In an interview last Wednesday, Ken Ivory, a Republican state legislator from Utah, compared far-right efforts to seize and sell-off American-owned public lands to the activism of civil rights leaders in the segregated South.
“Our system does not work if you have a back-of-the-bus class of states,” Ivory told E&E News.
Ivory’s quote refers to the federal ownership of national parks, forests, and other public lands throughout the West — a system that he opposes, saying instead that the states should control the land within their borders. His metaphor implies that he and others who want to get rid of America’s national parks and public lands are like Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader whose act of civil disobedience to protest segregation sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal moment in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Ken Ivory, however, is not a civil rights leader. Instead, he’s the director of an organization funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch that aims to dispose of America’s national forests, monuments, and other public lands. Ivory is also the former head of the American Lands Council, an organization that, under his leadership, was the subject of ethics complaints as it lobbied politicians to transfer U.S. public lands to state and private control.
Ivory’s comments are not only offensive to the memory of real American civil rights leaders, but they mischaracterize the value of parks, national forests, and other public lands in western states. Seventy-two percent of western voters believe that national public lands help the economy, and a recent study from Headwaters Economics found that western counties with higher amounts of protected public lands have higher incomes and better job growth.
Ivory has made similar comments before. At the end of 2014, Ivory compared himself to Mahatma Gandhi in a (now-deleted) tweet, equating Gandhi’s lifelong activism for human rights through nonviolent protest with his own quest to turn over control of public lands to the states.
Ivory’s attempt to compare his extremist views with nonviolent activists for human rights is rendered even more absurd by the fact that many land-seizure proponents have not used peaceful methods to make their point. The armed takeover of the Malheur wildlife refuge by anti-government militants earlier this year featured assault weapons and calls for violence. The Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014 between armed land-takeover proponents who aimed assault rifles at and held sniper positions on federal officials further demonstrates the violent tactics these militant groups are using.
Ivory is also not the only proponent of seizing U.S. public lands who has made statements about Civil Rights and race.
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, also sought to position himself and his cause as the latest chapter in the United States’ struggle for fairness and civil rights.
“This is the way in which our founders did it, this is the way in which the black community got their rights, it’s the way in which the women received their rights and it’s the way in which rights are protected and defended,” he said on a radio interview in January when discussing the armed occupation at Malheur.
Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, expressed openly racist views in his statement at a press conference in 2014. Following the comments, Cliven Bundy was widely disavowed by members of the GOP, many of whom had vehemently supported him to that point. However, while Cliven Bundy’s racism may have damaged his own credibility, his message about seizing and selling public lands has been carried forward through the work of Ken Ivory, his sons, and other far-right politicians in the West.
One such politician is Phil Lyman, the chair of the San Juan County Commission in Utah. In May of 2014, Lyman led an illegal group ATV ride in a southern Utah canyon to protest national ownership of public lands, destroying Native American archaeological sites in the process. Lyman has drawn similar parallels between his support for land seizures and peaceful social movements. His supporters have created a t-shirt that places Lyman next to Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Nez Pearce leader Chief Joseph, and “Tank Man” from Tiananmen Square — an act that Lyman condones.
“I think Native Americans would be appalled to see something like that,” Mark Maryboy, a former San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Nation Council delegate, told the Salt Lake Tribune in reference to the t-shirt.
Despite their own efforts to cast themselves as peaceful leaders of social change, land seizure proponents have been described as “lawless and violent,” and “anti-government extremists,” whose views do not represent Western opinion on public lands.
Nicole Gentile is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicolegentile.