A large map of Nevada hangs on my office wall. The splotches of color on it never cease to amaze students and colleagues who step in to look at it. There’s a series of north-south green fingers that look, to the eyes of author John McPhee, like “an army of caterpillars marching south.” These are our national forests, encompassing many of Nevada’s treed ranges.
A diagonal pink and brown swath in south-central Nevada looks as forbidding on the map as it is on the ground. These lands are used to support our national defense. Purple surrounds the state’s highest peak, Mt. Wheeler; lines the shores of Lake Mead and the Colorado River; and forms a triangle along the California border north of Death Valley. These lands are our national treasures, committed by law to protection by the National Park Service.
But two colors in particular startle mapgazers most and best reflect the residue of Nevada’s history as an arid, public lands state. The map on my wall is nearly 70 percent yellow and less than 15 percent white. The yellow land falls under the management of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The scant white land is all that is privately owned.
The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA) is accomplishing what federal law and policy failed to do — though not for want of trying — for more than 100 years: the privatization of significant amounts of land in Clark County. Since 1999, more than 10,000 acres of federal land in and around Las Vegas have been auctioned to private developers under the act, creating a pot of nearly $3 billion dollars. The November 2005 auction brought in more than $790 million. Within the present disposal boundaries, nearly 46,000 acres remain to be released for auction.
Fully appreciating the policy innovation of SNPLMA requires looking into the past. For more than a century, Congress aimed to privatize Western public lands and spur economic development through such laws as the Homestead Act, the Stockraising Homestead Act, and the Nevada-specific Pittman Act. These laws offered federal land for sale at nominal prices if settlers placed the lands into agricultural production.
Privatization was notoriously ineffective here in Southern Nevada where water is scarce and the sun so fierce. But until 1976, the yellow lands were “open to entry” by settlers and subject to sale. That year, Congress recognized the lasting value of our public lands; it repealed the land disposal laws and declared it to be the policy of the United States to retain ownership over the public lands and to manage them for public purposes.
The century of haphazard land privatization left Nevada with several problems. There was precious little land in private hands, particularly around Las Vegas, challenging the ambitions of a growing state. And the disposal laws created a crazy quilt of ownership, challenging both developers and federal land managers. Before SNPLMA, the crazy quilt’s pattern could be re-pieced by exchanging federal land for private land. But studies showed that the United States got the short end of the bargain and often traded away land at far less than its true value.
SNPLMA sought to solve these problems through a simple policy innovation. To ensure the American people receive fair value for the public land, it allows sale only by auction, and the proceeds of the auctions are statutorily bound to be used for purposes essential to sound federal land management. Importantly, this includes acquiring lands that have high value for conservation but low value for economic development. Under SNPLMA, public land is released for development, the feds get fair value, and there is a pool of money available to help ensure environmental conservation.
Seven years into the policy experiment, some new challenges have arisen. The greater-than-expected purse from the auctions has led to suggestions of using SNPLMA money for other things, including financing the U.S. government’s general operations. The onus is on Nevada and its federal land managers to demonstrate that the money will truly enhance conservation efforts. But Congress’ judgment in 1976 should not be forgotten: The public lands are assets of lasting value to all of us and should remain so. Any fruits from their privatization should be devoted to enhancing the value of the lands remaining in public ownership.