Hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts will rally in front of the legislature early next week, to protest a bill that could cost them the right to hunt, fish and play in Nevada’s open country.
Monday, March 2nd, the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations will be hearing Senate Joint Resolution 1 (SJR 1), which will encourage Congress to transfer almost all of Nevada’s public land, currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), to state ownership. The transfer of federally held public lands to states in no way addresses the real issues associated with federal land management, habitat stewardship, public access, or other significant issues facing these lands today. In fact, the opposite is true. Nevada will suddenly be saddled with all the expense and headaches of managing nearly 49-million acres of open country.
Managing Nevada’s public lands annually costs the BLM $100-million more than it brings in from a variety of sources. The $100-million loss is currently covered by federal tax revenues. With a massive land transfer, Nevada wouldn’t just get stuck with the $100-million loss. It would have to cover the whole bill for managing the range, habitat restoration, putting out wild fires and controlling horses. And, Nevada would only be able to collect a fraction of the revenues that the BLM currently uses to manage our public lands. On top of that, state agencies would still be subject to all the federal laws and regulations that SJR 1 hopes to negate. With all of the legislative hand-wringing over how to fund our current state government, what would happen if Nevada got a windfall of public land that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars every year?
Nevada has a long history of selling off public assets for short-term funding. The state was originally granted 4 million acres in 1864, but Nevada’s political leaders asked Congress in 1880 to instead give it 2 million acres of its choice. The original 4 million acres were difficult to sell. Congress agreed and Nevada carefully chose 2.7 million acres, which included the state’s most arable lands, riparian areas, streams, springs, and water bodies. These lands, that sustain much of Nevada’s wildlife and fisheries resources, were promptly sold to private parties. All that was left were 3,000 acres of school trust lands. In these difficult financial times, it’s easy to see how some legislators might feel they have no choice but to sell off tens of millions of acres of public land, just to bring in enough quick cash to float the state. Meanwhile, private buyers could lock up vast expanses of open country and block access for Nevada’s hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Access to public lands is good for the economy. A poll of business owners in Nevada found that more than 40% of Nevada entrepreneurs chose to do business here because of access to public lands and outdoor activities. And, the number of people enjoying those outdoor activities, including hunting and fishing, is increasing. OutdoorIndustry.org says that outdoor recreation adds $14.9-billion to the state’s economy, 148,000 jobs, $4.8-billion in wages and salaries and $1-billion in state and local taxes. According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the total number of people hunting, fishing and trapping in Nevada now exceeds 161,000. They bring in $1.6-billion dollars, mostly to Nevada’s rural areas where it’s needed most.
More than money, Nevadans enjoy a heritage of access to wide-open country that’s the envy of people in nearly every other state in the Union. A recent poll of Nevada voters shows that 78 percent agree that Nevada’s public lands belong to all Americans and 62 percent oppose having state government and Nevada taxpayers assume the full responsibility of managing these lands. Pretty much everybody agrees that the crazy checkerboard of private and public land needs to be sorted out. But, there are some sensible solutions that will allow for development and still preserve the open range, wildlife habitat and access to the best parts of Nevada.
Congress is getting a lot of thumb-pressure from big money interests to make this transfer of federal land happen, all across the West. Our Congressional delegation is waiting for a signal from us to see which way they should go. For every Nevadan who enjoys the freedom of playing in Nevada’s open country, passage of SJR-1 is the wrong signal to send.
Les Smith is Nevada Regional Director Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.