States Find Local Use for Federal Land Profits
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Some western cities have spread out about as far as they can go. More than half the land in the west is owned by the federal government and sprawling subdivisions are now bumping up against the boundaries of national forests or rangelands.
To ease the crowding, the federal government has agreed to sell some of those public lands, and as pressure builds for more sales, there's a push to circumvent longstanding laws and deliver more of the profits to local governments.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY reporting:
In the 1990s, Las Vegas was one of those cities bursting at the seams. So the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off thousands of acres of federal land surrounding the city and the money poured in.
Mr. JIM HUGHES (Nevada Bureau of Land Management): Over $4 billion.
BRADY: Jim Hughes is a deputy director with the BLM.
Mr. HUGHES: It's brought in much more money than was estimated at the time of passage of the law.
BRADY: But not a dime of that money will leave Nevada. Five percent will be spent on Nevada's schools. Twice that goes to the local water district for pipelines and treatment plants and the rest is channeled to federal projects, but only in Nevada.
Some of those projects have raised a few eyebrows. The Bush administration questioned a $42 million allocation for a shooting park outside Las Vegas. But Jim Hughes defends the park.
Mr. HUGHES: People will go out and they'll take, you know, empty bottles of beer, soda pop, etcetera, and they'll put them on the public lands and they'll have target shooting, doing things like that.
BRADY: Hughes says the park will give gun owners an approved place for target practice. Money from Nevada land sales also has been spent on lights for a softball field, a community center and city sidewalks that are part of the urban trail system in Las Vegas. Janine Blaeloch is with the Western Lands Project.
Ms. JANINE BLAELOCH (Western Lands Project): So in addition to losing public land that belongs to all of us, we are also subsidizing their local government.
BRADY: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has been an ardent defender of the Nevada law. In fact, when the Bush administration proposed diverting 70 percent of the money from the sales back to the Federal Treasury, the senator threatened to withhold his support for the president's interior secretary nominee. Senator Reid did not respond to NPR's repeated requests for an interview.
Other counties around the West have taken note of southern Nevada's good fortune and now they're pursuing similar legislation. Jim Eardley is a Washington County commissioner in Utah. He says a lot of folks east of the Mississippi River don't understand why Western counties deserve to profit from federal land sales. He says in the East, counties are able to collect a lot more property taxes.
Mr. JIM EARDLEY (Washington County Commissioner): Those areas are almost 100 percent wholly owned privately. We have to deal with a situation out here where the federal government owns the most of our land. And we have to try to exist out here on a very limited tax base compared to those that own almost all the ground privately.
BRADY: If Eardley's county succeeds in passing a land sale bill in Congress, it'll become part of an emerging trend that worries people like Charles Wilkinson. He's a University of Colorado law professor and an expert on public land law.
Mr. CHARLES WILKINSON (University of Colorado): Sales of public lands are treated as though you're making money off the sale. But look, these are capital assets. You don't go making money by selling the furniture out of your house. And so, yes, you have a certain amount of income coming in, but then you've got to net that off against the fact that you've lost an important economic and social asset that the United States had and isn't going to have anymore.
BRADY: Wilkinson says there are some tracts of public land that should be in private hands. But he says the country already has laws in place that allow those tracks to be sold. This trend toward congressionally mandated land sales has split the environmental community.
Typically when it comes time to draft a bill, environmentalists have been given a seat at the negotiating table. And their reward for not challenging the bill is new protections for wilderness areas. Again, Janine Blaeloch.
Ms. BLAELOCH: Politicians are at least tacitly saying to the environmental community, if you want wilderness designation, the payoff is going to have to be opening up other public lands and making way for other types of development.
BRADY: Blaeloch refuses to engage in this type of quid pro quo deal. But Jerry Greenburg with the Wilderness Society is more pragmatic.
Mr. JERRY GREENBURG (The Wilderness Society): The delegation said we are going to pass this bill. And our choice was to stand on the sidelines and throw stones at it as it went by or to engage and try to get real land protection out of it. Not everybody agrees you should engage in that sort of situation, but we felt it was the most responsible thing to do.
BRADY: And in one case, says Greenburg, nearly 800 thousand acres of new wilderness was protected as a result. His group hopes to get similar benefits from the Utah bill. But negotiations have not gone smoothly so far. The Utah delegation hopes to introduce its land sale bill some time this summer and other counties likely will follow.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.