Nevada’s Delegation and Federal Lands

Beyond the Beltway
By Michael Green

When Cliven Bundy comes along or the Bureau of Land Management makes demands or decisions that Nevadans object to, either side might get annoyed. But it isn’t as if anything new is happening. Whatever role the federal government has played in land policy often has been controversial in Nevada.

In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters pushed through the Taylor Grazing Act, which was designed to improve management of public lands but also imposed grazing fees. Nevada’s leaders, with Senator Pat McCarran at the forefront, fought first the bill and then its effects as hard as they could. They tended to be Democrats who usually backed FDR–including McCarran, who got more of a reputation as an opponent of New Deal legislation than he actually deserved. But not on this matter.

In 1946, the Grazing Service, created in the 1934 bill, merged with another agency to form the BLM, which lived up or down to its initials: it sought to manage lands controlled by the federal government. For the most part, Nevadans out on the rangelands didn’t want to be controlled. They wanted to be able to do what they pleased. At the same time, they also wanted federal assistance wherever they could get it. That wasn’t really the BLM’s job, so it became a much easier target.

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which restated the BLM’s mission, and said that public lands would remain federal property. It’s no coincidence that in the aftermath, Nevada lawmakers passed legislation requesting that public lands be given to the states. They and other state officials throughout the West made these demands as part of what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan announced that he was a Sagebrush Rebel, and hearts throughout the region fluttered. Nevadans had special reason for hope with Paul Laxalt, his closest friend, in the Senate and with ample access to the Oval Office. But Secretary of the Interior James Watt wanted to sell those lands, which isn’t what westerners wanted. They wanted those lands to be given to them, and weren’t thrilled with the Reagan administration’s approach, although it certainly eased or eliminated a lot of regulations.

But not enough for a lot of Nevadans. There have been ample lawsuits and court actions by and against the BLM. The most famous recent dust-up has been the standoff with the Bundy family. Some Democrats were vocally anti-Bundy. Others were fairly quiet. Most Republicans were pro-Bundy, expressing sympathy with the family when the BLM was going to take their cattle over unpaid fees. Then Cliven Bundy delivered himself of an analysis of African Americans, and, by and large, the Republicans who had been supporting him disappeared.

Bundy presented an interesting issue. Other ranchers popped up to say they weren’t happy with him because they had paid their fees, meaning they obeyed the law, and fought the feds in other ways. But politicians who traditionally have been advocates of a reduced role for federal officials in land management didn’t attack Bundy for that.

In other words, politics plays a role in public land issues, and not everyone involved is entirely consistent. Aren’t you shocked?