Frontier shootout in Nye County

April 10, 1995

The struggle for control and use of federal lands in the West is an old one, more recently embodied in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and today's declared War of the West.

Residents of these states dominated by Uncle Sam's ownership are understandably irritated by their lack of local land-use authority, especially as Washington cracks down on private exploitation and environmental abuse of these government lands and opens them to public recreation.

In response, some 35 counties through the West have adopted local ordinances and resolutions declaring home rule over federal holdings. While their claims may appear ultimately futile, some counties have moved to enforce their unilateral declarations of authority as law.

The issue is crystallized in a lawsuit filed by the federal government last month against Nye County, Nev., for asserting control of federal real estate and harassing federal officials there.

Two years ago, Nye County enacted resolutions declaring federal land to be under control of the state and county, and giving the county control of roads crossing federal property. The measures also included the authority to prosecute federal employees who interfered with these self-declared powers.

Since then, the county has warned federal land managers and last July a county commissioner, who had repaired a road in Toiyabe National Forest without permission, filed criminal charges against the federal officer who ordered him to stop.

This confrontation forced the federal government to take legal action, even though the case will provide a welcome public platform for the radical Western home-rulers (and property-rights extremists) railing against the tyranny of Washington. It will reinforce their efforts to challenge the public ownership of and public interest in these lands, even if Nye County loses in court.

The federal government owns more than 80 percent of Nevada's territory, some 93 percent of Nye County's acreage, which helps to explain why land-use tensions there are so strained. Residents of far Western Maryland, where state land holdings are extensive, can readily relate to this controversy.

While federal land management policies, particularly in the West, have come in for criticism over the years for unduly favoring private and local interests, the ownership and control of these public lands is not disputed by most Americans. Working with local residents on management issues is certainly advisable. But these lands are the nation's patrimony and possession, and must remain so despite the spurious claims of their neighbors.

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