Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Case for public land transfer may be weak but fraud is a reach

The legal argument that western states have the right to demand the federal government turn over the more than 500 million acres of public land in the West may be ridiculous.

Or as one of its own proponents Donald Kochan, a Chapman Law professor from California told the Idaho Legislature in 2013, such an argument is a long shot.

But is it fraud?

A Washington, D.C.-based group is asking Utah, Montana and Arizona to investigate the primary proponent of public land transfer to western states for fraud. The Campaign for Accountability filed complaints with the three states’ attorneys general urging an investigation of Utah Republican State Rep. Ken Ivory for engaging in what it calls an illegal scheme to defraud local government officials out of taxpayer funds by falsely claiming the federal government can be forced to transfer public lands to the states.

Ivory, a powerful speaker who made his case to the Idaho Legislature in 2012 and got them to approve resolutions in support of his legal argument, has formed a group, the American Lands Council, to promote his vision of getting states to demand the federal government turn over the lands to the states.

He’s gotten taxpayer dollars from counties across the West, including $15,000 over three years from Idaho County, one of Idaho’s poorest. He’s using the money, he says to travel around the nation and tell anyone who will listen that his lawsuit is valid and that states would manage the lands better than the federal government.

Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack tore apart the weak legal argument for forcing the federal government to turn over federal lands. When Idaho and other western states entered the union more than a century ago, they were asking not demanding and when they made the ask, they dropped all land claims.

A host of scholars, economists, business leaders, sportsmen and conservationists have raised doubts that the states could afford to take over those lands without selling off large chunks to pay for management. When I hiked with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently in the Boise Foothills, which remain open space instead of development primarily because of federal ownership, she made another argument that hasn’t been heard much.

“Just a takeover of public land by states is really cheating the American taxpayer who currently owns these lands,” Jewell said.

All of the economic analysis that proponents of land transfer tout suggest the state would not only get all the public land and the treasure beneath, such as oil and gas revenues for free, but that the federal government would continue to fight fires, at a cost of more than a billion dollars annually. Not counting that expense, land transfer requires unusually high oil and gas prices to pencil out.

Despite the economics and the fairness, the idea remains powerful enough in the West to get Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to organize a Congressional study group to look at the idea.

“This group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners,” Bishop said when he formed the group.

Return to their rightful owners? Before the federal government owned most of the West, it was in the hands of American Indian tribes.

So Ivory’s idea may not hold up legally. The economics are questionable at best. The rhetoric of returning the land to the states is just plain wrong.

But fraud? That’s another matter.