To grow economy, sell federal lands

Steve Hill, a Las Vegas businessman and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, visited with us late last week to discuss a 178-page report from Brookings Mountain West division recommending new ways to diversify Nevada’s economy.

While Nevada still scores high (everything is relative, you understand) on its tax and regulatory climate, cost of living and transportation infrastructure, the report finds the state is held back by a low-skilled workforce; an underperforming K-12 education system; relatively high energy costs and a lack of startup capital. Mr. Hill also mentioned that development in many Nevada communities is stymied because they’re essentially land-locked — surrounded by federally controlled land not available for taxable development. Uncle Sam owns 87 percent of the state.

All these problem areas are worth addressing — especially raising science, technology, engineering and math standards in the K-12 system. Most of these efforts will take time.

But one would not. Nevada’s congressional delegation should work together — allied with the delegations of any other Western state willing to cooperate — to quickly enact legislation requiring the federal government to turn over vast areas of the real estate it controls for private development, either through state auspices, direct sale or homesteading.

Yes, some modest efforts to release parcels of federally controlled land have been undertaken in the past, primarily here in the Las Vegas Valley. This was a good start. But federal agencies have often pursued a no-net-loss doctrine, arguing that if 1,000 acres were to be made available for taxpaying uses here in Southern Nevada, the government must gain control of 1,000 acres — or more — for preservation elsewhere in the state.

Such a policy has an obvious mathematical limitation. That barrier must be broken with the goal of dealing the federal government a massive net loss of Nevada land currently held off state and local tax rolls.

No one is talking about turning national parks into housing tracts and strip malls. But how can a state diversify and prosper when 87 percent of its land is off limits? Try barring private homes and businesses from 87 percent of the land in Connecticut or Maryland and see how far you get.

From supplying silver to fund the Civil War to the era of nuclear testing, Nevadans have been happy to do their part and more for America. Now Washington can do something to help the state hit hardest by the Great Recession — something that won’t cost Washington much of anything.

Give Nevada back to Nevadans.

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