CARSON CITY — A push by some Nevada public officials to seek control of a portion of the state’s federally controlled lands suffered a blow Thursday when the concept was taken off the table for discussion at a meeting of state lawmakers.
Assemblyman Paul Aizley, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Legislative Committee on Public Lands, said he would not take up the issue during a work session of the panel. The decision generated strong objections from several members of the committee.
The issue was studied over the past several months by the Nevada Land Management Task Force, established as a result of Assembly Bill 227 from the 2013 session.
The dispute broke mostly along party lines, with Republican lawmakers on the committee objecting to the decision.
About 84 percent of Nevada is under the control of various federal agencies, with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management overseeing the largest share.
The discussion of such a public lands transfer has received heightened interest since the recent cattle grazing dispute between Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy and the BLM.
But the effort to take over federal lands dates back 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 pushing the lands transfer issue as well.
Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said he was shocked at Aizley’s announcement and called it an abuse of his authority as chairman.
“I’m highly disappointed,” he said. “And I think it is an absolute slap to all those people who worked so diligently.”
Others protesting the decision included Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, a Democrat; Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka; Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks; and Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko.
Collins said the proposal was a request for legislation, not an effort to twist anybody’s arm.
Goicoechea questioned whether Aizley had the power as chairman to take such a unilateral action.
Randall Stephenson, principal deputy legislative counsel advising the committee, said the chair has “a significant amount of authority” over what the panel would consider in a work session.
The work session document included this proposed recommendation for discussion:
“Draft a legislative resolution urging Congress to enact legislation transferring title and ownership of certain federally administered land to the State of Nevada pursuant to the plan laid out in the Nevada Land Management Task Force Report …”
The task force earlier this year issued a report arguing that the state would benefit from such a transfer, although opponents of the idea disputed the findings and said Nevada could not afford to manage additional lands transferred from the federal government.
Demar Dahl, an Elko County rancher and chairman of the task force, said earlier this year that the analysis by Intertech Services Inc. showed that a transfer was not only economically feasible but even beneficial to Nevada.
The task force recommended a phased-in transfer of public lands, starting with lands in the original railroad corridor across Northern Nevada and lands already identified for disposal by federal agencies.
But Aizley, using his authority as chairman, said he would not take up the measure for discussion, saying the state was not ready for such legislation.
“I have thanked the committee for the work they have done — they have raised many, many issues — but I don’t see the solutions to go along with it,” he said.
Aizley said those issues include the transfer of federal employees to state service and the costs of fire suppression, which he said totaled $57 million to the federal government in Nevada in 2013.
“We don’t have $57 million to do that,” he said. “Those are two that are fairly persuasive to me.”
Goicoechea said the transfer concept would involve a limited number of acres, about 7 million, not all the federal lands in Nevada. This is only about 10 percent of the total and would require a maximum of $5 million in fire suppression costs. With the right management, fire costs could be zero, he said.
Goicoechea said he would request the drafting of the resolution as an individual lawmaker.
“I fully will bring this forward as a campaign issue,” Goicoechea said. “If this is how we’re going to do business in the state of Nevada and in the state Legislature then it is time we kicked the can out there.”
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.