Officials support Utah public lands transfer, but at what cost?

Wednesday , June 03, 2015 - 9:03 AM

OGDEN — Four northern Utah counties are paying members of the American Lands Council (ALC), a nonprofit formed in 2012 to help western states regain control of federally owned lands within their borders.

So far, 21 of Utah’s 29 counties have joined the organization — including Box Elder, Cache, Morgan and Weber, counties that each subscribe at the “silver level” of $5,000 per year.

Now the ALC and its president — Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan — have come under fire for allegedly engaging in a scheme to defraud local governments of taxpayer dollars.

On Monday, the Washington D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, calling Ivory’s claims “spurious” that contributions to ALC would result in federal lands getting transferred back to the states.

The complaint also points to Ivory’s ALC salary in 2013 of $95,000 per year. The nonprofit also paid Ivory’s wife, Becky Ivory, $19,715 that year for her work as communications director. Added together, their pay consumed more than half of the $228,043 in contributions and revenue the organization received in 2013.

Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, said her nonprofit opened its doors about a month ago as a watchdog organization that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications “to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.”

Weismann had harsh words for Ivory, likening his marketing tactics to trying to sell people the Brooklyn Bridge.

“He’s been going around to the western states selling the idea that if you give money to his organization, states can pass laws to restore federal lands to states,” Weismann said of the land transfers she and others believe would be unconstitutional.

“Much of the money goes to his and his wife’s pocket,” Weismann added. “So this is a very troubling picture, and it raises serious questions about what interests are behind this effort.”

However, many in power in northern Utah buy into Ivory’s ideology and applaud Utah’s efforts to regain control of federal lands.

“We live in a state where nearly three-fourths of the land is federal land, and that has a huge impact on all of us — our schoolchildren, our families, our recreation, our economic development — all of those things are critical to us,” Weber County Commission Chairman Kerry Gibson said of the dilemma states west of the so-called “fault line” face because so much of their ground produces no property tax.

The ALC website, http://www.americanlandscouncil.org/whats_happening_in_my_state, displays a map of the United States showing the dividing line between eastern states that have very little federally owned land and those in the west that are drenched in red (signifying federal ownership) — Nevada being the biggest loser, with Utah ranking a close second.

By joining with other counties, Gibson said the western problem is finally beginning to gain some traction.

“This is an issue that’s discussed at every single National Association of Counties meeting we attend,” Gibson said.

That separation of east and west shows where the federal government reneged on its promise, Gibson believes.

“They stopped in the 1970s ... and did not fulfill the commitment that they made through the enabling act and through the Constitution to return those lands to state ownership,” Gibson said.

In 2012, Ivory successfully spearheaded Utah’s “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” legislation that set Dec. 31, 2014 as the date by which the federal government would release its grip on Utah land.

“Some people want to say that the effort is failing because the feds haven’t signed over the deed yet,” Gibson said. “And all I’m saying is that I don’t think anyone thought it would happen on Jan. 1, 2015 like the legislation said, but as long as we are having the discussion ... we’re accomplishing a goal, which is to help people understand what this is doing to Utah’s economy. How much better could it be if they would allow us to be partners in managing those federal lands?”

Weber County Commissioner James Ebert credited ALC with raising awareness.

“Part of this is that a lot of folks east of the fault line never realized there was a problem,” Ebert said. “They know they’ve come to a cool national park but they don’t realize that for some of these counties, 90 percent of their land is tied up, unusable and untaxable.”

Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers expressed frustration that Utahns are “being stifled on all our public lands.”

He also scoffed at the federal government’s compensation to the states known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT.

“It’s more like pennies in lieu of taxes,” Summers said, adding that “we still have to feed our kids and send them to school.”

Whether there is room for compromise between the two extremes remains to be seen.

“I’d love to think there’s some middle ground, but Bureau of Land Management folks say they don’t dare talk to me because an NGO (non-governmental organization) might sue them,” Summers said. “So we’ve got some serious problems.”

On his website, Congressman Rob Bishop — in his seventh term representing Utah’s 1st District — underscored his commitment to helping Congress strike a balance for wise management of public lands and resources.

“Protecting private property rights and state sovereignty and preserving our western heritage are among my chief priorities on the (House Natural Resources) committee ... I am confident that the principles of multiple-use and protecting our environment can go hand-in-hand.”

However, some believe that Utah already enjoys significant perks from its public lands.

“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the fastest growing counties in the west have fairly large percentages of protected federal lands within their boundaries,” said Mark Clemens, manager of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.  

Clemens referred to the state’s large recreation, watershed and wildlife habitat areas, and also to PILT, that in part replaces property taxes that otherwise would be paid.

“It’s wise to be careful what you wish for,” Clemens said. “When you take all of these things together, the western public land counties have a pretty sweet deal.”

Allison Jones, executive director of the Wild Utah Project, described ALC’s work as “definitely tilting at windmills.” “No other state legislature has passed a bill like Utah to try to pull off this harebrained stunt to try to take over millions of acres of federal land. They’re willing to let Utah play fast and loose with our tax dollars, and it’s not going to go anywhere because the argument won’t hold up in court,” Jones said, also criticizing the idea that taxpayer dollars are being wasted with counties paying membership fees “that makes a nice living for Ken Ivory and his wife.” 

Late Monday, the state AG’s office issued a statement regarding the Campaign for Accountability’s complaint, saying it takes allegations of fraud very seriously.

“When our office receives a complaint, we assess whether there are reasons we cannot investigate a claim, such as a conflict of interest or lack of credible evidence,” the statement said. “If the former, we will erect legal walls accepted under ethical rules to avoid the conflict and continue investigating the matter or we will refer the matter to another investigative agency. If the latter, we will end our assessment without referral and notify the complainant.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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