Utah should seek to develop federal lands near cities, argues a former lawmaker

Utah officials now have a $700,000 tool that they hope will demonstrate the federal government is paying the state a “minuscule fraction” of what it’s due for its public lands.

On Friday, a tech firm called Geomancer unveiled the software that Utah lawmakers bought to help them understand the value of the land — and possibly lobby for more federal cash.

The Lehi company’s analysis, presented to a panel of state lawmakers, estimates that local governments in Utah could reap more than $530 million in property taxes each year if the state’s federally-controlled land was privately owned. But in 2019, the federal government only provided Utah officials about $40 million in compensation to offset this lost tax revenue.

“It really is an astonishing, astronomical fraction of what the tax equivalent amount is,” said former state Rep. Ken Ivory, who left his public post last year to take an executive level job at Geomancer.

During his presentation, he blamed this federal short-changing for the state’s last-in-the-nation ranking on per-pupil spending and said Utah would have to spend billions just to catch up with the rest of the nation.

As a House representative, Ivory was a strident proponent of putting a price tag on public lands and helped secure state funding for the contract with Geomancer. He maintains that he distanced himself from the state’s dealings with the firm once Geomancer made him a job offer.

However, conservation groups have been skeptical of Ivory’s activity with his new employer.

“This is yet another snake oil remedy from Ken Ivory,” Chris Saeger, director of strategic initiatives at the progressive watchdog group Accountable.US, said Friday. “Ivory pushed Utah to hire this company while he was in office, and even after resigning, Ivory is back trying to put more taxpayer money into his own pockets.”

His former legislative colleagues on Friday showered the company with praise for finishing the software that officials will use to appraise public land and figure out how much tax revenue it could generate if it were developed to varying degrees.

Geomancer representatives paid particular attention to property in and around Utah cities and towns, with Ivory suggesting that the state should target these parcels for privatization.

The company reported that 650,000 acres of “garden-variety” public land exists within one mile of city boundaries or inside the municipalities themselves. While the federal government pays only $1.4 million per year for this land, it could generate nearly $1.7 billion in tax revenue if it were developed into low-density neighborhoods, according to the Geomancer analysis.

Ivory also called attention to a law pushed through Congress by Nevada representatives more than two decades ago, enabling public land sales near Las Vegas. The program authorized by this law allowed for the auctioning of public land within a specific boundary around the metropolis, with the proceeds used to fund public schools, parks, trails and conservation projects.

Ivory suggested that state lawmakers follow Nevada’s example, arguing that the federal lands in and around Utah’s cities are an untapped resource that could accelerate a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have land and self-determination to work our way as a state out of this economic malaise,” he told members of the Federalism Commission during Friday’s virtual meeting.

After the presentation, commission members voted to release the second of two $300,000 payments to Geomancer for the software development. State lawmakers are also planning to pay the company $100,000 over the next five years for training and upkeep.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, suggested sharing the new appraisal tool and Utah’s findings with other state policymakers through the National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Governments West and American Legislative Exchange Council.

Geomancer, which was recently acquired by the software firm Aeon AI, has been on the road recently marketing its services to state lawmakers in Idaho and Wyoming, to the alarm of conservationists who view Ivory with distrust for supporting the transfer of federal land to the states. However, a Wyoming lawmaker — who’s sponsoring legislation for a public lands analysis there — has said Ivory’s controversial past shouldn’t disqualify all of his future ideas from consideration, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.

Ivory on Friday acknowledged that the state has gone “down some roads that just aren’t politically viable” as it seeks to get more out of its public lands, which account for about three-quarters of Utah’s total acreage, and argued that using Nevada’s strategy would be a more pragmatic approach.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who has devoted considerable attention to public lands issues as a former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Geomancer tool will streamline efforts to transfer federally controlled property into the hands of locals.

Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive-leaning advocacy group, said he’s keeping an eye on the Geomancer project because of Ivory’s involvement. The usefulness of the appraisal software will depend on what state lawmakers do with it, he added.

If they use it as a negotiating tool for more federal compensation for public land, the software could be a net positive, he said.

“If this is going to be the basis for a large public lands lawsuit, or something like that, then I think it’s going to be a lot less useful,” he said Friday.