“The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” U.S. Constitution, Article Four, Section 3.
“But the Paramount Allegiance of every [Nevada] citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers...” Nevada Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy claims he doesn’t owe the federal government over $1 million in grazing fees because he thinks the U.S. government has no authority over land in Nevada. Many of his followers agree. In reality, the federal government has owned land in Nevada since the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, when the U.S. signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Federal ownership was confirmed when Nevada became a state in 1864. “That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.” Nevada 1864 Enabling Act, Section 4.
This ownership was reaffirmed in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court: “...The complete power that Congress has over federal lands under this clause [U.S. Constitution].” Kleppe v. New Mexico.
Ignoring these laws, Bundy brought a group of followers to the Nevada state legislature in March, pushing for passage of Assembly Bill 408.
A letter from the Bundy family to the Nevada Assembly stated that this bill would “declare Nevada land, water, minerals, and all other resources as property of the citizens of the State of Nevada.”
The bill would also have allowed commercial development of public lands, if approved by county commissioners, and would have required the federal government to get permission to use any land within Nevada’s borders.
Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore was a sponsor of the bill. In an April 1, 2015, story, she said, “The federal government has claimed 84.5 percent of our land. That means they are using up all of the resources that we have.” She said AB408 would return control of the land to the state, thus demonstrating her complete ignorance of Nevada history and law.
Another supporter, Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus who represents Churchill County, said, “The federal government does not own our land. We own our land. The federal government manages our land.”
She is wrong, but these pseudo-patriots don’t understand the Constitution and don’t care.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler from Gardnerville said, “I don’t believe the federal government should own one inch of land in Nevada.” Whatever he believes, the federal government not only owns land in Nevada, it carries the burden of managing it. If Nevada took over management of these lands, the negative financial consequences would be enormous.
Nevada would have to sell huge parcels of land in areas such as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Great Basin National Park to ease the additional burden on our state budget. Areas now open to the public for camping, hunting, fishing and other uses, could potentially be destroyed by commercial development.
Nevada’s economy could take a massive hit. The federal grazing fee is $1.35 per head of cattle. Nevada charges $15.50. This would increase grazing costs over 1000 percent. Could Nevada ranchers absorb those increased costs?
Another added expense would be the cost of fighting wildfires. The number of fires and the destruction increases every year. In 2013, Nevada had 763 fires that burned 162,907 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The cost of fighting these fires, running into millions of dollars, has doubled in the last 20 years. Currently, the federal government covers a large part of the costs. Could Nevada handle these expenses all by itself?
On April 21, 34 members of the Nevada Assembly voted AB408 down; eight Republicans voted for it. Republicans/conservatives in several other western states have proposed similar bills. The common thread running through these bills is the historical and fiscal ignorance so prevalent among right-wingers.
They don’t understand the background to federal ownership of state lands. They don’t understand the ramifications of state takeovers of these lands. Republicans are acting like spoiled children, wanting what they want without any thought for the long-term consequences.
They should read the Constitution and listen to Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.”
Preserving our natural resources should trump short-sighted selfishness.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.