Utah gave group $400,000 to sue the feds on public lands issues. It never did. What happened?

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert meet with reporters during Zinke's May 2017 tour of Bears Ears National Monument. Zinke ended up urging President Donal Trump to drastically reduce the size of the monument. Utah lawmakers also gave thousands to a nonprofit group to sue the federal government over the monument's initial designation on behalf of San Juan County. The group, known as the Foundation for Integrated Resource Management, spent the money without filing a single lawsuit.

In 2016, the Utah Legislature opened up its wallet to a nonprofit called the Foundation for Integrated Resource Management (FIRM), one of several groups that have received millions in taxpayers dollars in recent years to push greater local and state control over Utah’s large expanses of federal land and imperiled wildlife.

But FIRM’s taxpayer-supported charge was specific: File lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of Utah counties. The goal was to reverse restrictive land-use policies as a way to promote “integrated” use of natural resources.

Four years and $400,000 later, FIRM has yet to pursue a single legal action, according to ethics complaints filed Tuesday with the IRS, the Utah Division of Consumer Protection and Utah’s state auditor.

Launched in 2015 by Stan Summers, who is a Box Elder County commissioner, Utah-based FIRM publicized its intent to challenge the 2016 designation of Bears Ears National Monument, prohibitions on motorized use in Recapture Canyon and other federal decisions seen as undue barriers to the use of public lands.

Then-Executive Director Johnnie Miller sold lawmakers on the grants by insisting that FIRM would recoup legal costs through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which enables nonprofit groups to be awarded fees if they prevail in legal disputes with the federal government. Such consideration is unavailable to counties.

“The thing that sets us apart is that we are prepared to do legal actions,” Miller told lawmakers in 2017 to distinguish FIRM from like-minded groups also vying for grants from the Legislature. The plan was to pull a page from the legal playbook used by environmental groups.

FIRM never followed through and filed inaccurate financial disclosures with the IRS and state officials in violation of the law, alleges Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Daniel Stevens, who prepared the complaints filed Tuesday. The complaints ask officials to investigate FIRM and reevaluate whether it is entitled to status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Reached Monday, Summers, FIRM’s president, acknowledged the group never took the feds to court but said that was because it didn’t have to do so. Thanks to a change in presidential administrations, land management policies fell more in line with rural counties’ wishes.

“After Bears Ears, there wasn’t a reason to sue so we switched away from litigation. We switched the arena to help with education,” said Summers, referring to President Donald Trump’s 2017 order to reduce Bears Ears. Many rural county commissioners lauded the 85% reduction of the national monument, designated the year before by President Barack Obama.

So instead of suing the feds, Summers explained, FIRM used its state grants on an education campaign and pressing federal agencies headed by a sympathetic Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke.

Then FIRM should have returned the money, Stevens argued.

“The state wanted FIRM to file lawsuits. They didn’t do it. There might be extenuating circumstances. If the state decided it didn’t want FIRM to file the lawsuits, they should have asked for the money back,” Stevens said. “There are better uses of this money than giving it to FIRM’s executives and lobbyists.”

In 2017, FIRM paid Miller $20,000, Summers nearly $17,000 and general counsel Jeremiah Riley nearly $11,000, according to tax filings. It also had $2,000-a-month contract with The Dicio Group to support public relations and fundraising.

The 2017 tax filing describes FIRM’s purpose as promoting multiple use of the land through research, education and advocacy, with no mention of legal action. Here’s how the document summarized its accomplishments that year:

“Provided information of public land issues and activities of the Department of Interior to members and elected officials. Conducted a FIRM day on the Hill [the Utah Capitol] to provide information to legislators and others on public lands issues.”

The document also said FIRM developed a new research institute that year. That new organization is known as the Rural Policy and Public Lands Institute, which received $300,000 from the Legislature in 2019 at the request of FIRM executives.

Stevens’ group has previously filed ethics complaints targeting the American Lands Council and its former executive director, Ken Ivory, an ex-legislator and a leading Utah proponent for transferring public lands out of federal control. Campaign for Accountability and many others — including academics, environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers — object to Utah awarding tax dollars to outside groups promoting what critics view as an ill-conceived and divisive crusade against public lands.

Another former legislator, Mike Noel, and other leaders on Utah’s Capitol Hill have long argued that such grants are a wise investment, whose payback will come in the form of greater local say in how public lands are managed.

Noel secured the first $250,000 appropriation for FIRM in 2016, followed by one for $150,000 in 2017. His entire pitch was premised on the idea that FIRM’s forthcoming lawsuits would pay for themselves, thus sparing Utah taxpayers the expense of suing over Recapture Canyon and many other federal land-use decisions counties opposed. Ironically, San Juan, Utah’s poorest county and the home of the artifact-rich Recapture Canyon, wound up spending heavily on outside lawyers litigating the types of cases FIRM promised to tackle.

FIRM’s legislative appropriations were passed through the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which issued contracts to the group to “fund legal challenges to federal government restrictions on public land.”

That office declined to comment on the record Monday, but it is clear FIRM’s tactics changed after Trump took office in 2017.

As Trump’s first Interior secretary, Zinke personally asked Summers to refrain from suing the Interior Department and provided his cell number as a means of direct communication, Summers told lawmakers. Zinke later resigned amid various ethics investigations, but his successor, David Bernhardt, has been equally receptive to the concerns of rural Western counties.

FIRM executives had promised lawmakers the organization would become financially self-sustaining and would open state chapters across the West. None of that happened, yet the group returned to the Legislature seeking another $500,000 in 2018. Lawmakers, however, chose to invest in other groups to carry on the public lands fight.

Now FIRM is largely dormant, operating as a “one-man show,” Summers said. Its board includes numerous county commissioners and Chris Cannon, a former U.S. House member from Utah, but it hasn’t met in months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Without a funding source, it has shed its paid staff and allowed its website, FIRMcountry.com, to go dark. Summers said FIRM is now focused on lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to designate northern Utah’s challenged airsheds “in attainment” with air pollution standards, a move that would presumably enable industry to increase emissions.