Public Lands Advocates Eye Local Control, But Obstacles Abound

February 20th, 2019


By Frank X. Mullen

The on-again, off-again Sagebrush Rebellion has gone quiet in the Silver State , but the debate over management of the 85 percent of the state’s land under federal management has shifted towards smaller battles.

Beginning in the Reagan Administration, activists and some states’ officials, citing federal regulatory overreach and mismanagement, have proposed transferring Western federal lands to state or private control. That’s been a hot topic in rural Nevada for decades, but repeated attempts to pry vast tracts from federal managers have gone nowhere.

In 2015, a Nevada State Legislature passed a resolution stating that federally-controlled lands be turned over to the state. In 2016, Rep. Mark Amodei backed a proposal to transfer federal “checkerboard lands” to state management. That would have been followed by a second phase, transferring more millions of acres to state government. The legislature has since rescinded the resolution and Amodei backed off his proposals.

“Transferring millions of acres of public lands … is not something I think the majority of people think is a good idea,” Amodei told the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board.

Similar efforts by lawmakers in Utah and elsewhere in the West to wrest land management from federal agencies also have been abandoned in the face of public opposition. In addition to access issues, opponents say that local and state governments can’t afford to take over the management responsibilities – including wild fire suppression — that now rest with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Advocates of land transfers insist that gaining control of such lands is practical and a benefit to the public.

“We all want a healthy environment, abundant recreation, and safe, vibrant communities,” says a position statement by the American Lands Council, a group in favor of federal land transfers. “But distant, unaccountable federal bureaucracy causes just the opposite. In fact, decades of federal control of our land has reduced access, allowed wildfires to rage out of control, polluted our environment, burned wildlife alive by the millions, and decimated local communities.”

The Sunderland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City , also favors local control of federal public lands. The institute maintains states can manage the land more efficiently and that local control will better protect the environment than federal managers. The group argues that states can be prohibited from selling off the lands except in rare circumstances and the public will still have access.

Opponents aren’t convinced.

Shaaron Netherton, executive director of the Friends of the Nevada Wilderness, says she isn’t surprised that proposals to reduce federal ownership are met with stiff opposition. “More and more people are coming to realize that our public lands offer so much more to our economy and to people’s quality of life than getting rid of them,” she says.

Netherton says if the state managed large swaths of what is now federal land, officials would have to significantly raise ranchers’ grazing fees, take over expensive environmental study responsibilities and limit public access. Hikers, off-road enthusiasts, exploration geologists, hunters and other users of the lands would suffer, she says.

“I’m not sure who would benefit from land transfers,” she says. In addition, the state, as it has throughout its history, could sell off public lands to developers and mineral companies to cover frequent budget shortfalls.

That’s not so say all federal land should remain under national management forever. Netherton notes that transfers of federal parcels to state and private management have been done on a case-by-case basis. For example, Sen. Harry Reid, now retired, and former senators John Ensign and Dean Heller pushed for the sale of BLM land in Southern Nevada to allow further development. The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act mandated that that proceeds of the land auctions be used for environmental restoration efforts at Lake Tahoe, enhancements of parks, trails and recreational opportunities in the Las Vegas Valley and for protection of open spaces and natural treasures around the Silver State .

Netherton says such proposals often have the support of public land advocates. “We’ve always been very pragmatic,” she says. “We support finding commonsense solutions… We’ve worked with Sen. Reid over the last two decades (on transfer bills).”

Other smaller-scale proposals have run into opposition, as in the case of the Pumpkin Hollow mine expansion near Yerington. In that case, approximately 10,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management real estate was transferred to Lyon County and the city of Yerington for “industrial, recreational and cultural development.” But the conveyance had another effect, says John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch in Reno .

He says that when the transfer was proposed, opponents argued that taking the land out of federal jurisdiction would mean environmental regulations covering the expansion of the copper mine would go by the wayside because the state government has no such review process. “And that’s exactly what happened,” Hadder says. “There was no detailed analysis as there would have been under (federal oversight).”

Land transfers aren’t the only way federal control of public lands can be undermined, advocates say. Environmental protections can be weakened by administrative actions and agencies can be starved of funding. Grants to nonprofit groups that help manage federal land can be eliminated or held up.

Netherton notes that with the new Congress, some of the land issues the Friends of the Nevada Wilderness opposed are no longer on the table, but the changes in environmental regulations and other administrative policy rollbacks continue. “So many of those things effect how our public lands are managed,” she says. “That’s still a concern.”