Control of public lands remains divisive

CARSON CITY — A Senate resolution that would ask Congress to convey more than 7 million acres of federal land to state control remained as polarizing as ever at a hearing Thursday in an Assembly committee.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed the Senate on an 11-10 party-line vote in April, and was heard by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. No action was taken after two hours of testimony.

The transfer of public lands proposed in the measure includes lands in the original railroad corridor across Northern Nevada, called checkerboard lands, and lands already identified for disposal by federal agencies, among other acreage that would total 7.3 million acres or about 10 percent of the public lands total in a first phase.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and other Nevada GOP political leaders favor the idea of the state assuming control over some federal lands.

But outdoor and conservation groups oppose the idea, arguing that the lands will be disposed of by the state to private interests, reducing the amount of land open to the public across the state. If the lands are retained by the state, the groups argue that it could not afford to maintain them with costs from wildfires or other expenses.

SJR1 was requested by several Republican lawmakers as a follow up to a 2014 study on the viability of the state taking over some of the millions of acres of land in Nevada that are now under federal control.

A study by the Nevada Land Management Task Force, established by the 2013 Legislature to study the issue, in 2014 issued a report arguing that the state would benefit from such a transfer.

A transfer of 4 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land could bring in anywhere from $31 million to $114 million a year, based on a review of four Western states that have significant amounts of trust lands under their control, the report said. The revenues would come from the sale and lease of the resources on the lands, including through mining and grazing rights. The study was prepared by Intertech Services Corp. and was paid for by the Nevada Association of Counties.

The findings have been challenged by opponents.

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, D-Las Vegas, noted that the cost of fighting the Carpenter 1 fire at Mount Charleston in 2013 totaled about $25 million. The area is not part of any proposed transfer of lands to the state, but he cited it as an example of the potential expense of fire suppression costs.

Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, said the proposal is reasonable and would still leave the vast majority of the state in the jurisdiction of the different federal agencies.

But Kyle Davis, representing the Nevada Conservation League, said the concern is that Nevada could not afford to maintain the lands and would be forced to sell them off.

Critics point to Nevada’s history of managing lands received upon statehood. Nevada originally received 4 million acres in trust lands for the public schools. The state’s congressional delegation in 1880 persuaded Congress to let Nevada officials instead designate which lands they wanted in exchange for reducing the total acreage by half. Those trust lands were then sold off to private individuals as a way of trying to entice people to move into the state.

Nevada now has only 3,000 acres of such lands.

Contact Sean Whaley at or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.