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Backers Of State Control Of U.S. Land Gear Up For New Push

RENO — Backers of a plan to force the federal government to turn over control of millions of acres of land to Nevada are gearing up for new efforts in Congress and hoped-for support from President-elect Donald Trump.

They're starting with plans to convince a skeptical public that state control of nearly 7.3 million acres currently under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wouldn't disrupt hunting, wildlife and off-highway riding — or stick taxpayers with big bills for fighting wildfires.

"If they put this on the ballot today it would fail," said Nevada state Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, who supports the effort.

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"We are just looking for the opportunity to showcase the state can manage these lands better," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The most detailed plan is a former bill sponsored in Congress by U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., called the Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864.

The bill, which expired with the end of the session, included two phases of land takeovers.

The first would cover nearly 7.3 million acres, including about half within a checkerboard pattern traversing the state from Sparks to Wendover. Property the government has already "designated for disposal" was also included.

The second phase would transfer millions more acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation "upon request by the state or local governments."

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Designated wilderness, conservation areas, national monuments, wildlife refuges, land managed by the defense and energy departments and American Indian reservation land would be exempt.

All told, Amodei's bill could have reduced the percentage of land in Nevada owned by the federal government from about 87 percent to 75 percent.

Critics called it overreach, compared with consensus land bills that tend to focus on smaller transfers and specific properties.

"It is nothing like the lands bills the state has done in the past," said Kyle Davis, a consultant for the Nevada Conservation League and opponent of the concept.

Bids for state control have roots in states' rights flare-ups such as the Sagebrush Rebellion and, more recently, armed standoffs outside Bunkerville, Nevada, and in Oregon involving protesters and members of cattleman Cliven Bundy's family.

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Mike Baughman who created a 2014 report to the Nevada Legislature detailing how a takeover of public lands could work, said he heard concerns about wholesale land sales.

The report said Nevada could generate $56 million to $206 million annually in revenue from the land, with money going to schools and other uses.

During a recent meeting with proponents of the Nevada bill, Idaho lawmaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, called it important to emphasize revenue prospects to attract public support.

"The beneficiaries are the school kids, that allays a lot of concerns," he said.

Others, including Goicoechea, have said revenues might be over-estimated. They express concerns about costs, particularly firefighting.

In recent decades, more than 6 million acres of Nevada rangeland has burned, with the cost of firefighting and landscape rehabilitation largely borne by the federal government.

A recent example is the Hot Pot fire, which burned more than 122,000 acres of mostly federal land near Midas last July.

In addition to the cost of fighting the fire, the federal government is footing a $5.1 million bill to rehabilitate the burned land.

"I haven't heard one person give me a straight answer on where that money is going to come from," said Brad Brooks, a Wilderness Society regional director in Idaho who has studied land transfer proposals across the West.

"The idea you are just switching managers totally ignores economic reality that the state would have to bear the burden of managing firefighting cost," he said.

Goicoechea said he was confident the state could do a better job managing fires.

During a meeting with proponents, Amodei acknowledged the difficulty of getting a bill through Congress but said he would try again.

Supporters won't be the only ones who weigh in, he said.