Fighting over public lands

Does the public care?

There are furious debates going on about public lands in Nevada.

There are furious debates going on about public lands in Nevada.


In April, two U.S. House members from Utah launched a group called the Federal Land Action Group, to push for state ownership of public lands.

Last month, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was in Reno bewailing that public lands are managed by the federal government and that half of the West is publicly owned (more than 80 percent in Nevada’s case).

In recent days two Clark County officials were dueling in print with Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison about federal control of public lands.

So were U.S. Rep. Christ Elliott and conservationist Whit Fosburgh.

Candidates appear prepared to carry the public lands issue into campaigns and campaign consultants are devising strategies for it.

Yet there seems to be very little sign of discontent with the status quo. A recent Gallup survey indicates 68 percent are satisfied with the job the federal government does managing national parks and open space. Polls have been taken in some states—a recent Wyoming poll shows support for federal stewardship of public lands in that state is growing—but not in Nevada. Nevadans were caught up in the Cliven Bundy standoff, but it provided no data suggesting the public supported the protesters. (A survey only of Nevadans and Coloradans found Nevadans supporting the federal role in public lands but had dubious wording in its questions. It was commissioned by the outdoor recreation equipment manufacturers lobby group Outdoor Industry Association.)

Where is the evidence that the Nevada public is agitating for public lands to be turned over to Brian Sandoval or that Great Basin National Park should be administered by the White Pine County Parks Department? Is it a big deal?

“It is not, in my opinion,” said political analyst Fred Lokken. “It is an issue on the rather far right of the Republican party. These people have rather strange ideas about how all of the land should be taken away from the federal government.”

He said even during heightened feelings over the Bundy standoff, most Nevadans seemed to stand with the federal government in wanting Bundy to obey the law and pay his bills.

“It might have them fired up but you do have a governor working diligently solving matters like the sage grouse,” Lokken said. “Senator Reid does the same. The federal government has been cooperative on issues like mining and the sage grouse and Lake Tahoe. I really don’t think they have anything that could make it a burning issue by November 2016.”

Some issues, surveys show, draw strong reactions, but are far down on voters’ lists of things that will determine their votes—flag burning, say, or gays in the military. Taking land from the federal government may be in that category. A candidate who runs on that issue could be taking a risk.

That doesn’t mean the dialogues are not useful. In the Hill, a newspaper for D.C.’s Capitol Hill denizens, U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, a Republican, wrote about the recent name change for Mt. Denali in Alaska. Stewart noted that decision had been made on the other side of the continent from Alaska, which he compared to Congress designating wilderness in Utah:

“Why should people who don’t live in my state, and have probably never even been there, get to decide what happens to that land? The technical answer is, of course, that the mountain in Alaska and the beautiful red rock in southern Utah happen to be on federal land. … Federal ownership means the Western communities which surround that land and which are most impacted by the decisions of federal land managers have little to no say in the name, let alone the policies that govern that land. That might be merely irritating if the feds did a decent job managing public lands. But they don’t. So it’s much more than just irritating; it’s a disaster. The U.S. Forest Service spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year fighting wildfires that are largely a result of the agency’s own inability to manage the forests. And wildfires are only the most visible of the failures. Others include a chronic disadvantage in funding public schools, reduced energy development from bureaucratic foot-dragging, regular disputes with local ranchers over grazing rights, and the ongoing problems of starved wild horses which the Bureau of Land Management refuses to manage.”

Whit Fosburgh, president of a hunting and fishing group called the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, replied to Stewart with an essay of his own in the Hill:

“While I can’t defend every action of the federal government, the notion that our federal lands would be better managed by individual states is fundamentally flawed. … Here’s why: All of the Western states require in their constitutions that state lands be managed to maximize profit. Under this model, lands that can’t produce maximum coal, timber, energy, or grazing leases are sold off to the highest bidder. If we were to transfer America’s public lands to individual states, millions of acres would be sold off to billionaires and global corporations. … This may sound crazy, but Western states have a proven track record of selling off their lands, and every Western state has fewer acres of state land than it once did at statehood.”

In 2013, we reported that Nevada received 3,992,000 acres of public land from the federal government in 1864 to be used for schools, and only 2,914 acres of those lands still remain in state hands, much of it lost in illegal or fraudulent land actions (“Congress gave the new state of Nevada four million acres to pay for schools. What happened to them?” RN&R, July 18, 2013).

Closer to home, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Clark County Sen. Kelvin Atkinson wrote in an essay for the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

“As representatives of county and state government, we can attest to the fact that we simply do not have the funds to provide law enforcement, trail maintenance and wildfire protection that currently is provided for us on these lands by the federal government. Additionally, Nevada counties receive millions of dollars a year in Payment in Lieu of Taxes payments. These are basically property taxes paid by the federal government that cover critical services for rural communities and would disappear under this land-grab proposal. Proponents of this plan believe we will be able to fill the budget hole for land management by selling the land to the highest bidder, or by allowing unregulated development. But communities around Nevada already have tens of thousands of acres they cannot sell right now. Flooding the market with more land will only drive prices down further and reduce revenues from sales.”

That prompted Lt. Go. Mark Hutchison to reply in the Review Journal that Giunchigliani and Atkinson should have attended a recent public lands “summit” meeting:

“Had they attended, they would have learned that the summit was in fact a bipartisan discussion about how these lands can best be managed in partnership with multiple stakeholders. They would have learned the discussion focused on protecting our public lands, so that the ecology, health and economy of our state can also be protected for current and future generations. They would have, in fact, learned that only limited, but no less important, discussion took place regarding the transfer of public lands, despite their claitms otherwise.”