Nevada desert to be sold for debt relief

Bush wants proceeds from public-land sales sent to Washington, D.C.

  • Auctioneer Mike McKee takes a bid during a 2003 BLM public land auction in Las Vegas. The 1,000 acres sold that day brought $232.3 million

    Steve Marcus, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Decades ago, the federal Bureau of Land Management was willing to lease or sell a desert acre around Las Vegas for as little as $2.50, but couldn’t find any takers.

Times have changed. Population in the Las Vegas valley has more than doubled since 1980, and now that a single acre of federal land here fetches up to $250,000, officials in Washington, D.C., have taken notice.

Congress originally passed the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act in 1998, to help accommodate rapid growth in Clark County. The law allowed the BLM to auction off some of its lands around Las Vegas. The proceeds were to be spent on local water infrastructure, recreation and conservation projects, and on educational programs and land-conservation initiatives throughout the state.

There’s a lot of money coming in: Since the law was enacted, its land auctions have generated almost $2 billion. The latest sale, held in February, netted more than $602 million.

Currently, all the proceeds remain in Nevada. But now, President Bush wants to use part of the windfall to help pay down the ballooning federal deficit. The president’s 2006 federal budget lists his new plan as a "mandatory proposal" that would divert 70 percent of the Nevada land-sale profits into the national treasury.

"The land sales have gone way beyond our expectations," says John Wright, a Department of Interior spokesman. "Redirecting a portion of the revenue won’t interfere with the intention of the law. There is plenty of money to go around and still meet the requirements of the act."

Eighty-five percent of the money is currently set aside to build parks and trails, and to acquire environmentally sensitive lands, such as breeding grounds for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and critical habitat for endangered pupfish and speckled dace. The act also funds the Clark County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan, along with projects to improve the clarity of Lake Tahoe. The state education fund receives 5 percent of the revenue, and the final 10 percent goes to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for infrastructure improvements.

When the bill was passed, the congressional budget office estimated that the auctions would take in approximately $70 million a year. But according to the 2006 budget, revenue from these land sales has proven to be "nearly eight times higher than anyone anticipated, with future revenue projections exceeding $1 billion a year."

Expect fireworks to fly

The Nevada delegation has vowed to challenge the president’s proposal when it hits the floor in Congress. Republican Reps. Jim Gibbons and Jon Porter have already sent a letter to the federal budget office protesting the plan. The proceeds serve as "critical compensation for the federal government’s control over our land," they say, since roughly 87 percent of Nevada is federally owned and provides no tax revenue to the state.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who helped author the 1998 bill, says, "We’ve done some remarkable things throughout this state with the proceeds from these land sales, and it is absolutely critical that the funds continue to stay right here in Nevada. I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that the intent and integrity of this legislation is honored."

Nevada Democrats have been even more direct. "They are attempting to steal our money; it’s very disturbing," Rep. Shelley Berkley says. "I hear the argument that it’s taking in more money than expected. That’s a heck of a way to reward excellence."

If President’s Bush’s proposal wins approval in Congress, the state would still receive around $360 million per year under current BLM projections — about five times as much as originally predicted. Funding for the education and water infrastructure projects would not be affected. However, the percentage going to conservation would shrink to 15 percent from the current 85 percent. The loss of land-acquisition money would be a significant blow to environmental efforts in the state. "We’ve been acquiring hotspots for biodiversity," says Jane Feldman, conservation chair for the Sierra Club. "The kinds of things we are getting are phenomenal. To lose the money to obtain these would be devastating."

Similar land acts are being discussed in five other Nevada counties — Churchill, Lyon, Pershing, White Pine and Washoe — and states such as Idaho are considering measures as well. However, proponents fear that if any of these new programs succeed, the government may come calling for their revenues as well.

The author writes from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "BLM land sold without study."

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