The 87 percent deception

Nevada’s federally managed lands are a political football

Public land in Nevada includes some of the state’s most spectacular and beautiful scenes. This is Mount Fitzgerald in Elko County, named in 1966 for President Kennedy, whose middle name was Fitzgerald. A Mount Kennedy had already been named for him in Canada.

Public land in Nevada includes some of the state’s most spectacular and beautiful scenes. This is Mount Fitzgerald in Elko County, named in 1966 for President Kennedy, whose middle name was Fitzgerald. A Mount Kennedy had already been named for him in Canada.

Photo By G. THomas

It was St. Patrick’s Day and in Reno, New Yorker John Chachas, running for Nevada’s U.S. senate seat, was being interviewed by Sam Shad on KRNV’s Nevada Newsmakers program. Chachas was finding fault with incumbent Harry Reid’s priorities. He said Reid was focusing on health care instead of the economy.

“Senator Reid has a lot of power as senate majority leader,” Chachas said. “We have a state that’s 87 percent owned by the federal government. … One of the few things Nevada has at its disposal to actually focus on improving its economy is to take back 10 million acres of land, sell the land, split the proceeds with the federal treasury and the Nevada treasury—lord knows we need the money for the Nevada budget as well.”

There it was again—that 87 percent figure, a figure that is used widely and accepted as gospel. A Google search for the phrase “87 percent of Nevada” gets 157,000 hits.

There’s just one problem. According to available records, the last time public lands constituted 87 percent of Nevada was 1948. At that time, there were 62,049,744 acres in the public domain, which was 88.416 percent of the state’s full acreage of 70,178,557.

By 1960 it had dropped below 87 percent to 86.4 percent. Even those figures were inflated because they included tribal lands, which are not public domain. The 1948 figure minus the Native American lands would have been 86.70 percent.

The figure never reached 87 percent again, though it was close. It stayed pretty stable just under 87 until the 1980s when it began steadily declining

The new factor may have been Public Law 96-586, also known as the Santini-Burton Act, enacted in December 1980 under the sponsorship of U.S. Rep. James Santini of Nevada. That law provided for public lands to be sold off and the proceeds to be used in acquiring environmentally sensitive lands. It helped allow Las Vegas to grow and Lake Tahoe to be protected.

The law has since been expanded and there are several other laws providing for the sell-off of public lands—the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998; the Small Tracts Act of 1983; the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976; and the Townsite Act of 1958.

There are also laws such as the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act that can result in the federal government gaining land, which has resulted in fluctuations in the Nevada figure—sometimes up, sometimes down. But since 1980, the trend has always been downward.

As more ways to transfer or acquire public land came into being, the decline of public lands in Nevada accelerated. By 1990, the public domain in the state was down to 57,803,208.4 acres, or 82.265 percent of Nevada’s total land mass. What the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ’80s could not accomplish was slowly coming to pass.

But then a stumbling block to keeping track of the trend appeared. The figures here came from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) report released periodically during much of the second half of the 20th century, which used figures from the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that administers all the buildings, land, public works and so on held by the federal government.

Sometime during the second Bush administration, BLM re-formatted its report and the GSA apparently stopped keeping an inventory of federally managed lands in the states. State reference librarian Mitch Ison, who has tried to nail down an accurate current figure, said, “[U]nfortunately in 2001 the BLM revised its longstanding federal/state lands table … Explanations are provided; however, I still can’t make any sense of the table.”

The GSA did not respond to a request for a current figure. The upshot is that no one, as best we can tell, knows how much public land there is in Nevada now. Many years of land sales and acquisitions have occurred since the last reliable figures were released.

Meanwhile, ol’ 87 keeps rolling along:

State of Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioner/Commission Policy Number 33: “Even though approximately 87 percent of Nevada is public land, access to many, if not most, of the fishable waters of the State is controlled by private land.”

“Nevada Facts” posted on Nevada Legislature website: “87 percent of Nevada’s land area is federally controlled.”

U.S. Justice Department website/District of Nevada page: “Approximately 87 percent of Nevada’s lands are owned and managed by the federal government and its agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Department of Energy, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid news release/June 11, 2009: “As the federal government owns more than 87 percent of Nevada’s land—making it non-taxable—counties rely on PILT [payments in lieu of taxes] money for essential services and improvements.”

University of Nevada, Reno, proposal for shutdown of Department of Animal Biotechnology: “Key elements of the program can be preserved … to fulfill the rangeland management program which is important to ranchers, mines, and agencies responsible for the 87 percent of Nevada land held by the federal government.”

Perhaps Chachas, who spent much of his life in New York, could be forgiven for using the old figure, but should others have known? Former Nevada State Library and Archives assistant administrator Guy Rocha said there have been instances of people who called the state library to check for new figures.

“Some people have actually wanted an updated figure,” he said.

But plenty do not. There are those who have a political stake in keeping the number high, which may be why it has remained one of the state’s most persistent myths.

“It’s a way of characterizing the federal government onerously,” Rocha said. “They don’t want to find a lower figure. Going with low figures doesn’t serve their purpose.”

In September 2001, at the request of U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the U.S. General Accounting Office—an investigative arm of Congress—reported, “BLM and the Forest Service are both authorized by law to sell land and are directed by law to receive at least fair market value when they do so; BLM has broader authority and has sold much more land. In total, BLM sold about 56,000 acres during fiscal years 1991 through 2000 under three key statutes and received about $74 million.”

A Wikipedia figure demonstrates how easily false information can spread in this computer age. In its main Nevada entry, Wikipedia reports, “Approximately 86 percent of the state’s land is owned by the U.S federal government under various jurisdictions both civilian and military.” It attributes this information to a “Nevada Bureau of Land Management.”

There is no such agency. A writer for the online encyclopedia may have gotten the idea that such an agency existed from a now-defunct link listed as the source for the information. That federal web address link begins “Nv.BLM. …” The author may have extrapolated from that. But as a result of that entry, there are now dozens of websites such as and that have lifted the erroneous information from Wikipedia and also attribute it to the same non-existent agency.