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November 20, 2017

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Divisive federal land grab legislation gets its first hearing

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Kyle Roerink

Larry Johnson, president of Nevada Coalition of Wildlife, speaks to a group of about 50 protesters in Carson City in opposition to a measure asking the federal government to turn over land for the state to control.

A retread of the Sagebrush Rebellion is ramping up in the Legislature thanks to a GOP-backed measure calling upon the federal government to transfer 7.2 million acres for the state to manage.

The effort, backed by 10 Republicans, repeats a decades-old rallying cry in the West that puts lawmakers and constituents at ideological odds about Nevada’s ability to manage more property without costing taxpayers money.

Senators in a legislative operations committee met Monday for more than two hours to hear public testimony on the proposed resolution, SJR1. Dozens of supporters and opponents filled committee rooms in Carson City, Elko and Las Vegas to provide input on the bill, diving into a topic that involves some of the most complicated and emotionally charged land issues in the West.

Nevada has been in this position before.

It considered a similar proposal in 2001 and was a state at the forefront of a public lands debate known as the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s.

Nevada’s efforts dovetail with similar efforts currently in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico.

The crux of the debate is about the money that would be gained or lost in acquiring responsibilities to manage an additional 10 percent of the state’s land.

The federal government currently manages about 87 percent of Nevada and operates at a $100 million deficit.

Nevada lawmakers in support of the proposal are convinced Nevada can make a profit and control public lands better than federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service while identifying a handful of areas they want the state to control, which include parts of Gold Butte, the Sonoma Mountain Range and the Humboldt Mountain Range.

“I believe we can show that we can manage these lands at a profit,” said Pete Goicoechea, a Republican sponsor of the bill and member of a legislative task force created to investigate the issue.

The proposed land transfer could earn Nevada $56 million to $200 million per year, according to a study conducted by Carson City-based economic consultant Mike Baughman. Nevada’s 17 counties agreed to chip in to pay $69,000 for the study.

Opponents disagree with the estimates and highlight the chasm between supporters and opponents. The numbers were derived from averages in other Western states that gain revenue from oil, gas, coal, timber and other natural resources not readily available in Nevada.

Kyle Davis, a lobbyist for the Nevada Conservation League, said the state could lose at least $50 million per year if it obtained the federally managed land.

The joint resolution would not aim for land maintained by the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the National Park Service and others. But it would warrant the sale of at least 30,000 acres to private interests.

The resolution says the state could go after other federal land after a 10-year period.

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