A Closer Look Into Legislative Attacks on Public Lands

Sign that reads "Posted Private Property"

Ever since thousands of public land supporters gathered at the Idaho Capitol Building in 2017 to oppose legislative efforts to sell off Idaho’s public lands, anti-public land politicians have had to get creative to get around public opposition. Over the years, they’re still working hard to undermine our public lands – they’re just using more secretive ways to do so with bills that are either too complicated so the public won’t understand them or bills that are flouted as actually beneficial to Idaho communities.

This session, HCR0008 is a perfect example of how dangerous a bill can be when it’s a combination of both. Despite being only two pages long, this bill requires a thorough understanding of how Payment in Lieu of Taxes work (don’t worry – we’ll get to that in a minute) and background information on a certain out-of-state anti-public lands advocate, Ken Ivory.

Essentially, these politicians are counting on the general public (and their fellow legislators) not to have this information. Today, we’d like to give you a crash course in order for you to better understand the far-reaching implications of this dangerous bill.

A Bird’s Eye View

HCR008 wants to use a quarter of a million dollars of your taxpayer money to put a price tag on Idaho’s public lands. 

We have to wonder why legislators want to place a price tag on public lands, if not to undermine the very idea of public lands in the first place. HCR008 opens up a can of worms that will only lead down one road: the massive sell-off of our public lands to big private landowners like the Wilkes Brothers. 

What’s PILT?

The text of HCR (House Concurrent Resolution) 0008 seems all right on the surface since it wants to study the impact of PILT, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, on rural communities in Idaho. 

Counties collect revenue through property taxes, but when a large portion of the county is public land and therefore creates no revenue, the federal government steps in to help with the provision of essential services like schools, roads, and emergency response. Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, are federal payments to local counties that help offset the absence of property taxes in public land-heavy counties. 

Every single county in Idaho benefits from this program, and in 2019 the federal government sent over $32 million to county governments. The PILT program does have its problems for rural communities, such as inconsistent payments, and is a real issue that needs to be addressed. Rural counties deserve their fair share of PILT payments.

HCR8 would authorize the legislature to “pilot technologies” to “evaluate and appraise federal lands…to determine the fair taxable value.” By placing a price tag on public lands, the supporters of this bill hope the study will help determine if there are any discrepancies between federal payments of PILT and what the land is actually worth. 

Smells fishy…

Okay, so what’s the big deal? Well, quite a lot actually. For one, even if the study did come back with results that determined rural counties aren’t receiving their fair shake of payments, those results won’t hold any regulatory power. Meaning — if Idaho showed this piece of paper to the federal government, it won’t automatically force Congress to give Idaho more money.

Any kind of reform to the PILT program needs to implemented through Congress. Spending $250,000 of our taxpayer dollars to study a solution that we know has absolutely no chance of success in Congress is a fool’s errand. We need to focus on collaborative solutions with our federal delegation to reform PILT.

What’s with this software anyway?

Another glaring concern of this bill is the authorization of our taxpayer money to “pilot technologies.” No where in this bill does it state which company would be hired to conduct such a study. This is another sneaky way of getting around public opposition and is a clearly strategic omission. We actually have a pretty good idea of who would secure the contract and his name is Ken Ivory, a well-known anti-public lands advocate who has pocketed thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to line his own pockets.

Last year, the legislature invited former Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, to present to a committee on behalf of a company he now works for – Aeon AI, in which Ivory is the senior vice president of corporate strategy. This company is the only one in the nation conducting this type of work so it’s safe to say they will be the ultimate benefactor of this expensive contract.

Who is Ken Ivory?

Ken Ivory is a former Utah representative who has a long track record of wasting taxpayer money in efforts to privatize public lands. Over the years, he’s faced multiple lawsuits from states and counties for dodging taxes, participated in multiple frivolous lawsuits against small towns – in one instance, asking $100,000 from his hometown because they didn’t allow him to speak past his allotted time at a city council meeting, believes that placing an oil rig on public lands “actually improves the aesthetic nature of the land,” and publicly supports anti-public land militias. 

His career in the statehouse was marked by further hostility toward public lands. Per the Salt Lake Tribune, “in 2012, he sponsored and passed a bill requiring the federal government to transfer 30 million acres of public lands in Utah to the state. The deadline for this transfer has long passed without action.” In 2018, Ivory led legislative efforts to award a $25,000 contract to tech firm Geomancer for a pilot program to determine a price tag for public lands in Utah’s Washington county. In 2019, the legislature expanded the scope of the contract to include the entire state at a taxpayer-funded cost of $700,000. In August, Ivory resigned from the legislature and took a job with Geomancer the same day, overseeing the contract he helped award. Geomancer is now Aeon AI, the company that will likely receive the contract if this bill is passed.

Ken Ivory thrives on fueling controversy to marshal support for public lands transfer and profit off of the backs of western taxpayers. Although we believe we should work toward solutions to the PILT program, hiring an out-of-state grifter is definitely not a workable on.

What’s the framework for evaluation? 

In Ivory’s presentation to the legislature last year, he claimed that Aeon AI’s software services can “instantly evaluate and appraise every acre of federal property in real time.” In the presentation, Ivory acknowledged that the algorithms and data used by his software could be manipulated to tell many different stories. 

Rep. Ellis raised concerns over the malleability of the software data, “We can make data say pretty much anything we want.” Ivory replied, “You’re able to take that (Aeon AI data) real-time and ask the questions and tell the stories you want to tell.”

Any economist can tell you that valuing a piece of property is complicated. For states that have high property taxes, would they receive more per federal acre than those that have low property taxes? What about places where property values are escalating at high rates?

Ironically, Idaho would probably be worse off in the long run if we assessed actual property values when compared to other states since our rural lands tends to be worth a lot less than states like California and Colorado. So if Congress wouldn’t actually appropriate all of the money (which they inevitably would not), Idaho would likely receive LESS PILT payments than they do now because proportionally our land would be worth less than land in other states.

Is your head spinning yet?

We know this is complicated stuff, and sometimes it feels like only those with natural resource management degrees can wrap their head around this issue. But, again, that’s what these politicians are hoping for. Complicated bills require time and effort by voters and legislators to understand. We hope this has provided some insight into the complexities of this bill, and why ultimately, it is an exorbitant waste of taxpayer money – all to line the pockets of a tax dodger.

While these politicians’ claim their bill is out of concern for rural communities, we hope we’ve been able to reveal their deeper intention: by reducing America’s treasures to dollars and cents, they are building support for the wholesale selling off of public lands.