As Presidential candidates make their way to Nevada, the economy will undoubtedly be among their talking points, and in the West, the future of the economy has much to do with land.
The issue of land ownership is perhaps nowhere more important than in Nevada, which is overwhelmingly hogtied by the federal government. Holding title to over 81 percent of Nevada land, the federal government controls a greater percentage of Nevada than of any other state in the union. And that’s a problem — both for Nevada’s economy and taxpayers in other states.
So long as the federal government occupies Nevada lands, individuals and private enterprise are unable to generate prosperity throughout most of the state. Restricted to less than 20 percent of its own land, the state’s ability to diversify its economy is constricted, and its capacity to likewise maintain employment during economic downturns is crippled. During the most recent recession, America’s energy sector grew by 40 percent. This growth strongly suggests that the Silver State would have seen less economic devastation had it controlled its own land and resources.
By gaining title to even a portion of the over 56 million acres the federal government currently occupies within its borders, Nevada could easily generate over $1 billion in revenue through sales and leases of the land. During the 2013-2015 legislative interim, Nevada’s Land Management Task Force produced a conservative analysis that determined local jurisdictions could easily reap an additional $205.8 million annually by managing just 7.2 million acres land currently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. With control of 45 million acres, state and local governments could see revenues of $1.3 billion per year.
Those who want to see Western state lands held in perpetuity by the federal government claim states would be unable to bear the financial burden of managing the land, particularly when it comes to fighting wildfires. However, those large wildfires have increased on the federal government’s watch and are widely recognized, including by the Congressional Research Service, to frequently stem from federal mismanagement. Conversely, many states — with an inherently greater incentive to protect those lands — have identified many ways to reduce both the number of fires and the costs of fighting them.
States’ abilities to more nimbly manage the land within their borders means such a transfer would be fiscally responsible for both states and the federal government. According to the Property and Environment Research Center, for every dollar the federal government spends managing land, it loses 27 cents. Conversely, states create an average of $14.51 for each dollar they spend on such efforts.
Transferring the land would also give states like Nevada access to natural resources, opening up opportunities to procure critical elements at home rather than abroad while also spurring economic development. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Nevada could be home to some of the most energy-rich lands in the world. Yet much of that land is untouchable, under the thumb of a recalcitrant federal government.
One such area is the Chainman Shale, located beneath Railroad Valley in eastern Nevada. U.S.G.S. estimates the rock formation contains 1.598 billion barrels of oil and 1.836 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to an analysis by Dr. Timothy J. Considine, an energy economics professor at the University of Wyoming, developing this federally controlled region would create 21,797 new jobs over the next 10 years and have a $5.2 billion positive impact on the economy.
The idea of returning federally held land to states — which would exclude National Parks, military bases, Indian Reservations and wilderness areas designated by Congress — has been eminently successful, both in the United States and Canada. American states that were considered “Western” during the 19th century, from Michigan to Florida, were initially territories held by the federal government. After decades of petitioning, the people of those territories were able, as states, to take control of virtually all of that territorial land. However, an increasingly grasping federal government in the 19th century began ignoring its earlier commitment to admit states on equal footing with the original states. Thus today, it still controls over 50 percent of Western states and less than 5 percent of the states of the Midwest and East.
Significantly, even Canada has recently transferred ownership of what were once federal lands to local territories. The move has been so successful and created such prosperity that the last territory without control of its lands is now seeking such authority.
It’s high time the federal government treats Westerners as equals with their neighbors in the East, and ceases obstructing the full equality necessary for economic vitality in Nevada and the rest of the country.
Chantal Lovell is communications director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.