Public lands debate heard by commissioners
April 15, 2013
More than 80 percent of the land in Nevada is managed by the federal government. So, what is the future of Nevada's public lands over the next year, the next decade, or for the next generation?
Those are questions of concern anywhere in Nevada, which was certainly the case last Thursday when Churchill County Commissioners agreed to become a member of the American Lands Council during a 55-minute discussion at their regularly scheduled meeting.
Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl gave a presentation on the efforts of the organization to restore possession of at least a portion of the lands currently in federal hands.
According to its website, the American Lands Council's mission is to "advance prosperity and self-reliance, improve the health of public lands, and provide increased funding for public education by securing and defending local control of land access, land use and land ownership of public and private lands."
Dahl, a long-time rancher and former Fallon businessman, believes the prospects are promising.
"This is something we really feel can happen," he said. "It's got traction, we've got a lot of counties and individuals and companies on board."
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Dahl explained how the organization began to take shape after the Forest Service brought its proposed Travel Management Plan to Elko County commissioners in January of 2009. He indicated efforts to work with the process were not successful.
Dahl explained the passage of Utah's House Bill 148 ignited a drive to organize the American Lands Council. The Utah state bill asks the federal government to transfer BLM land to the state with the exception of monuments, wilderness areas and parks by Dec. 31, 2014.
Ken Ivory, the legislator who sponsored the Utah bill, was hired as president of the American Lands Council.
"This all came together last May," Dahl said during his presentation. "Since then, eight states in the West have either passed legislation or are in the process of getting to the point of being able to copy the Utah bill."
In addition to partnering with the American Lands Council, commissioners also voted to support of Assembly Bill 227, which is sponsored in the state Legislature by Sen. Pete Goicoechea and Assemblyman John Ellison.
The bill would set up Nevada Land Management Implementation Committee comprised of a member from each county to consider how the transfer of land from federal to state hands would be handled in preparation for the 2015 session.
"One thing we place a lot of emphasis on is transparency," Dahl said. "We want things happening here on a state level, where you have transparency."
One major advantage of a land transfer, the state would be able to better capitalize on its resources for multiple uses — grazing rights and mining operations, for example.
That would, however, mean reduced federal funding and also bring on added responsibilities and costs — wild fires being one important example.
"There are many questions," Dahl said. "What are the revenues for the state? What are the expenses going to be? How do we pay the bills, for instance, for fighting the fires that are now being paid by BLM? What can we do to prevent the fires so we don't have the bills?"
Dahl, who in 1992 was the Republican candidate to oppose Harry Reid for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, noted there is considerable opposition to the American Lands Council's efforts.
The Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter of Nevada and Eastern California website observes: "It will take more than a crystal ball to see what is in store for BLM-administered public lands in the next 25 years. Conservation efforts by Sierra Club volunteers and others could have significant impacts as changing administrations push for either more resource production or more resource protection. Which future do you want for the public lands?"
In Nevada, the Sage Grouse issue is part of that picture. The Sierra Club website notes: "Sage Grouse population declines of over 80 percent reflect the loss and degradation of critical sagebrush habitat from overgrazing, no-burn fire policies, range 'improvements' for livestock grazing, roads and power lines in the wrong places, the invasion of noxious weeds, and recently extensive habitat lost in the fire-cheatgrass cycle. Recently, BLM adopted grazing standards and guidelines for healthy rangelands, but to date, significant grazing reform on public lands has not occurred."
County Manager Eleanor Lockwood asked Dahl what level of participation would be needed, since the county's representative would likely face extra work.
"You'll have to have a commissioner who is dedicated to the proposition and willing to go the extra mile and extra meetings and so on, no question about it," Dahl responded.
"And who is actually setting the goal and the agenda for the American Lands Council in the pursuit of their mission?" Lockwood added.
Commissioner Bus Scharmann recalled how public lands were a hot topic during his 2012 campaign run.
"When I first started running for election, there were a lot of people who came to me who were concerned about a lot of things in our county, but none more than the encroachment by the federal government of our lands," he said.
The current concept is that the sale of land in any county would have to be approved by the county commission, Dahl responded.
" Those are the kinds of things that will be decided by the committee," Dahl said. "We've got to keep total transparency in anything that's done there, especially when it comes to sales."
After watching Ivory's video on the American Lands Council website, Commission Chairman Carl Erquiaga observed the idea of taking lands back from the federal government has shifted away from privatization in the past century.
"That's one concern I have and a concern a lot of people should have," Erquiaga said. "Can you hunt where you used to hunt, can you off-road where you used to off-road? If it becomes private, then the answer is no.
"I've talked to people who don't necessarily care for the way things like travel management, Sage Grouse, or those sort of things that BLM administers. But very near and dear to them is access to the public lands, and I think that is their biggest concern — mine, too."