Rights to hundreds of acres in historic Virginia City would be officially transferred to Storey County under a bill introduced Wednesday by Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei.
The measure, dubbed the Restoring Storey Act, would address disputes over ownership of about 1,745 acres which the federal Bureau of Land Management has claimed to control in the Comstock region, 20 miles southeast of Reno.
"This is a historic problem for Virginia City dating back to the 19th century," said Rep. Amodei, R-Nev., who added that faulty surveys, questionable maps and lost documentation make it "nearly impossible" to sort out ownership by traditional means.
"The property in question has been occupied for decades by families who believe they own it when legally they're considered trespassers on BLM land," Rep. Amodei said.
The bill would give the secretary of the interior 60 days to quitclaim the surface rights of the BLM land to Storey County. The bill would not affect mineral rights.
BLM spokeswoman Erica Haspiel-Szlosek in Reno said the agency was in favor of finding a solution for Storey County residents. Trying to figure out how many properties may be "in trespass" and resolving discrepancies on a case-by-case basis would be a monumental task involving title searches, land surveys and separating mineral rights from surface ownership, she said.
Rep. Amodei's office said a 25-acre parcel at the center of a dispute between the BLM and Comstock Mining Inc. is not part of the bill, though the disagreement illustrates the confusion his bill seeks to address.
Comstock Mining hopes to start mining up to $3 billion worth of gold and silver from areas near Virginia City, though BLM officials argue that the company has been trespassing because it was not authorized to widen a road on 25 acres of what the agency considers public land between the company's open pit mine and its processing site.
Comstock Mining has countered that the land has been privately owned since at least 1869; county officials say it's long been taxed by the county as private property.
While Rep. Amodei's bill clearly doesn't resolve every related problem, it's a big step in the right direction, as is the BLM's willingness to embrace a common-sense disentanglement of the agency from these properties.
Federal government agencies control more than 85 percent of the surface area of Nevada, which is absurd. Any orderly steps which can return more of that land to private use and the tax rolls are welcome. In this case, if Rep. Amodei's bill allows Nevada families to get clear title to lands where they've lived and paid taxes for decades, absent any equally valid claims by other private parties, so much the better.