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Making real cases on public lands

This week I read five different essays on what should happen to public lands in the West.

In a piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Clark County Sen. Kelvin Atkinson characterized efforts to take over these lands for state governments: “Instead of running away from this deranged ideology, elected officials … have come to [Cliven] Bundy’s defense and introduced legislation that would seize millions of acres of our land and put it in the hands of state and local governments to sell off for private development. If passed, it would jeopardize access for Nevadans and others to areas that we all love. As representatives of county and state government, we can attest to the fact that we simply do not have the funds to provide law enforcement, trail maintenance and wildfire protection that currently is provided for us on these lands by the federal government.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison responded that Giunchigliani and Atkinson failed to attend a recent conference on the topic: “Had they attended, they would have learned that the summit was in fact a bipartisan discussion about how these lands can best be managed in partnership with multiple stakeholders. They would have learned the discussion focused on protecting our public lands, so that the ecology, health and economy of our state can also be protected for current and future generations. They would have, in fact, learned that only limited, but no less important, discussion took place regarding the transfer of public lands, despite their claims otherwise.”

The Reno Gazette Journal editorialized, “Calls for turning over control of federal lands are linked frequently to a distrust and dislike of the federal government. It is doubtful, though, that critics will show any less animosity toward state bureaucrats than they do toward federal ones if a switch were to take place. Besides, organizations with many conservative members such as Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Nevada Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers oppose the transfers. They worry the state will be more likely to sell off or lease lands, restricting their members’ access.”

In the Hill, a D.C. newspaper for Capitol Hill denizens, U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah wrote, “Federal ownership means the western communities which surround that land and which are most impacted by the decisions of federal land managers have little to no say … That might be merely irritating if the feds did a decent job managing public lands. But they don’t. … The U.S. Forest Service spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year fighting wildfires that are largely a result of the agency’s own inability to manage the forests. And wildfires are only the most visible of the failures. Others include a chronic disadvantage in funding public schools, reduced energy development from bureaucratic footdragging, regular disputes with local ranchers over grazing rights, and the ongoing problems of starved wild horses which the Bureau of Land Management refuses to manage.”

Whit Fosburgh, president of a hunting and fishing group called the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, then responded to Edwards: “While I can’t defend every action of the federal government, the notion that our federal lands would be better managed by individual states is fundamentally flawed. … Here’s why: All of the Western states require in their constitutions that state lands be managed to maximize profit. Under this model, lands that can’t produce maximum coal, timber, energy, or grazing leases are sold off to the highest bidder. If we were to transfer America’s public lands to individual states, millions of acres would be sold off to billionaires and global corporations—people who neither understand nor value America’s future or outdoor heritage. This may sound crazy, but Western states have a proven track record of selling off their lands, and every Western state has fewer acres of state land than it once did at statehood.

All of the pieces I quote here were useful to me. Fosburgh’s essay in particular was educational and sent me running for my Nevada Constitution. Regular readers of this space will recall that in June, I reported that Nevada now has fewer than 3,000 acres remaining of 3,992,000 million acres given to the state for school revenue purposes in 1864.

At any rate, when it comes to debating public lands, the kind of dialogue represented by the pieces I have quoted here beats luring hundreds of heavily armed people to Nevada and staging a standoff to force an outcome through sheer firepower.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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