Just a few weeks ago a Department of Interior spokesperson denounced a Montana Farm Bureau official for suggesting that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke favored transferring federal lands to states, a controversial move that is widely viewed as a precursor to the sell-off and eventual privatization of public lands. While the spokesperson stopped just short of calling the Eastern Montana farmer a liar for his characterization of the conversation, her denials belie the fact that Interior is riddled with political appointees with ties to the land transfer movement.
While the Western Values Project has documented some of the administration’s sell-off attempts and land transfer beliefs in the past, Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have dropped the cloak for good when he filed suit on behalf of the administration against the state of California, challenging a state law that would make it more difficult for the federal government to transfer public lands. Sessions issued a statement reaffirming that the Constitution empowers the federal government to decide how and when federal lands are sold. Utah’s political leaders should take note, but Sessions’ correct legal argument doesn’t mean the administration isn’t trying to shed federal public lands.
Secretary Zinke has long tried to talk himself out of a corner on the issue, and still maintains that he does not support the sale or transfer of public land. He even tried to score some political points in 2016 when he rejected his delegate status to the Republican National Convention after the party endorsed language supporting legislation to transfer federal lands. The Montana Republican Party has also endorsed a state-level platform supporting the transfer of federal lands.
Yet judging by Zinke’s latest actions, he may now be on board with the administration’s efforts after defending a budget that allowed a sale of federal land assets to pay for infrastructure. He has also helped usher in the largest reduction of protected public lands in U.S. history for his political allies, who would like nothing more than to have unlimited access to those lands — or, better yet, transfer them to states so they can sell it off to private interests.
Despite the rhetoric, it’s more about the company you keep. Secretary Zinke is complicit in this renewed assault on federal public lands by appointing several pro-transfer, anti-public land advocates to key Interior positions. While links to lobbyists, trade groups, and organizations that are trying to undermine America’s public lands are rampant throughout Interior, these highlighted political appointees don’t appear to be even trying to hide their nefarious agenda to steal our public land.
In March 2018, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) issued a report saying that earlier in the month their members had met with Tim Williams, Interior Deputy Director of External Affairs. In the report MFBF said that Interior was preparing to give “land back to the states,” a claim the Interior Department quickly rejected. Whether or not Williams said Interior was attempting to transfer federal land to the states, what is certain is that Williams, along with two other current Interior staffers and one other former Interior staffer, have all worked for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group that has donated to the American Lands Council, a land transfer organization.
In March 2018, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) issued a report saying that, earlier that month, MFBF “members met with Interior’s Office of External Affairs Deputy Director Tim Williams, a former Nevada political operative, who discussed the department’s proposed reorganization.” Montana farmer Don Steinbeisser Jr. explained of the meeting, “‘Mr. Williams explained the reason for the reorganization at the Department of the Interior, which made sense… They want to make it simple for people trying to contact Bureau of Land Management about a certain issue to easily locate the person who is responsible for that issue.'” He added: “‘In addition, there are some groups saying [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke is selling off land. All he’s doing is giving that land back to the states.'”
The Interior Department quickly rejected that explanation of the meeting. Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said what Steinbeisser Jr. said was “‘100 percent not true'” and that Williams “‘would not have said that.'” [Jennifer Yachnin, “Group retracts report on Interior giving land to states,” Energy & Environment, 03/22/18]
Before working at Interior, Tim Williams worked for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group that has contributed to the American Lands Council, a major land transfer organization. [Nigel Duara, “In Western states, idea of reclaiming federal land still has a strong allure,” LA Times, 05/10/15]
In addition to Williams, current Interior staffers Brendan Quinn, and Landon “Tucker” Davis, and former Zinke Interior staffer Benjamin Keel, have all worked for the land-transfer sympathetic Americans for Prosperity. [“Americans for Prosperity,” Department of Influence, accessed 03/29/18]
Before joining Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department, Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Brian Steed was Chief of Staff for land transfer advocate Congressman Chris Stewart. Steed was Stewart’s Chief of Staff when Stewart founded the Federal Land Action Group, a group “committed to developing a legislative framework for transferring federal lands to local ownership and control.”
