weather icon Partly Cloudy

State officials poor custodians of federal land

At the just­-adjourned Nevada Legislature, lawmakers narrowly approved a measure calling on Congress to transfer title of public lands in Nevada from the federal government to state government. It’s the latest version of the Sagebrush Rebellion launched in 1979, although the sponsor of that original measure — Dean Rhoads of Tuscarora — was not crazy about subsequent groups that claimed the name.

These efforts are premised on the notion that states would be better custodians of the land than the feds.

After the post-Colonial period, when states entered the union, they were given care of large portions of public land, the money generated by those lands to be used for each state’s schools. Nevada, like other Western states with mountainous regions, received twice as much land as states in the Midwest and Great Plains that were mostly flat. (The original 13 Colonies had set up their own school trust lands — a tradition from England — and turned the rest of their public lands over to the federal government.)

A township is 6 miles by 6 miles and contains 36 sections. In 1864 Nevada was entrusted with parcels 16 and 36 in every township as school trust lands, or 3.9 million acres.

The states didn’t own the land. They held the land in trust forever for each state’s students and schools. They could sell off the lands, but they had to put the money into permanent school funds.

Nevada didn’t like its acreage. It complained to the feds and asked to be able to give up half its school trust lands to trade for 2 million acres of better lands of the state’s own choice. (The state had already sold off 70,000 acres.)

Now, remember, Western state such as Nevada had already been given twice as much land as other states to make up for its rough terrain, so Nevada was looking for a solution to a problem that had already been solved. Nevertheless, Congress agreed. So Nevada by 1880 lost half its land by its own actions.

Later, Nevada complained again about its poor lands, even though these lands had been selected by Nevada officials. But — surprise — they had done a poor job of selection, and Congress agreed to another exchange, this time of 30,000 acres.

As the years passed, the lands and the revenue they generated tended to be lost through Nevada’s poor trusteeship. There were sleazy deals that lost some of the lands.

After his death, it was discovered that state Treasurer Eben Rhodes had embezzled $106,000, including $30,000 in school land trust funds.

Some state legislators used inside information to get their hands on trust lands. Officials came up with a plan to create state parks from some of the trust lands, which was illegal. The state attorney general vetoed that idea, but later state officials quietly went ahead with the plan.

Slowly, bit by bit over the decades, the state frittered away the trust lands. Grand juries met, changes were made, scandals came and went, the state surveyor general’s office was eliminated in the 1950s.

In the 1980s, state lands division director Pam Wilcox and her aide Bob Stewart uncovered the illegal 1920s’ plan to use school trust lands for state parks and for some other purposes, such as the Nevada dump for chemical and low-level nuclear wastes at Beatty. The state schools fund was reimbursed, but Utah’s Center for the School of the Future has reported, “In no instance have Permanent School Funds outperformed the growth in the value of the original land grants.”

Some states replaced trust lands lost. Nevada never did. Some states, such as Montana, actually put additional land into their original trusts voluntarily. Nevada never has.

Today of its original 4 million acres, Nevada has fewer than 3,000 acres remaining, mos in Washoe County, followed by Nye, Carson City, Clark, Lyon, and Elko — less than a percentage point of the original 3.9 million acres. The lands in the other 11 counties are gone.

This was happened under Republicans, Democrats and Silverites.

By all means, let’s turn the public lands over to Nevada’s state government.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.