Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2014

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Nevada tops nation in federally owned land

The Bureau of Land Management intends to sell 1 million acres to facilitate Nevada's growth, but this is hardly a victory for the Sagebrush Rebellion.

The proposed sale, which includes about 200,000 acres in Clark County, covers only slightly more than 1 percent of federally controlled land in Nevada.

To sell or transfer other federal land outside the boundaries created in the Las Vegas Valley by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998 requires congressional approval.

"Everything Clark County has needed we have given them without dispute," BLM spokesman Phillip Guerrero said. "Airport expansion, schools, parks, trails, libraries, police and fire stations, you can bet your bottom dollar all of those new things were on BLM land."

When Nevada gained statehood in 1864, it was through the influence of then-President Abraham Lincoln, who recognized that the Union needed the silver mined here for its Civil War effort. But Nevada leaders, eager for statehood, were not demanding and eventually received only 3.9 million acres of the 70.7 million acres in the state for towns and schools.

In 1880 the state agreed to swap the 3.9 million acres for 2 million acres of its choice, arguing that much of the original land grant could not be sold. In the 120 years since, Nevada received another 7 million acres to handle growth, but that still leaves the federal government with 61.7 million acres statewide.

The 87 percent federal-land ownership in Nevada is the largest in any state. Next is Alaska with 67.9 percent. The national average is 28.8 percent, but only nine states are above that percentage and all are in the West. New York has the nation's lowest percentage of federal land at four-tenths of 1 percent.

But environmentalists fear that if Nevada gained control of the federal land it would sell the land to wealthy developers, ranching or mining outfits. Such land transfers would restrict hiking, camping and other recreational pursuits and threaten endangered species such as the desert tortoise, they say.

"It has always been the Sierra Club's position that federal land is public land that belongs to all Americans," said Jane Feldman, conservation chairwoman of the organization's Toiyabe chapter in Nevada. "The Lake Mead National Recreation Area is as much a Montana or New Hampshire legacy as it is ours."

BLM is the largest federal landowner in the state with 47.9 million acres. But even with a $45.3 million budget this year, it has a tough time managing the land. For example, the BLM has only enough money to fund 12 rangers, or one for every 4 million acres.

BLM ranger Ron Crayton said there is enough work to justify one ranger for every 500,000 acres managed by his agency. That would be 96 rangers.

"This vehicle I'm driving is 9 months old, and I've already got over 37,000 miles on it," Crayon said of his patrol pickup truck. "A 250-mile day is nothing for me."

Following the BLM in federal land ownership are the U.S. Forest Service (5.8 million acres), Air Force (2.9 million acres) and Fish & Wildlife Service (2.2 million acres). Altogether, federal land in Nevada is managed by 20 agencies.

Nellis Air Force Base spokesman Mike Estrada said it would be impractical for the Air Force to turn its land over to the state because most of it is used for training and bombing practice that would be unavailable elsewhere.

"There is nowhere else where we could drop 4,000 tons of live bombs a year," Estrada said. "This is also the only place where we can conduct training for our entire combat air forces, both United States and allied. We put up at least 100 aircraft at a time, just like in a wartime scenario."

The Fish & Wildlife acreage includes the 1.6-million-acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for tortoises, desert bighorn sheep and migratory birds. Dick Birger, project leader for the wildlife refuge that overlaps northern Clark and southern Lincoln counties, said the Sagebrush Rebellion has clearly "gained the attention of federal land management officials as well as the public."

"It's fair to say that federal land managers are more cognizant of public concerns than they were in the past," Birger said.

No federal agency has had more problems with the rebels than the Forest Service. Harassment of employees in rural Nevada reportedly became so bad that Gloria Flora abruptly resigned in November 1999 as supervisor of the national forests in the state.

"We've got excellent community relations down here," Las Vegas District Ranger Tom Kuekes said.

"Through 100 years or more of federal land management, it's clear what these lands are managed for. The overwhelming majority of American people like that system and like to have access to that land. The Sagebrush Rebellion people are a small minority."

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