This land is your land
Whose land is it, anyway?
That was the key question in the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections last week when Senate Joint Resolution 1 (SJR 1) was heard, an essentially meaningless bill that doesn’t carry the weight of law. But the resolution serves as a proxy battle between those who believe public lands should be sold to the highest bidder and those who believe these lands are a collective birthright meant to be enjoyed, and owned, by generations to come.
SJR 1 “urges Congress” to pass legislation giving public lands to the state of Nevada to manage. These properties could then be sold into private hands as needed to generate revenue and allow for private development.
The resolution is based upon a study that was designed to produce just such a result. Rural leaders involved in land issues were happy to meet with each other under the official rubric of a legislative commission, the Nevada Land Management Task Force. In their bubble of like-minded colleagues, unanimity was hardly surprising.
At the legislative hearing, supporters of SJR 1 featured rural county officials, cattlemen, the NV Farm Bureau, radicals from the Independent American Party and Families for Freedom, Bundyites, and Comstock Mining. (Who do you think is going to buy up these lands?) There was a lot of ranting and raving and conspiracy theories and plenty of historical fiction about Nevada’s past stewardship of its public lands. The truth is the state previously sold virtually all of its land trust and has nothing to show for it now.
If one is new to Nevada, the ranting might have been shocking at first, and then downright embarrassing, but really, it was standard fare. There were incomprehensible arguments about Dr. Zhivago, the need for the term “whatsoever” spelled out as one word in preparation for a U.S. Supreme Court case, and citizens referring to the federal employees who serve them as “thugs.”
When the debate shifted to the opposing side, the message was passionate and clear: Nevada’s public lands should not be sold. One of the most eloquent arguments was given by a citizen in Elko, Pete Bradley, who spoke of the need for public lands as refuge for wildlife and humans alike. “Nevadans have an obligation to future generations,” he said. “Don’t give away our public lands for a song, personal gain and a tidy profit.”
He was joined by environmental groups, the Sierra Club, Friends of Nevada Wilderness and people representing no one but themselves. Written testimony was also submitted including a letter from Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, who told legislators: “If we convert federal public lands to state lands in places like the Pequop Mountains, they’ll be off limits to you and me quicker than you can say Newmont Mining Corporation.”
Before voting on the Resolution, committee members would do well to read The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, and refresh their memory about President Roosevelt’s epic battle to protect public lands from the timber industry. There are many lessons in our past that should direct our future.
Egan writes, “The Republican Party that Teddy Roosevelt had built–the uneasy meld of progressives, Main Street capitalists, and the founding voices of American conservation—was falling apart. One big reason: the establishment of national forests in an expanse of wild country that Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, had kept from the control of men they castigated as robber barons and plunderers of the public domain. The land that had not been settled, not been promised to vanquished Indian tribes, not been given over to railroads, not been cleared for cities, factories, and farms—this big, rumpled, roadless quilt of original America belonged to everyone, Roosevelt said; it belonged to the ages.”