Asking the barber

State panels formed around agendas

Members of the Land Management Task Force met on January—in the offices of the Nevada Association of Counties.

Members of the Land Management Task Force met on January—in the offices of the Nevada Association of Counties.

Photo/Dennis Myers

Some political figures are pointing at two state panels as examples of the way the political process can be worked to screen out unwelcome viewpoints.

A state task force drafting regulations to deal with fracking appears to be, with one exception, composed of current or former mining executives.

And a study committee on land issues has been turned lock, stock and barrel over to a lobby organization and is composed only of members with a predilection for some policy positions.

The memberships of the panels are written into statutes, and those memberships virtually guarantee the outcome of their deliberations. So all of what follows is entirely legal.

Landing a big one

The Nevada Land Management Task Force is a temporary body, created by the 2013 Nevada Legislature “to conduct a study addressing the transfer of public lands in Nevada from the Federal Government to the State of Nevada.” It is the latest manifestation of efforts that in the 1970s and ’80s were called the Sagebrush Rebellion and in the 1990s were called the County Supremacy Movement.

The Sagebrush Rebellion was launched in 1979 with passage by the Nevada Legislature of Assembly Bill 413, sponsored by Sen. Dean Rhodes, who then represented most of Elko County. The bill was an effort to wrest control of federally managed lands in the state from the federal government. Other states joined the effort in subsequent months.

The Rebellion ended up a victim of its publicity—it was on the cover of Newsweek—plus the election of Ronald Reagan as president. As more Nevadans became aware of the implications of the state controlling vast swaths of range and forest land, the urban character of the state came into play politically. While the rural counties were anxious to get their hands on the land, reaction to the notion was more tepid where the population was, in Clark and Washoe counties.

Reagan’s election and his appointment of Interior Department officials more in sympathy with Rebellion leaders helped satisfy some of their demands, but made urbanites more concerned than ever. It became clear that additional legislation from later sessions of a Nevada Legislature dominated by urban legislators would be hard to come by. In the end, the expected lawsuits against the feds never came. Supporters of the movement had to be content with whatever gains they made administratively.

The County Supremacy Movement had less support from state governments and was shorter lived than the Rebellion but more militant. (Rhodes resisted the use of the term Sagebrush Rebellion by the new group.) In a climate of discontent with the Clinton administration and the impact of drought, Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver inspired advocates by winning passage of a local ordinance claiming ownership of public land and illegally built a road on Forest Service land with a bulldozer. The illegality was expanded on by others as a Forest Service office in Carson City and the home of a Forest Service official were bombed. That effort dwindled out.

Then last year lawmakers created the Land Management Task Force. It was done more quietly, to avoid arousing opposition, and the panel is structured so only county officials serve. The Legislature created a body appointed by county commissions, most of which chose their own members. This deft maneuver virtually guarantees the recommendations—asking a county commissioner if he wants land from the federal government is like a customer asking a barber if he needs a haircut. It also makes the panel look like the legislature before One Person/One Vote became the law. The two counties where 85.8 percent of the residents live have two members and the remaining 14.2 percent have 15 members. Unlike some such panels, members of the public are not invited to apply for seats. The Committee on Industrial Programs, for example, has four legislative members and five public members.

More remarkable is a clause in the legislation saying the task force will be administered not by the legislative staff but by counties and the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO), a private group that represents the interests of county officials. Last year NACO had four lobbyists at the Legislature. Assemblymember David Bobzien said it was done that way because the bill creating the panel would not have passed otherwise. “It was pretty well decided that the fiscal cost of this was not something worth undertaking.”

So a lobbying organization was given control of the panel—which, Bobzien argues, distorts the process. “But the fact that the organization that staffed the study has a bias skews its deliberations,” he said.

Assemblymember John Ellison, sponsor of the bill creating the task force, said the county orientation is because that “is closest to the people—city councils and county commissioners. That’s the only reason we did it that way, that and who can pay for the study.”

Task force chair Demar Dahl more or less confirmed that the county orientation tilts in favor of one viewpoint: “That may be the case, all right, because the counties and the commissioners are the ones that are closest to that issue, as far as living with the presence of the federal agencies or state agencies or whoever.”

Political scientist Fred Lokken called it a “highly flawed, intentionally biased structure, and I question whether its recommendations will have any credibility,” he said.

The RN&R first started tracking this when a citizen told us he had been unable to find a list of members. That list was not posted online until a few days ago—after the sixth meeting of the task force since last June. None of the task force information—agendas, minutes, etc.—is posted on the legislative website, the usual site for panels created by the lawmakers. It’s all on the NACO site, hardly the first place citizens would look. When we asked the legislative staff why, we received a circuitous 316-word explanation.

Mining the law

The Commission on Mineral Resources is a permanent body, its members appointed by the governor. Often its duties are administrative, like selecting the director of the Minerals Department. These days the commission is writing regulations dealing with the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking—forcing a water/chemical/sand mix into rock fissures.

The statute reads, “The Governor shall appoint: (a) Two persons who are familiar with large-scale mining; (b) One person who is familiar with the production of oil and gas; (c) One person who is familiar with exploration for and development of minerals; (d) One person who is familiar with the situations unique to small-scale mining and prospecting; (e) One person who is familiar with the development of geothermal resources; and (f) One member to represent the general public.”

Fred D. Gibson Jr., is one member, best known as president of Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada when its Henderson plant exploded in 1988, killing two people and injuring 350. He is the representative of the public.

Another, Dennis Bryan, is senior vice president of development of Western Lithium Corporation.

Richard DeLong is a geologist, member of the board of Terraco Gold and president of Enviroscientists, Inc., a development company.

John Mudge is a Newmont Mines vice president and former chair of the Nevada Mining Association.

David Parker is manager of geological services at Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc.

John H. Snow is CEO of Standard Steam Trust.

Arthur Henderson is registered with the state as president of Alisseth Inc. and Alisseth Management Inc., the nature of which are not known. He is also a member of the Nevada Petroleum and Geothermal Society.

Lokken said giving executives with such a direct interest in matters before the commission a role in deciding those matters is a “flaw in the law.”