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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...