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Politics of public lands plague candidates

It doesn't take a neurosurgeon to tell Dr. Ben Carson is a quick study.

The Republican presidential candidate visited Southern Nevada this past week, stopping off in Pahrump before dropping in on the Las Vegas Review-Journal's editorial board. As in the televised debates, Carson's unflappable demeanor ran in dramatic contrast to the bombast of fellow GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

In addition to answering the standard campaign questions about health care and foreign policy, Carson was also queried about his position on public lands use and the beleaguered Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump project.

They weren't trick questions. Every presidential candidate who sets foot in the Silver State is asked the same things. Most candidates do as Carson did: smile politely, probably silently thank the person in charge of prepping the candidate on local and regional issues, and hold forth with generous generalities meant to provide thoughtful commentary before moving on to the next subject.

And so it was Monday.

In Nye County, public lands use isn't just the topic of the day: It's a question that has weighed heavily on rural residents for generations. Understanding that a majority of the population in the West's rural counties advocates privatization of public lands is the easy part.

"The fact that the government owns 2.4 billion acres of land is ridiculous," Carson said. "... I would advocate returning land to the states. It's not like they're irresponsible people who don't care what happens. I just don't see any benefit from the government owning so much land."

Approximately 86 percent of Nevada's 110,622 square miles is owned or controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management has stewardship of about 67 percent, or 48 million acres.

That's a big space, but the politics of public lands in a West growing more parched and populated is greater still. That makes it more than a regional issue, or a topic deserving of seemingly sincere but undeniably vague responses from an intellectually gifted candidate.

"I think what I would advocate is that states begin to work with the BLM in terms of what they would like to have," Carson said. " ... It doesn't have to be a sudden change. It can be a gradual change."

But, as ever, the devil is in the details. And public lands politics has bedeviled the brightest minds in Washington.

This isn't particularly a criticism of Carson, really. It's that way with just about all the candidates who move through Nevada, the land of big fundraising, outsized influences and personalities, and early caucuses that give its political players a sense of self-importance.

Many candidates still seem to think the subject of public land use and stewardship is a regional issue, something that takes place somewhere "out West." But the decisions we make in the coming years on our public lands will have an impact on the entire nation. Whether the subject is water use, agriculture, global warming, travel and tourism, or natural resources development, the next president will be compelled to play a leadership role as never before. The issues are too important and the challenges too immediate to be left to outmoded thinking and old political bureaucracies and paradigms.

Asked Monday about his visit to Pahrump, which recently found itself unfairly ranked among America's worst small cities, Carson observed, "It is a beautiful place, and I wish more of it belonged to the people."

See that? He said just the right thing.

But does Carson, undeniably a quick study, really get it?

For that matter, does any candidate?

— Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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