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Behind the move to put federal acreage under state control

It’s the map that galls them. The map of Nevada, painted mostly red to depict how much of the state is owned or managed by the federal government. That scarlet is an indignity that they see every day on the windswept plains of their state.

They’re the ranchers, outdoorsmen, hunters, trappers and public officials who’ve been trying for decades to wrest the 81 percent of Nevada’s lands held by “the feds” into state, local or private hands.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Sagebrush Rebellion saw Western officials try to gain more control over federal lands in their states. Nevada — considered the heart of the rebellion — had been chafing under federal land ownership for decades before that.

In 1955, the Nevada Legislature sought to repeal a section in the ordinance portion of the state constitution that “forever disclaim(ed) all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.” It was a legally meaningless act, however.

Court fights, state laws and other legal maneuverings didn’t do much to change the color on that irksome map, either. “I don’t want to say we’ve lost,” says state Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. “But we certainly haven’t won.”

Support comes from

Now, led by Goicoechea — whose district stretches from the Idaho border all the way south to Primm — the state is advancing the ideals of the Sagebrush Rebellion on a new front: A formal resolution requesting the government turn over just 7.2 million acres — around 10 percent of federal holdings in Nevada — to state management.

Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Goicoechea and state Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, along with a handful of conservative Assembly members, is based on the work of the Nevada Land Management Task Force, authorized by the 2013 Legislature under a bill Goicoechea fought hard to pass.

The task force, headed by Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, met every month between June 2013 and August 2014 to study the idea of federal transfer of land to the state, and made several reports to an interim legislative committee. (A final report was not heard after the committee’s chairman, now-former Assemblyman Paul Aizley, D-Las Vegas, declined to hold a vote. As a result, Goicoechea introduced the resolution in this session of the Legislature.)

The 130-page report is heavy on details and promises: The state would gain title to certain lands, mostly designated for disposal already, excluding wilderness areas, National Conservation Areas, land controlled by federal agencies such as the Energy Department, Defense Department and environmentally sensitive land.

By managing these lands — including selling some off or exploiting them for oil, gas or mining — they say the state could generate enough money to cover the costs of owning the land, an estimated $26.8 million per year. (It turns out Nevada needs to hire more people; Utah has 66 employees to manage 3.4 million acres, Idaho 264 to look after 2.4 million. Nevada, now asking for more acreage than those states combined, has seven people on the job now, managing just 200,000 acres, according to the task force report.)

Critics say estimates of $56 million to $205.8 million per year are wildly optimistic, based as they are on other states that have far more oil, gas and timber resources than Nevada, where revenue may have to come primarily through land sales. (The report itself says the “sale of select parcels to generate startup capital and repay debt” will be a priority.)

Lobbyist and conservationist Kyle Davis warns the numbers show the real intent behind the push for the state to take over is real estate. “For the most part, the intent is to sell every one of those acres,” he says. But the state should be careful what it wishes for; if Nevada actually got the 7.2 million acres, “It would bankrupt us,” Davis says. 

For his part, Goicoechea acknowledges the estimates may be high, but he says he’s confident the program will cover its costs. “I believe we can show we can manage these lands at a profit,” he says. And as an added sweetener, the money that isn’t used to pay for land management is supposed to be used for public education, mental health programs, senior and veterans programs and preservation of endangered species.

Davis warns some of the lands identified by the report are still critical environmental areas, development of which could have negative consequences. Like other critics, he decries the possibility of losing acreage currently open to the public for recreation in order for the state to profit. And with the state budget under perpetual stress, he says he’s concerned land sales could be seen as easy budget fix. 

But there’s an even more basic question: Why? Why would the federal government turn land over to the state to sell, when it could just as easily earn those same profits for itself? “How realistic is this?” Davis asks.

On that, there may be a rare point of agreement. “The feds clearly don’t want to,” Goicoechea admits. “It’s clearly a matter of equity: Why should the federal government own 80 percent of Nevada?”

But while he says a Republican Congress is more likely to look with favor on Nevada’s request, he admits it’s possible the federal government could continue to ignore the state’s resolutions. “This is, I think, a reasonable approach,” Goicoechea says. “If we can’t get this done now, we’re dead. And dead is not a good place to be.”

But if the state can prove to federal land managers that it can handle 7.2 million acres, then perhaps the federal government will give more land in the future. (The report contemplates future transfers beyond the initial 7.2 million acres.)

But reason is sometimes tough to come by in these debates, as the nation saw in April 2014 when rancher Cliven Bundy declared a “range war” when Bureau of Land Management officers moved to enforce court orders to round up cattle Bundy had allowed to illegally graze on public land for more than 20 years. That clarion call brought heavily armed militia members to Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch, and could easily have ended in bloodshed had the BLM not retreated.

The anger and frustration felt by Bundy and his supporters at federal management of public lands was evident at a hearing on SRJ 1, where some witnesses declared the federal government in violation of promises to turn over all public lands to the state. It underlies obviously unconstitutional legislation such as Assembly Bill 283 by Sparks Republican Ira Hansen, which seeks to truncate the authority of some federal agents to enforce laws on public lands. It echoes in remarks like those of conservative lobbyist Janine Hansen, who said at the hearing for SJR 1, “It’s time Nevada stopped being a territory of the federal government and stepped up to be a full state like those east of Colorado.”

But whether undergirded by fanciful legal theories or modern-day resentment at federal control of most of the state or even a good-faith belief that the state could manage the land better than the federal government, it all comes back to that red-stained map, a map that some in the state want to start changing, precisely like their Sagebrush Rebel forebears of three decades ago.

Others see a darker side to that rebellion, however. In the February issue of Harper’s, journalist Christopher Ketcham quotes historian Bernard DeVoto. “The push for state ownership of public lands was part of a larger ideological struggle, DeVoto concluded, ‘only one part of an unceasing, many-sided effort to discredit all conservation bureaus of the government, to discredit conservation itself.”