To cash-strapped counties in the American West, Ken Ivory is offering what sounds like salvation. Underfunded schools, potholed roads, cuts to law enforcement—those can be reversed, the Republican state representative from Utah suggests in presentations to county commissioners, Tea Party groups, and Fox News viewers, if states force the federal government to turn over millions of acres of public land to local authorities.
Over the past several years Ivory has made himself the leading evangelist for the land-transfer movement, which is undergoing something of a resurrection in Western states. He’s also facing new accusations of fraud. In early June, the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability filed complaints in three states alleging that Ivory is scamming local governments out of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year by “making false statements” to convince them to support his nonprofit, “which exists primarily to pay him and his wife,” the complaint reads. What Ivory really has to offer, according to CFA’s Anne Weismann, is not salvation but “snake oil.”
Since the early years of the 20th century, cattle ranchers, logging companies, mining interests, and oil drillers have been pushing to “take back” federal lands, with the aim of dodging federal environmental regulation. They’ve had little material success, though uprisings such as the Sagebrush Rebellion in the late 1970s fanned flames of contempt for the federal government. Now the movement is having a resurgence, thanks in part to the rise of the Tea Party and the celebrity status attained by people like Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land sparked a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. (The BLM lost.)
Dozens of land-transfer bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, and there are murmurs at the federal level, too. An amendment inserted in the Senate’s budget bill in March would facilitate the transfer of public forests, wilderness areas, and other lands to the states. In their own budget resolution, House Republicans expressed support for “reducing the Federal estate, and giving States and localities more control over the resources within their boundaries.” And in late April, two Republican representatives from Utah launched a Federal Land Action Group to “develop a legislative framework for transferring public lands to local ownership and control.”
But if any single person deserves credit for the resurgence of land-transfer fever, it’s Ivory. In 2011 he presented model legislation to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative idea-shop whose Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force at the time was stacked with representatives from the oil, coal, and mineral industries. The following year Ivory sponsored Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that the government turn over 30 million acres by the end of 2014. That year he was also involved in the founding of a nonprofit, the American Lands Council.