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Heller supports takeover of public lands

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was supportive of a task force commissioned by the Nevada Legislature to study a state takeover of public lands managed by the federal government, during a conference call with rural reporters Wednesday.

Much of the discussion revolved around public lands issues, mainly the closure of 600,000 acres in northeastern Clark County by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the roundup of cattle they claim rancher Clive Bundy has been illegally grazing and concerns over the possible listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species.

The Nevada Land Management Task Force was set up under Assembly Bill 227 during the 2013 state legislative session to recommend how federal land could be transferred to the state. Ninety-seven percent of Nye County land is under federal management, though the task force has looked at excluding federal installations like the Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada National Security Site from the transfer.

“I think what’s going on in Mesquite, in Clark County, is a pretty good example of why we might be better off if the state ran this property not the federal government. I think the overreach of the federal government down there is pretty outlandish at this point,” Heller said.

Heller said between federal entities, including the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal government owns 87 percent of the land in Nevada.

“If you can bring it down to the state level it will be better managed and if it’s brought down to the local level it will be even better managed,” he said.

The task force, which includes a representative from all 17 Nevada counties headed by Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, will deliver a report to the 2015 session of the Nevada Legislature. The state is following after the example of a similar effort in neighboring Utah. Heller said he’s watching closely to see if the transfer of lands is a viable option, but he wouldn’t commit yet to sponsoring a bill in Congress after the Nevada Legislature considers the report.

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the State of Nevada for Nevadans to control their own lands. Back in 1864, when we became a state, Nebraska became a state at the same time. The difference is 87 percent of the State of Nevada is federal land, only 3 percent of Nebraska is federal land. Why did that happen?” Heller asked. “It’s going to take someone back here in the Senate to point that out and try to move this and come to some grips on this.”

Heller said the confirmation of Neil Kornze this week as national director of the BLM should help in dealing with the federal agency. Kornze was a member of an Elko mining family. He received a masters degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and worked as a senior policy advisor to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., drafting a plan designating 17 solar energy zones and approving 47 renewable energy projects. He began work for the BLM as acting deputy director for policy and programs in 2011, then deputy director in 2013.

Heller said he’s also met with the Nevada Cattleman’s Association about the cattle roundup, which according to published reports hasn’t taken a stance on it.

“Every five to 10 years we have a situation that occurs somewhere in the State of Nevada. Because of the size of the stock and 600,000 acres blocked off this has resulted in a lot of attention,” Heller said.

In Nye County, the BLM seized 100 head of cattle from Monitor Valley rancher, the late Wayne Hage in the 1990s in a dispute over grazing rights.

Heller said with 87 percent already in federal ownership the federal agencies want 11 million acres for sage grouse habitat. It’s an issue even in Clark County, he said, adding the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce met with him Wednesday morning, one of the first things they asked about was the sage grouse, speculating that’s due to seeing the impacts on development due to the desert tortoise. The mining industry is also getting on board about the sage grouse issue and Heller said his counterpart, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is also committed to trying to prevent the listing.

“If we don’t do anything there’s probably a 99 percent chance this bird gets listed and that won’t do anything good,” Heller said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week a 60-day extension of the comment period for the proposed listing, which would impact 1.86 million acres along the California-Nevada border. The USFWS hopes to make a final determination on that listing by April 28, 2015.

Heller said there’s about 80,000 sage grouse in Nevada, which aren’t low numbers. He questioned why there would be a listing in 11 western states, speculating other states may have lower numbers.

The Nye County Commission followed the example of Elko County in declaring the raven a nuisance, which preys on sage grouse and desert tortoises. Heller said predator control should be part of any legislation.

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