Panel hears pro, con on Nevada takeover of public lands

CARSON CITY — Nevadans advocating for a takeover of some of the 84 percent of the state land now controlled by the federal government to help with job creation and economic development heard conflicting legal views on the controversial topic Friday.

Some Nevadans, particularly from the rural areas of the state, have been pushing the idea of a state takeover of federal lands for years.

Supporters were successful in the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature in getting a measure passed to allow for a study of the concept.

The group created by Assembly Bill 227, the Nevada Land Management Task Force, has been charged with evaluating whether the state should consider taking over control of some of the public lands now managed by federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 76 percent of the land in the state.

The task force will submit its findings to the Legislative Committee on Public Lands by Sept. 1.

Members of the panel were told by one legal scholar Friday that there is no easy or clear-cut path to such a goal.

Making the argument that a legal victory is possible was Tony Rampton, assistant attorney general for Utah.

Rampton said the legal question that needs to be answered is whether the enabling acts agreed to by states to enter the union take precedence over the property clause of the U.S. Constitution. He acknowledged that the property clause has given Congress broad authority over the public lands.

The supremacy question has not been resolved by the federal courts and could provide an avenue for a state to gain control of the public lands, Rampton said.

But he acknowledged any such legal challenge would be difficult, with no guarantees that the position would prevail.

Mark Squillace, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School, argued the other side of the issue, saying there is no question that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and so has supremacy over the enabling acts.

Squillace also said that Nevada’s enabling act is clear where it states: “That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

Rampton argued, however, that the original intent of Congress was to dispose of the public lands.

The language cited by Squillace was needed so the federal government had the clear authority to then dispose of the lands, Rampton said.

While there is vocal support among some westerners for such a move, there are strong advocates against the idea.

At a Nov. 1 meeting of the panel, Kyle Davis, political and policy director of the Nevada Conservation League, argued against the idea.

Nevada has not demonstrated the capability and willingness to manage the public lands, he said.

The effort to take over federal lands harkens to the Sagebrush Rebellion, a controversial movement involving public land use in the West during the 1970s and 1980s.

Other Western states, including Utah, are making noise about the same issue.

State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, in testifying for AB227 in the 2013 session said: “We all understand that this question is not going away. The Western states want to be admitted to the Union on the same footing as the Eastern states, where only 4 percent of the land is federally controlled. As you move west, especially here in Nevada, it is 80 percent and more.”

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@review-journal.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.