A proposed bill in the Nevada Legislature represents the most far-reaching current state challenge to the federal government’s vast land holdings in the rural West.
Assembly Bill 408, introduced by Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R-Las Vegas) in March, would require the federal government to ask permission to use land within Nevada’s borders. It would also remove the federal government’s authority over state water rights and allow county commissions throughout Nevada to parcel out state land for commercial use.
‘In the Hands of the People’
“AB 408 prohibits the federal government from owning certain lands or the right to use public water,” Fiore said on her website. “Currently, the federal government owns 84 percent of Nevada’s land and has been enforcing taxes and fees as they see fit for nearly 150 years. … Simply put, we need to get our land back in the hands of the people where it belongs. We have a right to regulate our public lands, water rights, and natural resources.”
Similar state measures have been found unconstitutional by federal courts, but supporters still see them as an important assertion of states’ rights.
Supporters of the bill gathered for a rally in Carson City on March 31, led by rancher Cliven Bundy, who rose to national attention in 2014 over a dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM officials had accused Bundy of failing to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties for his use of federal land adjacent to his ranch in southern Nevada. Bundy, whose ranch has been in his family since the 1870s, says he owes nothing and doesn’t recognize the federal government’s authority over lands near his property. Fearing bloodshed between armed Bundy supporters and BLM officers, the government withdrew its agents.
Nevada is not the only state chafing under the federal government’s land management authority. Bills have been introduced in the legislatures of 11 Western states this year to rein in federal control over lands in the region.
Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow says it is unsurprising Western states are demanding greater control over the federal lands within their borders.
“Washington, DC is the biggest landowner in the country, and a disproportionate amount of that land is in the West,” Rucker said. “Residents of the West find their economic destinies being largely determined by the whims of bureaucrats in faraway Washington. It is they who make land-use decisions. It is they who determine how water is to be distributed. It is they who decide whether Westerners will have access to their abundant natural resources.
“The West suffers under its quasi-colonial status,” Rucker said. “Public officials and citizens’ groups in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, and elsewhere should continue to seek ways to rid their constituents of the shackles of widespread federal ownership of millions upon millions of acres of land.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.