Backers of a plan to force the federal government to cede control of millions of acres of land in Nevada are refreshing their proposal.
And they’re starting with an effort to convince a skeptical public it’s possible to take nearly 7.3 million acres from the Bureau of Land Management without disrupting hunting, off-highway riding or sticking Nevada taxpayers with bigger bills for fighting massive rangeland wildfires.
The plan has a better shot at survival if it manages to make it to the desk of incoming Republican President Donald Trump than it would have under a Democratic president.
But first it has to make it through Congress where members, including many Republicans, are aware of polling that shows most western voters oppose shifting control of federal land to state governments.
“If they put this on the ballot today it would fail,” Nevada state Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said during a recent discussion of the proposal.
Goicoechea, who supports the effort, said people who want more control over Nevada land, of which 87 percent is owned by the federal government, are going to have to show the public state and local control won’t hurt wildlife, hunting, recreation or result in big bills for state taxpayers.
“People that are good friends of mine in the legislature, past legislators, don’t believe we can handle them,” he said. “We are just looking for the opportunity to showcase the state can manage these lands better.”
How Nevada could take over federal land
The most detailed version of the plan is in the form of H.R. 1484, a former Congressional bill known as the Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., had a hearing in November but didn’t advance and expired with the end of the session.
That version included two phases of land takeovers.
The first phase covered nearly 7.3 million acres, with about half within a checkerboard pattern that traverses the state from Sparks to Wendover. Other Phase One land included property the Bureau of Land Management has already “designated for disposal.”
The second phase would transfer millions more acres. A summary of the bill calls for non-exempt lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation to be, “conveyed upon request by the state or local governments.”
Designated wilderness, conservation areas, national monuments, wildlife refuges, land managed by the defense and energy departments and American Indian reservation land would be exempt.
All told, Amodei’s bill could have reduced the percentage of land in Nevada owned by the federal government from about 87 to 75 percent.
Critics called it overreach compared to consensus land bills that tend to focus on smaller transfers focused on specific properties.
“It is nothing like the lands bills the state has done in the past,” said Kyle Davis, a consultant for the Nevada Conservation League and opponent of the concept. “They would rather focus on an agenda of transferring all these lands to state ownership and we just think that would be a disaster.”
The bill’s “Enabling Nevada” name is a play on an arcane legal argument supporters in Nevada and other western states make. They say enabling acts granted at statehood established Nevada and other states “upon an equal footing,” with the original states but then attached conditions that undermined equal footing, namely conditions that put most of the land in the states in federal hands.
The argument has proven popular with people who want states to seize control of federal land. But it hasn’t won support in the court system where the prevailing view is that the federal government legitimately holds land in Nevada and elsewhere.
The concept evokes memories of periodical public land flare-ups such as the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade and, more recently, armed standoffs in Clark County and in rural Oregon in which protestors, organized in large part by members of the Bundy ranching family of Bunkerville.
“It is a nice talking point to say state government, good federal government bad,” Davis said. “When you actually look at the statistics there is no evidence to support it.”
Plan changing shape
With a new Congress and administration set to begin the people who support taking public land out of the federal government’s hands are revising their proposal.
They’re considering both substantive and symbolic changes they think will make some version of the bill more palatable to the public.
“We hear concerns about just wholesale selling of the land,” said Mike Baughman who created a 2014 report to the Nevada Legislature detailing how a takeover of Nevada public lands could work.
The report says Nevada could generate $56 million to $206 million annually in revenue from the land, money which could go to schools and other uses.
During a recent meeting with proponents of the Nevada bill Idaho lawmaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said emphasizing the revenue prospects is important to sway the public in favor of the idea.
“The beneficiaries are the school kids, that allays a lot of concerns,” Bedke said.
Although others, including Goicoechea, have said the revenue might be over-estimated and concerns about costs, particularly when it comes to firefighting, remain.
“I would argue some of those revenues probably aren’t accurate,” Goicoechea said. He added, however, “Ultimately I think there will be a benefit to Nevada.”
In addition to changing the way they talk about the bill to emphasize potential revenue, the proponents also plan to change the name.
They said the reference to the enabling act in the previous bill tended to make people think of controversial land disputes and armed standoffs.
On a more substantive level, they’re considering removing the second phase from the bill altogether and focusing entirely on the initial 7.3 million acres.
“I think we did a real good job marketing Phase One, what has got these guys on edge is what is coming,” Goicoechea said during a meeting to revise the proposal.
Demar Dahl, an Elko County Commissioner and longtime advocate for state control of land in Nevada, acknowledged the controversial nature of the bill, but advocated for hanging onto the second phase, at least for now.
