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Rep. Ken Ivory • R-West Jordan
Utah Rep. Ken Ivory’s quest for state control of public lands is all-consuming

Critics say when a cause becomes a source of income, it’s a conflict of interest.

First Published May 18 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 20 2014 03:54 pm

It’s a big idea — trying to get the federal government to relinquish hundreds of millions of acres of public land to states. And for Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, it’s become an all-consuming crusade. It dominates his work as a part-time legislator and has taken over his private life, too. It’s how he makes his living.

Supporters say this is the kind of focus and energy the issue demands — and they praise Ivory and his backers for making strides.

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But opponents question the ethics of a lawmaker becoming a one-issue advocate whose livelihood is squarely hitched to his cause. Even some conservatives are grumbling behind the scenes, saying the nonprofit organization he has created thrives on fueling controversy to marshal support and raise money — a criticism they usually aim at environmental groups.

Ivory, an attorney, has mostly boarded up his legal practice and has traveled the country, speaking to county commissions, school boards, tea-party groups, television hosts, state legislators and members of Congress advocating for his goal.

He said support for the effort is swelling as he travels three weeks a month taking his message around the country.

"There’s a growing frustration all over the West that we can and should [control our lands] and our very founding principles were established because property and self-governance matter," Ivory, R-West Jordan, said. "When you get away from those principles, you get bad results, like forests burning down and killing thousands of animals and spoiling watersheds."

Ivory’s activities have raised the question of whether his advocacy crosses the line into lobbying, which he has not registered to do.

Supporters in neighboring states, though, say Ivory has been invaluable in rallying county and state governments to pressure the federal government to give up the lands, and they credit him with a mushrooming movement across the region.

"I’m hoping to God that all the states — it’s not going to be Nevada or Utah or Idaho, but all the states — go back to Washington and say: ‘Here’s the problem we’re seeing. Here’s the waste of money and mismanagement that’s out there, let the states control a lot of this stuff,’ " said Nevada Assemblyman John Ellison, who sponsored a bill in the Silver State to study whether it could take over public lands.

Ivory, Ellison said, provided a mountain of information, guidance and background based on Utah’s experience for that project that helped win over skeptical legislators.

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Getting organized • Ivory created the American Lands Council, a tax-exempt nonprofit, in 2012, along with Elko, Nev., County Commissioner Demar Dahl at a brief meeting at Salt Lake City International Airport.

According to its mission statement, the group "channels the cooperative efforts of state and local governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to secure and defend local control of land access, land use, and land ownership through: I. Education; II. Political Persuasion; III. Legislation (Local, State and National); IV. Litigation."

Ivory has now signed up five dozen corporate, government and individual members, with memberships ranging from a few hundred dollars to Gold Level status costing $25,000 each. Four members, including commissions from two Utah counties — Kane and Washington — bought in at the $25,000 level, with more than 50 more joining at lower tiers.

"People are recognizing the need to go on offense and solve a problem," Ivory said, "so we’re very gratified that counties and individuals and businesses around the West and the nation have wanted to support and be part of what we’re doing."

In 2012 — the only year for which the Lands Council has filed its federal tax return so far — Ivory reported the group had raised more than $123,000. He drew a $40,000 salary from the organization — a small amount, Ivory said, considering the 60 to 70 hours a week he works on the issue.

The group has yet to file its 2013 tax return, but based on the member listing on the council’s website, it appears to have brought in roughly $300,000 or more. Ivory’s wife now draws a yet-undisclosed salary from the group, as well, as its communications director.

David Irvine, a former legislator and attorney for Utahns for Ethical Government, says while Utah’s laws are loose enough that Ivory’s role with the Lands Council doesn’t technically create a conflict of interest, getting paid to advocate for a particular issue raises questions about whether his allegiance is to his constituents or his organization.

"While they can define all this as technically excusable as they wish, it’s an inescapable fact that, if you’re a lobbyist-legislator, it is an inherent conflict of interest," Irvine said, "and can only be said not to impair independent judgment if we suspend all rational human experience."

Gathering steam • Supporters say Ivory and his group are doing valuable work and those donating funds are getting a bargain.

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