The political network of the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch signaled last week that it is expanding its financial and organizational support for a coalition of anti-government activists and militants who are working to seize and sell America’s national forests, monuments, and other public lands.
The disclosure, made through emails sent by the American Lands Council and Koch-backed group Federalism in Action to their members, comes as the 40-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is winding to an end.
The occupation came to a head Wednesday night, with the FBI moving in on the four remaining militants at the refuge and arresting scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy at the Portland airport under charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers. Occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy were previously arrested under the same charge on January 26. The Bundys and their group of militants want the federal government to cede national public lands to state and private control.
Though ClimateProgress has previously uncovered and reported on the dark money that the Kochs have provided for political efforts to seize and sell public lands, recent organizational changes reveal that the Koch network is providing direct support to the ringleader of the land grab movement, Utah state representative Ken Ivory, and has forged an alliance with groups and individuals who have militia ties and share extreme anti-government ideologies. The expanded window into the Koch network’s support for the land transfer movement opened on February 3, 2016, when the American Lands Council (ALC) (a group whose goal is to pass state-level legislation demanding that the federal government turn over publicly owned national forests and other public lands) announced that Ivory would be stepping down as its president to join a South Carolina-based group called Federalism in Action (FIA).
At ALC, Ivory had risen to be the most prominent and active voice in the land seizure movement, but his tenure as president was plagued by evidence that the group violated state lobbying laws, was tied to the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and used taxpayer money to fund their campaigns to seize public lands.
Though he will continue to serve as an unpaid member of the American Lands Council executive committee, Ivory is joining the FIA’s “Free the Lands” project, a joint initiative between Federalism in Action and The American Lands Council Foundation.
This new “Free the Lands” project sits at the confluence of Koch funding, anti-government ideology, and land seizure activists and militants. The graphic below illustrates this web of funding, resources, and staff.
Federalism in Action was launched a few years ago by two groups: State Policy Network and State Budget Solutions (SBS). Because FIA is a new organization, its funding sources are not yet public. However, according to IRS filings, State Budget Solutions received money through the Donors Capital Fund, an organization known for cloaking the sources of funding which it distributes, and is sometimes referred to as a Koch “ATM”. The SBS leadership recently joined ALEC and Ken Ivory is listed as one of SBS’s senior policy fellows. The group “works to make its vision … a reality … through the project Federalism In Action.”
Also supporting the Free the Lands Project: the American Lands Council Foundation, the tax-exempt non-profit arm of the American Lands Council. Upon announcing the departure of Ken Ivory from ALC’s presidency, the group named Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder as its CEO. Fielder is Montana’s leading figure in the land seizure movement and has proposed legislation that would require the federal government to cede ownership of all national forests and public lands in Montana to the state. The bill was unpopular and and swiftly vetoed by Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Fielder’s selection as ALC’s CEO suggests that the group is tightening its ties with the violent anti-government elements of the land seizure movement that is represented by Cliven Bundy and his sons. Fielder’s land seizure efforts and campaign for Montana State Senate, for example, were vocally supported by a Militia of Montana organization that is run by white supremacist John Trochmann. In a recent blog post Fielder also expressed her support for the Bundys and the Oregon militants by referring to them fondly as “cowboys” and “protesters” performing “an act of civil disobedience” and bringing “new light to the widespread problems of a distant federal bureaucracy in control of local land management decisions.”
It remains to be seen whether the Koch network will be able to lift the failing efforts of the Bundys, Ken Ivory, and Jennifer Fielder to seize and sell public lands. If nothing else, expanded Koch backing may help the land seizure movement attract the endorsement of more national politicians who are competing for the Koch brothers’ endorsement and contributions. Last week, for example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz promised to be “vigorously committed to transferring as much federal land as humanly possible back to the states”.
Still, the Bundy brothers and their political allies face long odds in their quest. Proposals to transfer national public lands to state control have been shown to be unconstitutional, costly to states, and deeply unpopular with western voters. And while a wholesale privatization of public lands may benefit the Koch brothers and other oil, gas, and coal interests, new research shows that protecting national public lands has actually resulted in big economic gains for many rural economies.
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland. Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @MLeeAshley.