52 percent oppose the state takeover of public lands—but millions will be spent on it anyway

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It's been three years since Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who heads the American Lands Council (ALC), convinced his fellow lawmakers to pass a bill forcing the U.S. government to turn over control of federal public lands to the state of Utah. The deadline for the turnover quietly passed in 2014, and the demand was denied. The state is now preparing to spend potentially millions of dollars in court trying to force the feds to give up public lands—but that effort is widely expected to fail as well.

Originally, the American Lands Council touted the public-lands takeover as necessary to allow for oil and gas drilling on those lands that would help fund public education. But over the past year, the ALC and its advocates have started to use environmental-conservation language, arguing that Utah, rather than the United States, would be much better suited to care for the environment.

The American Lands Council itself (from which Rep. Ivory makes a six-figure salary advocating for his own legislation) is currently facing multiple ethics violations. The Campaign for Accountability has filed complaints in Utah, Montana and Arizona, alleging that the ALC has committed fraud by convincing counties to pay huge membership fees in return for the promise that the takeover of public lands will happen one day. ALC is also facing a complaint from Colorado Ethics Watch that's been filed with Colorado's secretary of state alleging ALC is lobbying without a license.

A bipartisan research team conducted a poll in 2014 that showed 52 percent oppose the state takeover of public land. The ALC needs to win the hearts and minds of the public and as many elected officials as possible in Western states. The hope is that conservative members of Congress will also take up the effort in Washington, D.C.

So, on June 16, Utah lawmakers committed up to $2 million in taxpayer dollars and hired two groups to launch PR campaigns aimed at convincing Utahns and various elected officials that a state takeover of federal lands is an idea whose time has come. The work the groups are doing might be described as lobbying, but, according to the Legislature's staff attorney Thomas Vaughn, they were hired for "relationship services" (because it's illegal for the Legislature to spend money on direct-lobbying efforts).The groups chosen to do the work, however, seem to have little relation to ALC's new "wilderness protection" rhetoric.

The first of the two firms, Strata Policy, is run by Randy Simmons and Ryan Yonk. Both Simmons and Yonk teach at Utah State University, an institution that receives $170,000 per year (the fifth highest in the nation) in donations from the conservative Koch brothers. Until 2013, Simmons was listed as the school's Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Science, and he oversees the Koch Scholars program. (A number of USU students—working for Strata—will be brought in to work on the contract.) Simmons also serves as a senior fellow at the Koch- and ExxonMobil-funded Property & Environment Research Center.

In addition to his work at USU, Yonk has written several working papers for the Mercatus Center, a conservative think tank whose founder has received more than $30 million from the Kochs. Simmons and Yonk can take credit for a conclusion they drew in a February 2015 paper: The cause of the 2008 economic crisis was renewable energy.

In addition to Strata Policy, the Utah Legislature also hired the New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group, which includes Utahns Frank Pignanelli and Blaze Wharton (both former state legislators) and Doug Foxley. According to the state's lobbyist disclosure website, Pignanelli and Foxley are currently paid lobbyists for several companies that could benefit from state management of public lands, including Big West Oil and EnergySolutions. Wharton has, in the past, lobbied for Energy Fuels.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who, with Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, co-chair the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, will oversee the two firms. In a phone interview, Stratton weighed in on the commission's choice of contractors: "Strata has a strength and advantage because of their conservative background," he says. And although Strata has been almost solely focused on the economic viability of renewable energy, he thinks Strata's "background in public-lands issues" is a big plus.

It might also be asked if Strata and Davillier's efforts to influence citizens to support a state takeover of public lands represent a conflict of interest, since their other clients could financially benefit from new lands opening to potential drilling and mining. "That's a good question," says Stratton, "that needs to be thoroughly vetted. If the conflict of interest were serious enough, they would need to step away. But we have to recognize that there are many interests, and part of checks-and-balances is looking at the issues they're representing—what they're recommending—and recognizing that as part of the filter."

Stratton adds: "The idea is, with education [of the public], legislation and litigation, we need to have the landscape covered. And Strata and Devillier have different strengths that can be brought to help things move forward.

"A lot of people say that all we're going to do is rape and pillage and plunder the landscape. But our greatest resource is protecting the landscape. Can you capture those resources in an environmentally friendly way and maintain the pristine landscape? I believe we can. But that's going to take a lot of thought."

Eric Ethington is a journalist, activist and researcher. He also works for Political Research Associates. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington.

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