“When you get down to the nitty gritty you need something to trade and you don’t want to be down to what we are going to go down to,” Dahl said.
Despite the effort to pare back demands, there are still big doubts about even the smaller version of the bill.
Among them are concerns about maintaining access to hunting and recreation land, maintaining wildlife corridors, the possibility of rangeland firefighting and rehabilitation costs being shifted onto state taxpayers and questions about whether revenue will materialize as the proponents say it will.
“Sportsmen pretty much universally oppose a transfer of federal lands to the state,” said Larry Johnson, president of the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife.
The coalition includes members from Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Nevada Guides and Outfitters Association, Nevada Waterfowl Coalition, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others.
“I just have apprehension the state would remotely have the ability … to properly manage these lands,” Johnson said.
Proponents of a transfer haven’t distributed detailed maps of land that would have been covered by the previous bill.
But the analysis for the legislature had a map showing the distribution of BLM land in a checkerboard of private land tied to the expansion of the railroad across Nevada, which is generally along the route of Interstate 80.
Proponents point out that land close to communities and along highways would be easier to develop if ownership were consolidated.
Baughman said it would give rural communities a chance to develop projects such as the Reno Tahoe Industrial Park near Sparks, which is now home to the Tesla Gigafactory and other job-creating companies.
“That place is successful because it is big,” Baughman said. “We can’t do that with BLM (land).”
Although there is agreement some land transfers could help rural communities with development questions about hunting and wildlife persist.
That’s in large part due to the lack of specifics about how they would be protected.
“There is nothing in (the bill) that contemplates any kind of increased conservation benefits,” Davis said.
Even within the checkerboard there is productive habitat for mule deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, chukar and even elk, said Alan Jenne, habitat division chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“It is not a void by any means,” Jenne said. “There is a good distribution of species all along that I-80 corridor.”
Another concern is the potential for the cost of firefighting on newly acquired land to consume whatever revenue is raised and then some.
In recent decades, more than 6 million acres of Nevada rangeland has burned with the cost of firefighting and landscape rehabilitation largely borne by the federal government.
One recent example is the Hot Pot fire which started July 2 and burned more than 122,000 acres of mostly BLM land.
In addition to the cost of fighting the fire, which burned to the edge of the tiny town of Midas, the federal government is footing a $5.1 million bill to rehabilitate the burned land. And that’s just one fire.
“The idea you are just switching managers totally ignores economic reality that the state would have to bear the burden of managing firefighting cost,” said Brad Brooks, deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society in Idaho.
Brooks has studied land transfer proposals across the west, including in Nevada.
“I haven’t heard one person give me a straight answer on where that money is going to come from,” he said.
Eventually, Brooks said, growing firefighting costs could overwhelm the state’s ability to manage the land at all.
That would put state lawmakers in a bind come budget time.
“You can either sell land to reduce the firefighting burden or you can increase taxes,” he said.
It’s an issue that has prompted concerns in other states, too.
In an article published Dec. 11 in the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming Gov. Matt Meade said his state doesn’t have the money or legal structure to accept and properly manage major amounts of federal land.
Meade cited firefighting costs in 2012 as an example of why he was skeptical of accepting land transfers.
“We spent as a state $45 million fighting fires,” the paper quoted Meade. “If the federal lands that had fires on them would have been state lands, we would have spent another $45 million – in one summer. That’s a significant amount.”
Proponents of the transfer say fears of fire costs are overblown. They point to their analysis that shows an estimated increase in firefighting costs of about $2.3 million per year.
They also say the state has lower per-acre costs to fight fires than the federal government and that increased efficiency would be scalable to more acreage.
“Fire is going to have to be dealt with, I am completely confident we can do a better job,” Goicoechea said.
During the meeting with proponents to revise the proposal Amodei acknowledged it will be a struggle to get any lands bill through Congress.
“I don’t care what you do to it you are going to have a fight,” Amodei said.
Although a poll in Idaho have shown more than 56 percent of voters support transfers of land from the federal government to the state, support falls to 39 percent when the question includes the transfer “could potentially cost the state millions per year in taxpayer dollars.”
A seven-state, western poll by Colorado College in December, 2015, showed only 33 percent of respondents supported giving state government, “control over national public lands,” and 58 percent opposed.
Despite skepticism, Amodei told bill proponents he would carry some version of the bill. But supporters won’t be the only ones who weigh in, he said.
“We are not trying to sneak anything in here, I am happy to have a town hall meeting,” Amodei said.