A new battle over public lands
Nevada is planning to join five other Western states challenging the federal government’s control of the public lands.
Nevada has the least control of its lands of all the states. Only about 15 percent of its vast acreage is under the state’s control. The federal government, which means the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, control the other 85 percent. The 2013 Nevada Legislature created the Nevada Land Management Task Force, whose hearings have just begun. The committee is expected to provide the input that the Legislature needs for final legislation to reclaim Nevada’s lands from the federal government.
Because the federal government controls so much of Nevada’s lands, several counties have a tax base of less than 5 percent of their area. This means that the rest of Nevada has to subsidize their services. The Nevada Land Management Task Force is county-based. It has commissioned a study of state resources to get updated data on just how much better off Nevada would be (or not) if it controlled all the land inside its borders. Because the committee is county-based, each county will plan how they want their recovered land to be allocated.
There are some who oppose the transfer. They wonder if the state can effectively manage these resources. They believe that the federal government does a better job than Nevada could. One commenter at a hearing said she gladly pays her income taxes, because it goes to federal land management. Actually, taxpayers have no control over how their individual taxes are spent. I wish citizens could earmark their taxes like Congress does.
Many studies conclude the federal government does a relatively poor job of range and timber management, especially with all the resources at its disposal. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of mediocre state management as well.
Because Nevada manages so few public lands now, the state management infrastructure is largely nonexistent. For instance, some states that have significant tax revenue from public lands dedicate those taxes in a trust, often for schools. Nevada has no such historical arrangement. But, this could be a feature, not a bug. Nevada simply has more choices available to it. There is a chance that Nevada could privatize most of the land it acquires, as private property allows for the highest and best use of resources over time. But Nevada also has powerful groups that would want a lot of the land to remain open. Hunters, off-roaders, fishermen, hikers, wild horse enthusiasts, all will have their input.
Some committee members are focused on the constitutional issues, as the Western states believe they were discriminated against by the federal government and were not admitted into the Union on an equal footing with Eastern states. Nebraska was admitted at the same time as Nevada, but it controls 97 percent of its land. These battles have raged for decades now. Individual ranchers have tried to challenge the jurisdiction of the federal government in court with some limited success. There was the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s-80s. There was the incident in 2000 when the “Shovel Brigades,” an “Occupy the Range” style spontaneous demonstration of people from all over the country, came to Nevada to keep open a road in Elko County that the Forest Service wanted to close. There was the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood—I was a member—that studied the issues and lobbied the Legislature for land reform. We concluded the transfer of lands would not happen by court decree, but would only happen if the states passed laws asserting their sovereignty. That’s exactly what is happening now.