Brian Steed is currently serving as “Deputy Director for Programs and Policy, exercising authority of the director.” [“Brian Steed,” Bureau of Land Management, accessed 03/29/18]
Brian Steed served as Chief of Staff for Congressman Chris Stewart since he was sworn into Congress in 2013 until October 2017. Steed also served as Congressman Stewart’s campaign manager during his first run for Congress in 2012. [Bryan Schott, “Stewart’s chief of staff jumps to the BLM,” Utah Policy, 10/04/17; Legistorm Profile for Brian Steed, accessed 03/29/18]
Congressman Chris Stewart is one of the two founding members of the Federal Land Action Group, which is “committed to developing a legislative framework for transferring federal lands to local ownership and control.” [Press Release, Chris Stewart, 04/28/15]
In 2016, Brian Steed gave a speech on “How to Best Involve Elected Officials in Your Efforts to Influence Policy” at the Public Lands Summit of the West. In his speech, Steed said, “‘The question is this. We have these federal overlords, how do we have them be a little more responsive to the needs that we have? Now I think Commissioner Dahl set this up nicely, and we know that there’s a variety of things that could be done, one of which is seeking large-scale transfer, and we were happy to have the commissioner back in Washington DC, just about two weeks ago, three weeks ago? To talk about Nevada’s efforts, and Utah’s also been engaged in that.” [Brian Steed, “How to Best Involve Elected Officials in Your Efforts to Influence Policy,” YouTube, 10/24/16, (at 03:24)]
Later in his speech, Steed said, “There are a variety of things that we could do, to I think make our situation better, even if we don’t get the lands transferred tomorrow. And so let’s talk about some of those things…. Listen. I’m not going to disagree with Commissioner Dahl, but there’s been a rush in the West to say that land transfer is the only option and we need to do it now, and that means that anything short of land transfer is giving up. And I don’t want to put us in that catch-22. So I would say that we should also encourage our Congress to use the Property Clause…. Congress could theoretically do some creative things [with the Property Clause]. If we ask them to and if we put enough pressure on them to do it.” [Brian Steed, “How to Best Involve Elected Officials in Your Efforts to Influence Policy,” YouTube, 10/24/16, (at 31:05 and at 34:00)]
The man who Steed complimented, Elko County, Nevada Commissioner Demar Dahl, is a “major figure in the pro-land-transfer movement” and is a member of land transfer organization the American Lands Council. Dahl is also director of the Nevada Lands Council, an organization that aims to transfer Nevada’s federal lands to the state. [Tay Wiles, “Trump met with a leader of the land transfer movement,” High Country News, 10/17/16; “Individual Members,” American Lands Council, accessed 03/29/18; Hasani Grayson, “Nevada Lands Council opens Elko office,” Elko Daily Free Press, 02/21/17]
While he worked at the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where he was the Director of a task force whose membership was heavily stacked with oil and gas interests, Todd Wynn advocated transferring federal land to the states.
Todd Wynn is currently serving as the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs. Wynn is Tim Williams’ boss, as Williams is the Deputy Director of the office. [Department of Interior, “Intergovernmental and External Affairs,” accessed 10/26/17]
From September 2011 to September 2013, Todd Wynn worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a “Koch brothers-backed group.” At ALEC, Wynn was the Director of the Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. In the same year that Wynn started at ALEC, the Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force’s members included: Alliant Energy, American Coalition for Clean Coil Electricity, American Electric Power Company, American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, BP, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Duke Energy Corporation, Edison Electric Institute, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Hilex Poly Company LLC, Nuclear Energy Institute, Peabody Energy, and Salt River Project. Its task force members “fund almost all of ALEC’s operations.” [LinkedIn Profile for Todd Wynn, accessed 10/26/17, Tarini Parti, “‘Dark money’: ALEC wants image makeover,” Politico, 07/30/15; Meeting Minutes from Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force Meeting, American Legislative Exchange Council, 04/29/11, accessed via archive.org; Gabe Elsner, “ALEC Energy Director Misleads the Wall Street Journal,” Huffington Post, 04/02/13]
In a June 2013 blog post, Wynn praised Utah State Representative Ken Ivory’s 2012 legislation HB 148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which, Wynn explained, “had subsequently become ALEC model policy for other state legislators to use as an example.” Wynn warned, “expect more states to press this issue both in the East and the West as state legislators are likely to continue to work together through ALEC and other organizations in order to gain back their land.” [Todd Wynn, “Nevada Becomes the 5th Western State to Explore the Transfer of Public Lands,” American Legislative Exchange Council, 06/06/13]
Todd Wynn was Facebook friends with Utah State Representative and land-transfer enthusiast Ken Ivory. Ivory has also tagged Wynn in Facebook posts advocating land transfer.
