The efforts of a handful of fringe politicians to “transfer” national public lands to Western states have continued throughout the 2015 state legislative sessions. The problems with the idea are myriad and have been reported broadly: it’s expensive, unpopular, unconstitutional, and would severely impact access.
What’s gone unreported is that dozens of Western counties, reliant on payments from the federal government to pay for critical county services, are actively working against the best interests of the very people they’ve been elected to serve. In fact, Western counties could lose much-needed budgetary windfalls from county payments—known as payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT—if national lands were handed over to the states.
Across the West in 2014, 47 counties spent a combined $219,000 of taxpayer money to be members of the American Lands Council (ALC), the group spearheading the land seizure movement. Memberships—which range from $1,000 to $25,000—are bought by commissioners without a vote from constituents, are paid for annually, and are often approved after a personal lobbying visit by ALC’s founder and president, Utah state Representative Ken Ivory.
But do the policy goals of the ALC really have the best interests of counties at heart? To put it another way, is this money from county coffers well spent? The answer is no.
This is because of the existence of a particular federal program to support counties. Last year, the Department of the Interior doled out a record $436 million through the PILT program to individual counties across the country, as reimbursement for the lack of property tax revenue on national public lands within county borders. This cash infusion represents a significant portion of the annual budget for many rural Western counties. PILT payments can be spent at the discretion of the county, ensuring budgetary flexibility across cash-strapped departments.
Our research determined that over $71 million of this PILT money was given directly to ALC member counties, with some counties receiving more than $3 million each. This federal payment would disappear if the ALC’s policy goal of “transferring” public lands to the state was achieved.
As the state of Utah’s own Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office put it, “Changes in the federal land base will affect [payments in lieu of taxes].” And a November 2014 study of Utah’s land transfer bill simply tacked on the $35 million cost of PILT to the state’s land management costs, bringing the yearly total to an astronomical $280 million.
Essentially—and ironically—ALC member counties are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to find ways to lose millions more.
A closer look at specific counties illustrates the inherent contradictions of counties relying on PILT money while lobbying for a public land transfer.
For example, Washington County, Utah was one of the first governmental members of ALC, joining on July 3, 2012 by a unanimous resolution stating that federal management of public lands placed an “undue tax burden on local residents.” Opting for the “Silver” level, Washington County parted with $5,000 for ALC membership dues; in subsequent years it became a $25,000 “Gold” member. The following winter, the commission supported Ken Ivory’s land transfer bill, in a resolution whose language closely mirrored that of the ALC and included a link to the organization’s website, should any inquiring mind want more information.
As fate would have it, earlier in that very same meeting the commission acknowledged the receipt of its annual PILT payment—a whopping $2.7 million, which by last year had grown to $2.9 million, making Washington County one of the top ten PILT recipients among ALC members. In 2014 the county directed most of the funds to the sheriff’s department. But to put it into perspective—and highlight the beneficial flexibility of the revenue—with this amount the county could have funded the entire planning and zoning department, public works and fire control combined—and still have $2 million left over.
In 2014, Mohave County, Arizona collected the second-highest PILT check among ALC members, at $3.4 million. Knowing the importance of the annual revenue, the county sent supervisor Buster Johnson to Washington, D.C. in September to lobby congress for a 2015 PILT reauthorization. As Johnson told his local Havasa News, Mohave had already budgeted for another $3.4 million for the next year, and without the funds vital services would be cut significantly. What Johnson failed to mention was that Mohave supervisors had been “Silver” ALC members for over a year, and had recently entertained a visit by Ken Ivory himself.
Forty-five other counties across the West are similarly undermining their own budgets by advocating the seizure of national public lands and the subsequent elimination of federal PILT funding. To see how much PILT money the 47 ALC county members received last year—and how much they shelled out in membership fees—click here.
Supporters of seizing national lands from the federal government often claim that counties know best. But, the contradiction should be clear: county supervisors lobby for a do-or-die budget item, while simultaneously supporting efforts that would result in the funding’s source being taken away.
The ALC, for its part, continues to woo local governments and push land grab legislation—recently, Colorado’s Garfield County narrowly rejected membership after residents expressed concern about the group’s goals.
If national lands are seized, and PILT funding disappears, it’s far from certain that states could cover counties’ budgetary shortfalls. A study by the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center claimed that the state would have to generate at least $432 million from the newly acquired lands in order to keep revenue at the current level—which would require rapidly increasing the pace and scale of development at a cost to other critical uses of our public lands, including outdoor recreation, clean water supplies, and wildlife populations.