The overwhelming federal control of land in Lincoln County underscored presentations from local leaders to state legislatures at a recent meeting in Pioche.
The Nevada Legislative Committee on Public Lands convened its monthly meeting on Friday, June 29 at Thompson’s Opera House. The group of eight legislature members and one city mayor heard from several Lincoln County-based leaders, including UNR Cooperative Extension’s Holly Gatzke, Lincoln County Regional Development Authority’s Jeff Fontaine, Lincoln County Commissioner Varlin Higbee, and Nevada Farm Bureau Federation President Bevan Lister. These leaders highlighted the difficulties of building a sustainable economic base in a county that is around 98 percent federally controlled land.
The committee holds meetings throughout Nevada during the interim period between sessions of the legislature. Its purpose is to provide a forum for the discussion of issues related to land owned or controlled by the federal government (public lands), which in Nevada accounts for over 85 percent of the state. The committee monitors and makes recommendations for legislation on issues including environmental quality, federal land management policies, grazing, military bases, mining, recreation, water, wilderness, wildfires, and wild horses.
Fontaine said the meeting had good attendance and he was pleased to see locals presenting insights and concerns to the committee over public land issues.
“[The committee] was engaged and asked a lot of questions,” Fontaine said. “I’m glad they came to Pioche.”
Higbee said in his presentation that the Lincoln County Land Act and the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act provide for the sale of up to 90,000 acres of land, which would increase the tax base in Lincoln County.
“It has been 13 years, and less than 500 acres have been put up for public auction,” Higbee said. “Because of that, there has been no increase in tax revenues for the county.”
Higbee added that the cost of social programs mandated by the state and federal governments have gone up, as have benefits for county employees, which he expects will send the county budget into the red in three to five years.
“Abandoning programs and laying off employees would be the result.”
Higbee asked that the state support fair market auctions of public lands; soften regulations for developments on federal lands, including mining regulations; change water laws to make it easier to claim vested water rights for livestock grazing on federal lands; and take control of the wild horse population.
This is the second meeting Higbee has attended this year. He said it is important to try to educate the members of the committee in hopes they will help guide their colleagues toward state land policies that will benefit rural areas like Lincoln County.
The committee is preparing to make its next set of recommendations to the legislature and is taking suggestions until August 3. Bill drafts have to be turned in by November. A county can submit a bill draft as well, but an assemblyman or senator has to be willing to introduce the draft into legislative committee.
Higbee sees the top priority as the state taking action on the wild horse overpopulation. Second is getting the rest of the 90,000 acres sold and on the tax rolls.
Gatzke also highlighted the need to expand Lincoln County’s land base for business and reduce restrictions on public lands. She mentioned the opportunity for businesses to utilize public lands through tourism efforts and provide an environment to entice small business owners. She also said there is a need to provide support for quality broadband and cell service and utilizing state funds to match federal grants.
Fontaine talked about how public lands provide opportunities for all kinds of recreation and scenery. “But of course, the downside is, it leaves little land for development and a tax base.”
He discussed the lack of private land for economic development; the limited property tax base for government services, how public land policy currently hinders infrastructure development; and how resource-based industries are impacted by federal land management decisions and the slow permit process.
Fontaine recommended incentivizing the industrial use of biomass; encouraging additional BLM resources for permitting; supporting multiple uses of public lands; providing funding mechanisms for development of key infrastructure (broadband, transportation, electric power transmission); and promoting tourism and outdoor recreation.
Bevan Lister, with the Farm Bureau, highlighted the history of agriculture in Nevada and the the grazing reductions that have taken place since federal environmental policy changes, which have caused difficult to ranching families, increasing wildfire occurrences and unsustainable wild horse populations. Lister said several important issues need to be addressed including water law, procedures that support agricultural production, and the need for Nevada to have a comprehensive statement on public land policy.
These presenters were among many others representing a variety of interests who spoke at the lengthy meeting. All the presentations can be found at https://www.leg.state.nv.us/App/InterimCommittee/REL/Interim2017/Committee/1406/Meetings