The ever-grasping hand of D.C.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order withdrawing from public use land in Nevada to be used for erosion control demonstrations.

They must have been some kind of demonstrations. It took 28 years for that executive order to be revoked and the land returned to public use.

This month, when the Pentagon announced its plans to take another 600,000 acres of public land in five counties, we could almost hear Nevadans sighing with exasperation. This time, it’s part of something called the Fallon Range Training Complex Modernization and would triple the size of the Fallon Naval Air Station.

We would argue with the term modernization. With computer modeling and the miniaturization of technology, these plots of land taken for federal use should be shrinking, not growing. (We think the same thing about Reno’s airport, by the way.)

We have no objection to the land withdrawals that have been made to reserve acreage for Nevada tribes. We certainly do not identify with the movement that claims public lands belong to the states. And we do not object to most federal management of public lands.

But thinking of Nevada as an available wasteland that the feds can dip into from time to time went too far long ago, and the results have not been good. We know that presidents Grant, Hayes, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower all “withdrew” land from public use, and there were probably others, too. Roosevelt alone withdrew land six times. And foreseeable drawbacks to some of these have been concealed from the public. The federal government knew perfectly well that when it established the Nevada Proving Ground for atomic testing its work would be life-threatening, and it did not inform state officials, much less the public that learned of it the hard way.

In 1970 the Atomic Energy Commission said that its weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site had contaminated 250 square miles for 24,000 years. Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, taken by surprise, immediately declared his confidence in the public’s safety, though he had yet to be briefed on the statement by the AEC.

Some military installations now in Nevada are used for war-making in the innumerable places the executive branch makes war without permission from Congress. Drone assassinations on the other side of the world are conducted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Air Force, under pressure from Congress, once prepared an encyclopedia-like report on the myriad impacts of the federal use of public lands in Nevada, the Special Report - Nevada, with chapters titled things like “Armaments dropped on Nevada.”

We need our state’s elected officials to start scrutinizing federal use of public lands with greater intensity and start asking questions that should have been asked decades ago. We need less Laxalt-style cooperation.

The success of their efforts should be gauged by how much land used by the feds is put back into public use by the ends of their terms of office and how much land they block from additional federal use while they serve.

And they should start with the Fallon plan.