This story was updated Aug. 28, 2015.
Patriot and militia groups are once again on the rise. As of 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 330 such groups, noting that they began gaining traction after the 2008 election of the first African-American U.S. president. The groups are often known for nationalistic and often violent rhetoric as well as armed opposition to the government. Their views are becoming decidedly more mainstream in conservative circles as fears mount over the intrusiveness of Big Government.
The Center for Western Priorities, a liberal conservation group opposed to the privatization of public land, recently released a report called "Going to Extremes," examining ties between militia groups and coordinated effort by lawmakers from the West that call for states to take over public lands. "At the center of the land grab," the report says, "is Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and president of the American Lands Council."
The report specifically links Ivory to these groups by pointing to a promotional video that featured Ivory, where he says, "We are in the Second Great Revolution, and it's a revolution of ideologies." Ivory also signed a resolution for the group under his official title as a Utah legislator saying that the "arrest of citizens or seizure of persons or property without first notifying and obtaining the express consent of the local sheriff" will not be tolerated.
Ivory calls the report and its claims that he's connected to or supports the tactics of patriot and militia groups "a political hit piece" and "utterly ridiculous.
"We're working on education, legislation and litigation," says Ivory. "That is the opposite of what we're trying to work on."
With 67 percent of Utah lands federally controlled, Ivory's American Lands Council website argues, state ownership of federal lands is needed to better fund education, provide better environmental stewardship of the land, grow the state's economy and foster energy independence.
And the argument appears to be resonating with patriot and militia groups. The patriot and militia movement gained momentum in the early '90s, with dozens of organized groups threatening to fight back against the U.S. government and what they saw as a coming takeover by the U.N. to create a "One World Government." But when militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the movement and its rhetoric became largely shunned—that is, until 2008, when these types of patriot groups began appearing under names like Oath Keepers, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), Militia of Montana, Hutaree Militia and others.
Unlike their '90s predecessors, many of this new breed began attaching themselves to political movements such as the Tea Party, resulting in their rhetoric and beliefs graduating from the fringes of society into state legislatures, Congress and even into talking points for 2016 presidential candidates.
One such group, Oath Keepers claims on its website its members are made up of former military personnel, police and first responders who have taken an oath to "defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic" and to "refuse to obey unconstitutional orders." Oath Keepers likens its mission to resisting the tyranny of Nazi Germany. The group also lauds Ivory on its website as a leading voice in the "quest for constitutional justice for the States."
Likewise, the CSPOA is made up of current and former county sheriffs who have pledged to refuse to enforce laws they believe to be unconstitutional, and to physically resist efforts by the United States to enforce federal laws—as was the case in the April 2014 standoff between militia members and federal law-enforcement officers at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada. A CSPOA promotional video features Ivory speaking at the group's conference. He also signed one of the group's resolutions, using his official title of Utah state representative.
CSPOA's founder is former Graham County, Ariz., Sheriff Richard Mack, who is also an Oath Keepers board member. He describes the CSPOA as "the army to set our nation free." When asked who decides which federal laws are unconstitutional, Mack said, "You read the Constitution and decide. We have to make the determination ourselves." Mack also was adamant that the U.S. Supreme Court has no authority to decide constitutional issues, arguing instead that the power rests with counties.
According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, Mack founded CSPOA in order to train law enforcement in Oath Keeper tactics. "These are now sheriffs who are learning and willing to learn to become Oath Keeper sheriffs," Mack said, according to the report.
In April 2015, two gold miners on federal land in rural Oregon were ordered to sotp work by the BLM, which found the mine lacked necessary paperwork. After the miners contacted the Oath Keepers, dozens of armed militiamen reportedly were sent along with members of the CSPOA provide security for the mines. This tactic was repeated in August 2015, when Oath Keepers and other anti-government groups gathered at a mine on public lands in Montana. Also in August, heavily armed Oath Keepers were seen on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., which was under a state of emergency following demonstrations related to the anniversary of Michael Brown's death.
So why did Ivory appear in a video for the CSPOA and sign its resolution? "I spoke at the convention at the request of Sheriff Mack," says Ivory, explaining that the video was taken from a speech he gave at a CSPOA convention. He says there's no difference between his speaking to the militia group and the interviews he's given to NPR and other media outlets. "I speak at events all the time. We invite all to listen to our story," says Ivory. "Separately, some folks presented me with the resolution, and it seemed to me to make sense what they were doing with that."
Ivory says the speech and resolution represent his only involvement with these groups, although Mack says they've met many times. "We know each other very well," he says.
As a driving forces behind the "take back our federal lands" campaign in the American West, Ivory wants state governments to control public lands, a move that could allow the state to open up public lands for energy development or even private sale. Ivory founded the nonprofit American Lands Council (ALC) in 2012, just before he successfully sponsored a bill at the Utah Legislature demanding such a turnover of public lands. He now travels throughout the West promoting ALC and trying to persuade local governments to sign up as ALC members (fees go as high as $25,000 annually).
In June 2015, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a Washington, D.C., watchdog group filed a complaint, alleging he was scamming local governments into giving taxpayer dollars to his organization on the promise that he can get public lands turned over to them. Ivory called those allegations "a shameful and desperate political stunt."