Lawmakers consider the transfer of public lands

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Lawmakers consider the transfer of public lands

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Photo by Brynn on Wikimedia Commons.

The debate over federal control of land in Nevada has heated up in recent weeks. But, transferring control of public land to the state is something lawmakers have been contemplating for some time. Counties are beginning to take a serious look at the idea.

Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl is convinced the state could do a much better job than the federal government at managing and profiting from its public lands.

"Yes, indeed, we can afford to do the transfer, and not only can we afford to manage it, but we could afford to make a considerable profit for the state," Dahl says.

And that would have to be the case because currently the federal government loses millions of dollars in Nevada on public lands. Dahl is chairman of the task force, made up of county commissioners, that's figuring out how a major land transfer would work and which lands to go after. A recent study done for them suggests Nevada has a lot to gain. It reports 4 million acres could yield anywhere from $30 million to more than a $100 million each year. Those numbers are based on four other Western states with much more state land than Nevada. Dahl says most transferred land would not be sold and would remain open for multiple uses like it is now.

"This isn't just a rural issue, this is important for all of Nevada, especially because of the money that could be generated by the management of the public lands," Dahl says.

But this proposal makes Kyle Davis of the Nevada Conservation League very nervous.

"Our state doesn't have any kind of environmental review process to determine impacts on land, water, and wildlife. We don't have anything like the National Environmental Protectional Act (known as the National Environmental Policy Act) and if these lands were not in federal hands than that would not apply," Davis says.

Davis says the study doesn't account for what the federal government spends on wildfires or future listings of endangered species. Any cost associated with a listing, most notably, of the greater sage grouse would still apply to the transferred lands, but then the state would pick up the tab. He's also skeptical about the projected revenues and considers the whole proposal unrealistic. After all, any large transfer of lands would require federal approval, which is by no means certain.

"We have to tread very carefully and very lightly with respect to not biting off more than we can chew at any given time," Hartung says.

That's Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung, who's representing the county on the task force. He sees real opportunities for Washoe. While it doesn't have the natural resources of some rural counties, the land closer to Reno could be used for economic development and, Hartung, says there's still vast potential for geothermal energy here.

"My belief is, yeah, I could probably manage it and run it better and turn it into more of a scenario that's generating revenue. However, anytime you turn it into a scenario that is generating revenue, that cost comes at someone's expense and so the suggestion was, well instead of just giving access to public lands, charge people for that, and I have a hard time with that," Hartung says.

This is still in the early stages and Washoe has not yet identified which lands it might want. In the coming months, the task force will develop its proposal before presenting it to a legislative committee in September.