On September 25, 2015, Ken Ivory tagged Todd Wynn in a Facebook story that said the two had been “Friends on Facebook” for three years.
[Facebook Stories Tagged with Todd Wynn, accessed 10/26/17]
On December 29, 2014, Ken Ivory tagged Todd Wynn in a Facebook post about transferring public lands. Ivory wrote, “‘…Then You Win.’ Ghandi #TransferPublicLands #utpol @AmericanLandsCn ‘This is a wonderful time to be alive. We’re lucky not to live in pale and timid times. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to stand for something.’ (R. Reagan).'” Ivory tagged the American Lands Council, his land transfer organization, as well as land seizure activists Jennifer Fielder, Marjorie Haun, and Darin Bushman in his post. The post came just two days before December 31, 2014, which was the deadline that Ivory’s bill, HB 148, gave to the federal government to transfer public lands in the state to Utah. [“Utah: State ramps up lands fight as deadline passes,” Greenwire, 01/05/15]
[Facebook Stories Tagged with Todd Wynn, accessed 10/26/17]
[Facebook Stories Tagged with Todd Wynn, accessed 10/26/17]
Wynn liked a comment on the post written by conservative blogger Marjorie Haun that said “Bring it on!”
[Facebook Stories Tagged with Todd Wynn, accessed 10/26/17]
John Tanner, the Interior Department’s Director of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, supported a 2012 bill demanding the federal government transfer public lands to the State of Utah. The bill was sponsored by Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, the founder of the American Lands Council, an organization that advocates for the transfer of federal public lands.
Since November 2017, John Tanner has been the Director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs at the Interior Department. [Press Release, Orrin Hatch, 11/13/17; LinkedIn Profile for John Tanner, accessed 03/29/18]
John Tanner re-tweeted a tweet by former Utah Attorney General John Swallow that said, “How cool it was to see months of work culminate in the signing of HB 148 on pub lands Kudos to Ivory, Barrus, Lee, Herbert, Hatch & team UT.” [Tweet by John Swallow, 03/23/12, accessed 11/15/17]
Utah House Bill 148, signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert in 2012, “asks the federal government, which owns a majority of the land in the state, to give back more than 20 million acres.” The bill was sponsored by Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, the founder of the American Lands Council, an organization that advocates for the transfer of federal public lands. [Kirk Johnson, “Utah Asks U.S. to Return 20 Million Acres of Land,” The New York Times, 03/24/12]
Additionally, John Tanner spent seven years working for land transfer enthusiast Congressman Rob Bishop.
Tanner worked previously for Congressman Rob Bishop in Utah, first as Constituent Services Representative/Field Representative from 2003 to 2007, then as Salt Lake Regional Director from 2008 to 2010. [Legistorm Profile for John Tanner, accessed 03/29/18]
During his time in Congress, Congressman Rob Bishop has sponsored legislation to fund transferring federal land to local and state governments and advocated for ways to make it easier to “cede federal control of public lands to state officials.” [Timothy Cama, “GOP chairman seeks $50M to transfer federal land,” The Hill, 03/06/17; Juliet Eilperin, “Rob Bishop-led rules change would make it easier to sell off federal land in Utah and elsewhere,” Washington Post, 01/04/17]
At the Heritage Foundation, where he worked before he started at Interior, Ryan Nichols organized a “Western lands management” event with Federalism in Action (FIA). FIA is affiliated with “organizations funded by the Koch brothers and other donors pushing right-wing causes” and has fought for the transfer of federal lands to the states.
