For decades Nevadans have been trying to wrest greater control of public lands within the state from federal hegemony.
This year the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 227, which created the Nevada Land Management Task Force to study the possible transfer of certain federal public lands to the state of Nevada. The 17-member task force is to identify what federal land should be transferred to the state and what the economic impact would be.
Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, chair of the task force, said in a recent interview the impetus for AB227 began in 2009 when the Forest Service announced it was working on a public lands travel plan, but indicated it did not anticipate closing any roads.
“It turned out that it was way different than they had represented,” Dahl explained. “They were actually going to close a lot of roads. They were doing the new map and then everything that wasn’t on the map was not considered a road. …
“It just changed our traditional use of the forest up there, from big game retrieval to being able to cut wood and so on and prospect.”
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Elko County pushed back. Between January 2009 and May of 2011 the county documented 104 contacts with the Forest Service — meetings, tours, records requests — all to no avail.
Dahl testified before a congressional committee about the situation and the House Natural Resources Subcommittee even held a hearing in Elko at which 64 counties throughout the West were represented.
After all of that, the Forest Service issued a “record of decision” that reflected its original plan.
Dahl met with Ken Ivory, a Utah state lawmaker who authored a bill under which Utah is attempting to take control of certain federal public lands. After a six-hour meeting Dahl, Ivory and others put the American Lands Council (americanlandscouncil.org) together. The organization’s stated mission is to channel efforts of state and local governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to secure and defend local control of access, use and ownership of land now controlled by federal agencies — the aim of AB227.
Dahl said he was told by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the legal advisers to the Legislature, that there might be some constitutional issues with simply demanding a takeover of federal land. It was state Sen. Pete Goicoechea who came up with the idea to put together a bill that would simply study the implications of a transfer rather than demand it.
“When I was elected as the chair, I told the task force that I do have an agenda and all of them knew that I have an agenda. I committed not to push my agenda and to make sure that we were inclusive, that we were very transparent, that we included all of the interests that we possibly could,” Dahl said.
“We started off to make the decision on whether we could or we couldn’t as a state manage our own public land,” he said.
The task force has sought the services of two Nevada companies that studied the issue of acquiring federal land for Eureka County in the mid-1990s — Intertech Services Corp. and Resource Concepts Inc.
In a February 1996 report they estimated that “state management of public land in Nevada could result in annual revenues ranging from $3.58 to $5.72 per acre. Considering that nearly 48 million acres of public land are contained within the state, revenues on the order of $170 (million) to $275 million per year were determined plausible …”
Dahl anticipates participation from such diverse groups as the Sierra Club, Bighorns Unlimited, the Farm Bureau, miners and ranchers. “We want all the stakeholders out there on the public land to have an opportunity to make a case for or against transfer of the land.”
The task force probably will do as Utah has done and be selective about what land would be transferred, meaning monuments, wilderness, national parks and Department of Defense land are off the table, the chairman said.
Another big concern is wildfires. “We want to go in and clear the forests out so we don’t burn everything down and burn our houses up and burn our communities. Some places they’ve got 900 trees per acre. There’s not enough water to support them. The trees get weak. The beetles move in, then you’ve got a bunch of dead trees. When it starts to burn, you know, it’s Katy bar the door. There’s no stopping it. …” Dahl said. “With proper management we won’t have those huge fires.”
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.