If the U.S. Bureau of Land Management were a business, its Nevada executives would be fired. They’ve managed to lose money on vast assets capable of generating massive amounts of wealth.
Of course, the BLM isn’t a business. It’s part of the federal government, which cares nothing about delivering a return on equity to its shareholders, the taxpaying citizens of the United States.
Nevada is the seventh-largest state by area, but it ranks among the smallest states in terms of privately owned land. Just 12.2 percent of Nevada’s more than 110,000 square miles is private land. Washington controls more than 80 percent of Nevada, which greatly limits the state’s ability to diversify its economy, put its natural resources to more productive use and generate tax revenues for governments.
The Nevada Public Land Management Task Force is charged with trying to change that. There is broad, bipartisan support here for transferring control of huge areas of federal land to the state. The state would then have the power to sell land to private owners, erasing the cost to the public of managing it and generating property tax revenue, or lease rights to miners, drillers, ranchers or energy companies.
A preliminary draft report from the task force makes a compelling economic argument for firing the BLM and putting Nevada in charge of millions of mostly unused acres. The report, which will be reviewed today by the Legislative Committee on Public Lands in Tonopah, estimates that a transfer of just 4 million acres of BLM land to the state could generate between $31.1 million and $114.4 million in new tax revenue. If the state gained control of all 47.8 million acres of BLM land within Nevada’s borders, the windfall would range between $371.8 million and $1.58 billion. That’s an annual benefit of between $7.78 and $28.59 per acre.
The figures are based on combined revenue averages from Arizona, Utah, Idaho and New Mexico, which together have more than 23 million acres of state trust lands set aside by Washington. Nevada has just 3,000 acres of state trust land.
How’s the BLM faring at managing all this land? According to the task force report, between 2008 and 2012, the BLM managed to lose 91 cents per acre per year in Nevada.
That’s because the BLM is guided by political considerations, not economic ones. Some of those considerations were on display this month in northeast Clark County, when rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters stood up to federal authorities who tried to seize his cattle.
The BLM, as well as the entire Interior Department, answers more to nonprofit environmental organizations and their legal teams than to states and taxpayers. These organizations oppose economic activity on public lands and have significant support in Congress from lawmakers who represent states with very little federal land. Nevada’s congressional delegation will face great political challenges in winning support for even the tiniest land transfer.
The task force wisely has recommended against pursuing transfers of federal land controlled by the Defense Department, Energy Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Transfers of other federal land would occur in phases, with the holdings placed under state trust.
Washington can’t afford all the land it currently holds. The task force report makes it clear Nevada could do much better.