Federal land transfers

The valley’s lousy economy is no excuse to stop planning for Southern Nevada’s future prosperity. The key to that planning is making better use of the vast tracts of barren desert managed, at your expense, by the federal government.

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid is using his power as majority leader to push through legislation that will provide the acreage for the region’s future college campuses. It would set aside 2,000 acres of federal land off the northern Las Vegas Beltway for a North Las Vegas branch of UNLV. The bill also would grant 280 acres for a Pahrump campus of Great Basin College and add 40 acres to a College of Southern Nevada site at Durango Drive and Elkhorn Road.

“This bill will be a landmark for Nevada’s Higher Education System,” Sen. Reid said. “It is predicted the greater Las Vegas population will double by 2040, and the university system needs more room.”

Indeed, UNLV and its 28,000 students are landlocked on 340 acres off the congested arterials of Maryland Parkway and Tropicana Road. Those space and access constraints will eventually drive programs and classes to other locations. Projected growth in the northern valley and the completion of the Beltway — not to mention the opportunity to take title to 2,000 acres of undeveloped land at no cost — make the North Las Vegas site a good one.

But there’s a down side to this legislation: It does nothing to expand Clark County’s property tax base. The federal government remains the county’s biggest land baron, and Washington is still entirely too stingy in selling its surplus.

Yes, the Bureau of Land Management has auctioned off tens of thousands of acres over the past decade. But a November auction was a bust because the BLM insisted on imposing minimum bids that were based on absurdly high appraisals of $430,000 per acre.

On Monday, the BLM will conduct an online auction of a paltry 207 acres. Although valley home values have plummeted over the past year, the BLM still thinks it should get at least $412,000 per acre. Good luck with that. As we wrote last year: “If no one makes an offer on your property, your listed price is not ‘fair market value.’ “

If the BLM is willing to give away huge tracts of land for college campuses that won’t be built anytime soon, it should be willing to auction at least that much acreage — at prices bidders are willing to pay — to get unused, unproductive property into private hands.

That would serve the public interest more than any government-to-government giveaway.

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