PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Demar Dahl's Nevada Lands Council is heavily funded by taxes. He is seen here at a 2014 meeting on public lands.

The Washoe County Commission has voted unanimously to contribute $5,000 to a political group seeking to transfer federally managed public lands into state hands.

Commissioners voted on May 24 to pay a $1,000 membership fee to the Nevada Lands Council and gave the council another $4,000 as an outright grant.

The money was provided under consent agenda items covering individual commissioners’ discretionary funds, which are normally non-controversial items like dental care for veterans or travel money for the Galena High School band—two of the other items approved at the same time as the Lands Council grant. Currently, each commissioner can designate $20,000 each year to purposes of his or her choice, and most commissioners over the years have avoided uses that could be contentious.

This contribution was sponsored by Commissioner Jeanne Herman, who did not comment on the agenda item during its handling. Commission records indicate that she has sponsored similar grants in earlier years, including to national groups.

When asked about the tradition of giving funds only to non-controversial purposes, Herman said, “It wasn’t my decision to establish that tradition, and there wasn’t any reason to not do that [fund the Lands Council].”

Herman said she does not try to influence other commissioners in their choices when they provide money to animal shelters or school projects.

“I wouldn’t pay for picking up every dog in town,” she said. “You know, if it was illegal or wrong, I wouldn’t have done it. The other commissioners have the same ability. … I don't have the right to influence the other commissioners in their use of discretionary money.”

Established in February, the Nevada Lands Council was formed “to provide the resources necessary to secure control of federal public lands within the borders of Nevada by transferring their ownership and management to the state,” according to its mission statement.

Three people offered public comment on the consent agenda, which is normally waved through without debate. None of them commented on the Lands Council contribution, nor did any of the county commissioners address Herman’s choice of recipients for her discretionary funds. She also allocated some of her funds to senior citizen programs.

Asked about it later, Commissioner Kitty Jung—who presided at the meeting—said she has not objected to Herman’s choices of recipients for her discretionary funds over the years.

“I didn’t say anything, and I don’t normally object, because I don’t want other commissioners to tell me where to spend my money,” she said. “But I can’t tell you that I’m happy about it, especially considering that we are still under negotiations with the governor and Senator [Harry] Reid” about public land transfers.

There seems little doubt that the issue of whether public lands stewardship should be controlled by state or federal government can be defined as a controversial political issue. A “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the late 1970s and early 1980s gave way to a “county supremacy” movement. A standoff over Cliven Bundy’s failure to pay his fees to graze cattle on public lands led to an armed standoff near Bunkerville in 2014. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service offices have been bombed three times in Nevada.

Asked about the wisdom of the county taking sides financially on such a hot issue, Herman answered, “There isn’t any rule as to what you can use it for.”

“The Washoe County Commission should be ashamed of itself for using taxpayer funds to help billionaire corporations screw the people and our public lands,” Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson said. “If the Koch-funded Nevada Lands Council gets its way, vast swaths of the last of the best of what’s left of public lands in the lower 48 will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Public lands are the crown jewels of our Republic. Selling them off is like eating the seeds, consuming for our own immediate selfish ends what rightfully belongs to our grandchildren.”

He said the county “must explain to the public why it supports this anti-American, tea-party insurgency.”

Asked how he knew the billionaire Koch brothers are helping fund the Nevada Lands Council, Fulkerson referred us to an article in High Country News, which reported that the Kochs help fund the American Lands Council, which was founded by Demar Dahl of Elko County. And Dahl is also director of the Nevada Lands Council.

Indeed, it is possible that this movement would not exist if it were not for corporate and government money. The American Lands Council has received money from county commissions across the West, including Churchill, Elko (Dahl is an Elko county commissioner), Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Lyon, Nye, Pershing, White Pine and Washoe counties in Nevada—all without much publicity.

Jung said the Washoe Commission has done considerable study and consultation with experts on the consequences of county acquisition of federal land. She said one expert basically said, “If we had all the public lands here and we had one good wildfire here, it would put the county in debt.” The cost of providing public services to federal lands has been a central focus of debate over federal land transfers.

This is not the first instance of Nevada governments supporting political groups. For many years, the Nevada Legislature gave $1,000 a year to join the American Legislative Exchange Council, an anti-gay conservative organization that supported South Africa during apartheid and—until recently—denied climate change. The Nevada funding was sponsored by the late Washoe County Sen. William Raggio and was never questioned until ALEC became controversial. In 2011, the Nation magazine ran an investigative series on ALEC, and the Trayvon Martin case in Florida in 2012 threw a spotlight on ALEC’s efforts to spread “stand your ground” laws in state legislatures. The Nevada Legislature is no longer associated with ALEC.

In April, Rex Steninger of the Nevada Lands Council was quoted by the Elko Daily Free Press responding to a quote from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that was not provided in its full context in the article.

Steninger said, “If all that wasn’t enough to convince everyone that the federal government has been completely taken over by the environmental extremists and political correctness, how about Jewell’s dream that all visitors to our national parks need to see signs ’in their first language.’ Or her statement that our parks ’have ignored important parts of our nation’s story’ like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...