Losing Ground in Nevada

By Diane Alden
  • Tuesday, December 1, 1998

It is the struggle over federal land policy which will decide the economic future of rural Nevada and the entire intermountain West. The powerful green movement has used government and foundation money, the media and the concerns of well-meaning people to influence policies which do not reflect sound science or the opinion of most Nevadans. But the media and politicians don’t seem interested in getting at the truth. Revealing new studies by Dr. Hudson Glimp and Dr. Tony Lesperance will probably be ignored in favor of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda opining about "saving the land." The question is for what reasons and for whom is the land being saved—and at what price.

The Truth vs. Conventional Wisdom

A recent study by Dr. Hudson Glimp of the University of Nevada, Reno, a significant majority of urban Nevadans care greatly about the future of rural Nevada. Before coming to UNR, Dr. Glimp served as a director for the United States Department of Agriculture in Idaho, where he was charged with implementing policy on more than 100,000 acres of federal land. At that time he began to question conventional wisdom regarding urban versus rural attitudes toward federal lands. He came to the conclusion that current attitudes were based on unscientific conjecture fueled by a political and special interest agenda.

In conjunction with his colleagues Lynn Huntsinger and Edwin Smith, Glimp designed a unique study: Nevada Public Lands and You: Urban vs. Rural Summary of Nevada Citizens on the Uses, Management, and Decision Making Processes Related to Federal Lands in Nevada. Designed to discover how the citizens of Nevada want decisions regarding federal lands to be made, the results of the study are a bombshell which may demolish conventional wisdom.

City Folks Care About Country Cousins

Sent to every county in Nevada, the survey engendered an astounding 1,111 responses. From Nevada’s urban areas—Clark, Washoe, Carson, and Douglas Counties—the response rate was 48 percent. Rural areas returned 58 percent of the questionnaires. (Most survey professionals consider a reply rate of 35 percent as excellent.) Results showed 74 percent of urban and 76 percent of rural Nevadans were not satisfied with the management of Nevada’s public lands. In addition, a majority of urban and rural people would like to be more involved in the decision-making process. Most respondents did not feel adequately informed about public land management—but they agree it is important to them.

Other surprising results included the following:

  1. In Clark County, 95 percent believed the economic health of rural communities and families should be considered in land management decisions.

  2. Seventy-two percent believe that the ranching heritage is part of Nevada’s history and should be protected.

  3. Only 3 percent felt that the only consideration should be to protect the land and disregard how land management decisions affect families and communities.

  4. Of the various sources of information on federal lands, elected officials, commodity and producer organizations and environmental groups received the lowest levels of trust.

  5. By a 61 percent margin, urban residents trusted university and state government agencies more than other groups to make decisions impacting federal lands.

Glimp and his associates hope the study will be used to educate the public and politicians in further federal land use decisions.

The Federal Government Responsible

In the name of mere economic self interest, city folks should be concerned about the fate of rural Nevada. A study by Dr. Tony Lesperance of Great Basin Agriculture, Nevada’s cow counties (Humbolt, Elko, Lander, Eureka, White Pine and Nye) have borne the economic brunt of federal land use policies. A precipitous decline in the number of federal grazing permits from 1983 to 1995 has produced the direct and indirect economic loss for rural counties of a whopping $530 million. Each year since 1995 there has been an additional $6.5 million loss. During the last 15 years, the cow counties have lost up to three-quarters of their livestock production due to implementation of policies instituted in Washington, D.C. The remaining agricultural industry will not produce enough taxes to support the infrastructure in these rural counties.

So what does this mean for urbanites in Nevada? As the rural tax base continues to decline, personal income there will be derived from government transfer payments and subsidy programs. And it’s urban areas that will pick up the welfare tab, by paying higher state and federal taxes in order to maintain the rural infrastructure. In addition, city folks will be paying more to support public education and long-term health care for an aging and static rural population. The ruination of a productive sector of the economy will continue to impact business in urban as well as rural districts.

Cowboy’s Don’t Quit

In spite of grim economic forecasts for rural Nevada, Joe Guild, a Reno lawyer and president-elect of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, is hopeful. He speaks about Nevada’s cow counties with a particular fondness for its rich environment and rural character. "As I drive in the rural areas," he muses, "I see thousands of acres of healthy rice grass growing—at present an unused and under-utilized resource." He adds, "One out of a hundred ranchers is a poor steward—the rest of them are the reason things have improved on the range. These people have played by the rules and that isn’t recognized by most people." On the last point Joe Guild is incorrect. It’s just that the environmental movement, government agencies and politicians aren’t listening.

D. J. Alden is a writer and researcher for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. She can be contacted at dajlang@aol.com.

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