system. But even locals who want Phil’s World expanded say that collaborating with the BLM, red tape and all, is best for the community.

Since none of the states pushing for land transfers appear to have come up with a management plan for if they succeed, it's not clear what a post-transfer West would look like. But if the ALC’s high-profile funders are any indication, it’s likely it would be particularly mining and oil-and-gas-friendly.

Ivory’s current role in the land transfer movement appears to be in flux. He left the American Lands Council in February to lead the ideologically akin Federalism in Action. But he left that group this spring for unknown reasons, according to the Center for Western Priorities. The receptionist at the ALC’s South Jordan, Utah, office told HCN he gets a lot of calls from reporters but isn’t allowed to provide any information about the group or connect the media with someone who could. The receptionist said the organization had “dealt with” HCN in the past and that the ALC has a “grading system for organizations it works with.”      

ALC President and Montana state Senator Jennifer Fielder was not reachable for comment for this article and Ivory did not respond to interview requests.

Has your county officially opposed or supported the ALC? Let the author know: taywiles@hcn.org. Tay Wiles is deputy editor - digital at High Country News and is based in Paonia, Colorado. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of issue 48.12 on July 25, 2016. You can subscribe to the print edition here