Longest-serving agency head retiring | NevadaAppeal.com

Longest-serving agency head retiring

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

In her years as head of the Nevada State Lands Division, Pam Wilcox has bought and sold thousands of acres of property for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Wilcox retired from the position Friday after 25 years and five months as State Lands Administrator. She not only held that job far longer than any of her predecessors, she was the longest serving agency director currently in state government.

With her departure, that honor falls to State Archivist Guy Rocha, who signed on to his position just four months after Wilcox was appointed.

The Lands Division is responsible for managing and protecting an estimated 250,000 acres of property belonging to the state of Nevada ” all state lands except those held by the university system, the department of transportation and the Legislature.

She said the division replaced the old Nevada Lands Surveyor, an elected post that ran into trouble in the late 1950s amid allegations the surveyor was practically giving away state land to influential people for “very little money.”

The result was legislation that created the division and installed a law stating that state property could only be sold at fair market value at public auction.

Since then, she said, Nevada has done much better in its land management by following pretty simple rules. First, she said, do everything up front and in the open. Second, she said: “You sit on it until it becomes valuable.”

That rule, Wilcox said, has been used repeatedly as cities such as Las Vegas and Reno expanded outward until land once in the middle of nowhere was suddenly part of the city and much more valuable.

Many times, she said, those pieces of properties are traded or sold to get another piece of land the state needs for a specific purpose such as a new Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Wilcox is most proud of the work her division has done at Lake Tahoe. It started in 1986 when voters passed $31 million in bonds to help people who were trapped with land in the Tahoe Basin they couldn’t build on because their property had been ruled “environmentally sensitive.”

“We bought about 500 parcels at Tahoe,” she said, adding those sellers were voluntary so they could get out from under taxes on property they couldn’t get permits to develop.

“Those lands will be vacant forever.”

But the Tahoe duties greatly expanded after the 1997 Tahoe Summit in which President Bill Clinton, state officials from California and Nevada as well as local officials around the basin committed to hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental projects.

“All of the sudden the state had an $82 million commitment at Tahoe and no governmental structure to do it,” she said.

And she said no single agency could do it all. So she and others formed a team. There is now an expert from the forestry division, a wildlife biologist and recreational specialist from the Parks Division in her office as well as a land agent and environmental scientist. In fact, seven of the 25 in her division work on Tahoe projects.

“This office is just a little piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Outside the Tahoe Basin, she has helped acquire thousands of acres from the Bureau of Land Management under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act to create parks throughout the state and more land form private ranchers.

The property for South Fork State Recreation Area in Elko County was her first acquisition. But she said developing that recreational area was bittersweet because the two ranches the state purchased as part of the deal ” “beautiful green gems” ” are now covered by the waters of the South Fork Reservoir.

The Lands department also manages the $65.5 million of the Question One bond money, which is set aside for conservation and acquisition of lands. Part of that money was used to help acquire the Bently property along the Carson River just south of Carson City a year ago.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve acquired a lot of land for state parks,” she said.

And she has helped purchase numerous private parcels now part of the Capitol complex, including the ranchland beneath her office in the Bryan Building. In addition, the list includes the parking north of the Capitol, the old Carson Courthouse, land for the Las Vegas Sawyer Building and numerous DMV, Highway Patrol and National Guard sites.

She proudly says only one parcel ever had to be taken by condemnation during her tenure ” a residential lot near the Bryan Building on South Stewart Street. Her final deal, acquisition of a 50-acre home for the National Guard Readiness Center in Southern Nevada, closes this week.

“I’ve loved this job,” said Wilcox, adding that it’s been both her profession and recreation for most of the past 25 years.

With a degree in political science and “absolutely fascinated by communities and how they change in time,” she said the job was perfect for her.

“It was a hobby that turned into a profession.”

But, she said, it’s time for her to retire, play with her grandchildren and develop other interests. But, she said, she’s leaving the office in good hands. Her deputy James R. Lawrence takes over the position today.

– Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.