The taxpayer money that fuels federal land transfer demands

How the behind-the-scenes lobby group American Lands Council gets funding.

 

Since 2012, the American Lands Council has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocate and lobby for the transfer of federal lands to states. Such a move could dramatically change how these lands are managed, affecting anybody who makes a living in, lives near, recreates in, or simply loves the notion of public lands in the West. But who finances the demands?

The Utah-based American Lands Council, or ALC, is mostly funded by memberships, the majority of which are county commissions—that is, taxpayer-funded dues. In 2013, the last year for which records are available, the non-profit raised around $200,000 in contributions. About $157,000 of that came from memberships; $134,000 of that came from the coffers of counties. (Much of the rest comes from contributions from individuals and corporations, including Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing think tank supported by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.) Membership ranges from a “bronze” level, which costs $1,000 a year, to “platinum,” which costs  $25,000 a year. 

This map, which shows federally-owned land in the U.S., is cited by the American Lands Council to show the high proportion of federal land in the West. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

“ALC comes in and offers counties this incredible-sounding deal: ‘We'll get you these lands with minerals and timber and resources,’” Jessica Goad, advocacy director for conservation group Center for Western Priorities, said. “A lot of counties are very taken with this notion, but when you pull back the curtain a bit, (the ALC) is selling an idea that is actually a waste of their time and (their) limited funds.”

According to the Center for Western Priorities, after ALC representatives pitch the cause, county commissioners are left to make the decision; no vote is put to county taxpayers.

So where does this money go? Essentially, to a few salaries, and to lobbying for the pro-transfer movement.

Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory and Nevada County Commissioner Demar Dahl founded the ALC in 2012, the same year Ivory launched H.B. 28 — the bill that created Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, which seeks a transfer of 20 million acres of federal public land to the state. The mission of the ALC, according to its website, is to “secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands…by giving leaders the knowledge and courage to battle..."

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, stands with his wife, Becky, as members of the Utah House of Representatives participate in the Pledge of Allegiance in January 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
AP Photo/The Deseret News, Ravell Call
In 2013, ALC spent most of its income, about 60 percent, on salaries (40 percent of its total income went to Ken Ivory’s salary, and another 10 percent to his wife’s, according to the ALC’s 2013 tax forms). Of the remaining expenses — travel, advertising, conferences, taxes, and so on — the largest expenditure was lobbying, which used about 10 percent of the ALC’s income. In addition to its lobbying at the state level, the ALC has increased its lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. Since September 2014, the ALC has paid lobbyist Michael Swenson about $35,000 to reach out to federal legislators in the capital.

"We believe this will be a political solution ultimately resolved by Congress," Swenson told E&E News this spring. Ivory did not respond to HCN's requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the group has recently stirred some controversy over its lobbying at the state level.

In February, William Richardson, an aide to Montana State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, registered as a lobbyist for the ALC. Other lobbyists, concerned about the conflict of interest of being both a lobbyist and an aide, alerted Sen. Tom Facey, a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, and Richardson was ultimately asked to leave his post as legislative aide.

In April, the nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint against the ALC with the Colorado Secretary of State, accusing the ALC of lobbying without registering as a lobbyist group. The ALC had sent an email to Coloradans, urging them to contact state legislators and support S.B. 232, which called for the study of a transfer of federal lands in Colorado to the state. (The bill failed 18-17 in the Senate in late April.)

Under Colorado state law, contacting legislators to push for the passage of a particular bill is considered lobbying, and such action must be preceded by registration with the state, which costs a nominal, though waiveable, $50.

Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, says the ALC needs to disclose its activities, “like every other group, so legislators and the public alike can know who's spending money to influence legislation.”

Toro was not familiar with the ALC before the complaint, and when asked about the ethics of using taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying, he said that it’s not illegal to do so.

While it’s not illegal for taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying, he said, “this case is tricky.”

“It’s missing a layer of justification,” he said. “It’s taking money for a political agenda that has nothing to do with the county’s agenda. Why should a Utah county pay to lobby in Colorado?”

Given this concern, it’s important for ALC to be transparent about its actions, he said. “People who support nonprofits benefit from knowing what their money is used for.”

Below here is a list of counties where taxpayers have helped support the American Lands Council’s agenda — whether they know it or not:

  • Arizona: Apache, Mohave, Navajo, and an organized group of “Eastern Counties”
  • Colorado: Montrose and Mesa
  • Idaho: Idaho
  • Nevada: Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Lyon, Nye, Pershing, and White Pine
  • New Mexico: Otero and Sierra
  • Oregon: Klamath and Wallowa 
  • Utah: Beaver, Box Elder, Cache, Dagget, Duchesne, Garfield, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, Morgan, Piute, Rich, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Tooele, Uintah, Utah, Washington, and Weber
  • Washington: Ferry, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skagit, and Stevens
  • Wyoming: Big Horn, Lincoln, Natrona, and Weston

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern for High Country News.

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