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American Lands Council (ALC) members gathered for this week's annual conference under siege from a regional environmental group that ran a full-page ad in Utah's largest daily newspapers and alleged a rapid decline in the ALC's influence and county memberships.
The Western Values Project, backed by a Washington, D.C., nonprofit incubator, bought A-section ads in Wednesday's Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News and then supplemented its print campaign with a report that 24 of 53 counties once listed as ALC members have stopped paying dues including six in Utah.
Founded in 2012, the ALC promises corporations and counties that it will fight for the transfer of federal lands which, represented in blood red on its maps, blot out more than half of the Western United States to state control. Local governments are invited to support that effort through annual membership fees that range from $1,000 to $25,000.
According to the Western Values Project, six Utah counties Box Elder, Millard, Cache, Garfield, Morgan and Rich have opted to be dropped from the ALC's rolls since January 2015.
Officials with Box Elder and Rich counties told The Tribune that they stopped paying fees this year. Calls to Millard, Cache, Garfield and Morgan counties were not returned Thursday.
County Commissioner Stan Summers said Box Elder still supports the ALC's cause after paying $5,000 in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but that "we can't afford to fight against the bureaucracy anymore."
Seven Utah counties that have been listed as ALC members didn't respond to requests for information (Beaver, Juab, Sanpete, Sevier, Uintah, Utah and Washington) while eight reaffirmed their memberships either through writing or phone conversations with the Western Values Project (Kane, Duchesne, San Juan, Piute, Daggett, Iron, Tooele and Weber).
St. George's Spectrum & Daily News reported in August that Washington County paid $25,000 annually as one of the ALC's "platinum" members.
ALC President Jennifer Fielder declined to answer questions about membership numbers when she stepped out of an ALC session Thursday at the Radisson in downtown Salt Lake City.
Former ALC president and state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, was likewise mum on specifics when he emerged from a closed-door membership briefing to fill his plate for lunch.
"You've got interest groups that want to perpetuate inequality at all costs, and so they lie and they terrorize and they get papers like yours to run all kinds of exaggerated false headlines, like they do against me frequently, and that's their tactic," Ivory said. "OK, that's unfortunate, but they're built on a false foundation."
The ALC took in over $330,000 in 2014, according to a tax filing obtained by the Center for Western Priorities environmental advocacy group, and the bulk of that revenue came from memberships. Ivory received $135,000, and his wife another $18,000.
Among the charges made in the ad bought by Western Values Project were that ALC leaders "have ties to fringe groups such as paramilitary organizations with white supremacist origins," and that the ALC no longer advertises its membership or meeting locations.
At Thursday's conference, a Federalism in Action staffer flipped his name badge to conceal his identity when he learned he was speaking to a Tribune reporter.
Gov. Gary Herbert addressed the group at Wednesday night's opening reception. Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Mower said Herbert came at the invitation of Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner and spoke for "maybe 10, 15 minutes" about his desire to see state control of public lands, his role as chairman of the National Governors Association and the importance of states' rights as emphasized by James Madison in The Federalist Papers.
This summer, a group of attorneys general from 15 Western states and three U.S. territories approved an analysis that casts doubt on Utah's chances of successfully suing for control of federal lands. Their report cautions that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly found that the Property Clause of the Constitution gives the U.S. government the right to own public lands. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes abstained from the 11-1 vote to approve the analysis.
Those findings were a blow to ALC's sales pitch, said Western Values Project Director Chris Saeger.
"They have really organized nothing at the federal level, that we can see, and the state of Utah's lawsuit is embattled, to say the least. There has never been a bill in a state legislature that has succeeded in convincing the federal government that they have to hand over Forest Service or BLM lands to states."
Ivory said Thursday that he gives more credence to a favorable legal analysis from a group of outside lawyers hired by the state of Utah to review its case.
"When you put it in context with actual attorneys who have actual experience and actually appear before the Supreme Court, who say that the federal government has no authority to treat us like a second-class state, and you contrast that with pandering politicians, I'll take the people that are cited by the Supreme Court as authority."
The projected cost of litigation is $14 million.