Since February 2017, Ryan Nichols has worked as an advisor to the Office of Water and Science in the Department of the Interior. Before starting at Interior, Nichols worked at the Heritage Foundation as the Associate Director of Coalition Relations. [LinkedIn Profile for Ryan Nichols, accessed 03/29/18]
While at the Heritage Foundation, Ryan Nichols “co-organized with Federalism in Action a nationally televised event and a coalition strategy meeting on the issue of Western lands management with the Utah Speaker and 26 other influential leaders.” [Department of the Interior, FOIA Response, 06/07/17]
Federalism in Action is a “South Carolina-based group affiliated with organizations funded by the Koch brothers and other donors pushing right-wing causes” and has fought for the transfer of federal lands to the states. [Brian Maffly, “Utah’s Ken Ivory recruiting ‘leaders’ to launch grass-roots lands-transfer movement,” Salt Lake Tribune, 02/03/16]
Dan Saddler sits on Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee and is also an Alaska state legislator. In the Alaska House of Representatives, he sponsored an “‘unconstitutional'” bill that would “order the federal government to transfer upward of 166 million acres of federal lands to state ownership.”
Daniel “Dan” Saddler is an alternate member of the Department of Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, and as a member of this committee advises Secretary Zinke “on policy and strategies to improve management of the multi-billion dollar, federal and American Indian mineral revenue program.” Saddler has served in the Alaska House of Representatives since 2011. [Press Release, Department of Interior, 09/01/17, “Representative Dan Saddler,” Alaska House Republicans, accessed 03/29/18]
Dan Saddler co-sponsored a bill that would “order the federal government to transfer upward of 166 million acres of federal lands to state ownership,” which state attorneys from the Alaska Division of Legal and Research Services said was “‘unconstitutional.'” The bill was “based on a similar measure in Utah, approved in 2012, demanding the handover of 30 million acres of federal land.” The original bill, “introduced by House Speaker Mike Chenault,” “said that all federal lands, excluding military property and some other classifications, must be turned over by Jan. 1, 2017, but an amended version advanced Monday by the House Finance Committee would allow the federal government to keep 53.8 million acres of national parks.” [Dermot Cole, “House leaders push land bill despite advice that it’s unconstitutional,” Alaska Dispatch News, 09/28/16]
Another alternate member of Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, Wyoming State Representative Hans Hunt, has voted for land transfer legislation at least twice during his time in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
Hans Hunt is an alternate member of the Department of Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, and as a member of this committee advises Secretary Zinke “on policy and strategies to improve management of the multi-billion dollar, federal and American Indian mineral revenue program.” Hunt is a member of Wyoming’s House of Representatives. [Press Release, Department of Interior, 09/01/17; “Representative Hans Hunt,” Wyoming State Legislature, accessed 09/29/17]
In 2013, Hans Hunt voted for HB 228, the Transfer of Federal Lands Study, legislation to “require the state attorney general to study ‘possible legal recourses available to compel the federal government to relinquish ownership and management of specified federal lands in Wyoming,’ and [to] establish a task force focused on the land transfer.” [Vote on HB0228, Wyoming Legislature, 02/05/13; Jessica Goad and Tom Kenworthy, “State Efforts to ‘Reclaim’ Our Public Lands,” Center for American Progress, 03/11/13]
Hans Hunt, in 2015, voted for HB 209, a bill to require the federal government to “transfer title to public lands to the state of Wyoming.” [Vote on Wyoming House Bill 209, LegiScan, 02/06/15; “Wyoming House Bill 209,” LegiScan, 2015 Legislative Session]
Also published on Medium.