Who owns the land?
That question has dominated the long and complicated history of the America West.
The region has dealt with clashes between environmentalists, the federal government, ranchers, mining interests, and developers often over grazing, road construction, water and mineral rights.
But, argument under lying it all is: Who owns these lands?
Timothy Egan, a New York Times columnist and the author of several books, including “The Worst Hard Time, a history of the Dust Bowl,” sat down with KNPR's State of Nevada to discuss the contentious issue of how we manage our public lands.
“We all own this land," Egan explained. "You’re born an American citizen or you become an American citizen you have a little bit of a title to an area almost the size of France. That’s public land.”
He said during his research for his book "The Big Burn," about a record-setting wildfire in the West, he was struck by the uniqueness of America's public land policy.
“It was a startling conclusion that what makes us so unique as Americans ,and our democracy, is that we all own a piece of this property that is so against the European way of doing things, so against the way other countries have done it,” he said.
He said the debate about how public land is managed is one of the clearest ways to see the forces of American democracy colliding.
One of the most high-profile fights over public land in Nevada happened just a few miles northeast of Las Vegas in Bunkervile.
In April 2014, the fight between the federal government and rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing fees came to a head when armed supporters of the rancher faced off with Bureau of Land Management agents.
After several tense hours, the BLM agents left the area and released the cattle they had gathered to pay for the grazing fees they say he owed back to the Bundys.
Egan said he understands where the Bundys are coming from in the fight, but he doesn't relate to them.
“The frustrations in the Bundy’s case is that they’ve used this land for so long that they think it's theirs and it is not,” Egan said.
He said the rancher is wrong about the history of land use, wrong about the law and he is at odds with the majority of people, who believe public lands should continue to be held by the public, should be managed by the federal government and should be well maintained for everyone's enjoyment and use.
“If you live in Florida, Gainesville, Florida, or if you live in Seattle, Washington, or anywhere, you still have equal right to that land that Cliven Bundy may raise his cattle on," the writer, who grew up in eastern Washington state, said. "He’s leasing it for a time for an economic use.”
Lately, those opposed to federal control of public lands have floated the idea of turning the millions of acres over to the states.
Cliven Bundy and supporters, including Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-NV, pushed that agenda during the past legislative session. A bill introduced by Fiore would have restricted federal management of the land.
Egan wasn't just skeptical of the idea. He flat out dismissed it.
"It's never going to happen," he said. “The public land laws are so embedded into larger federal law that it would take a huge amount to change the structure of the law for this to happen.”
Egan will be part of a Black Mountain Institute panel discussion at UNLV titled “This Land Is Your Land … Or Is It?”
He will be joined on the panel by poet Gary Snyder; economist and writer Terry L. Anderson; and Virginia Scharff, a western historian.
Timothy Egan, columnist, New York Times