Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered national attention a year ago when he and armed supporters engaged in a showdown with federal authorities, came to Carson City Tuesday with scores of allies to rally behind a bill seeking to reclaim land from the federal government.
A bus from Phoenix and another from Las Vegas brought more than 100 people, according to Bundy's son, Ammon Bundy, and others came on their own to fill several legislative hearing rooms. Many wore shirts and carried signs that read "the land belongs to the people."
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The proposal, Assembly Bill 408, is sponsored by Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore and would require the federal government to obtain permission to use land within the state's borders. The proposal also strips the federal government of state water rights and would allow county commissions to parcel out state land for commercial use.
"We're here to take our state back and act like we're sovereign citizens," Bundy said at a rally outside the Capitol before the hearing. "We're going to have agency. We're going to own our rights here on this land."
The bill is part of a larger movement challenging federal government property rights, especially in Western states such as Nevada, where federal and military agencies control about 85 percent of the land. The Bureau of Land Management is charged with balancing environmental and recreational goals with economic development on the lands, which include national parks. The department's priorities in certain situations can anger residents.
Eleven Western states have introduced bills this year on the matter, and AB408 has the widest scope, according to Jessica Goad of the Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities. The bill asserts the federal government has no right to the lands, while other bills merely call for a study on federal land ownership or demand the federal government turn over the lands.
Such measures are routinely considered unconstitutional, even when they pass. Supporters, however, see them as an important part of the fight to assert states' rights.
Cliven Bundy has said he doesn't recognize federal authority on the land near Bunkerville that his family settled and has used since the late 1870s.
BLM officials have accused him of failing to pay grazing fees for 20 years, racking up more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties, and failing to abide by court orders to remove his cattle from vast open range that is habitat for the endangered desert tortoise.
His standoff with the federal government and Bureau of Land Management last year attracted out-of-state militia members and was called off by federal agents on April 12, amid fears of a shootout, although BLM officials say they haven't given up on their case.
Bundy has been lauded by some as a hero in the fight against federal overreach.
But critics raise serious concerns about the bill. The state's legislative counsel bureau said the proposal was "manifestly hostile" to the federal government and would be struck down if challenged in court for attempting to put state law ahead of federal law.
Fiore, however, said she disagrees with that finding "100 percent."
Bundy's son, Ammon Bundy, added, "We can lose a thousand federal court cases, but the fact remains the same, the land belongs to the people."
Nevada's state conservation department estimated that transferring around 60 million acres of federally controlled land would cost the department around $95 million and that the parceling process for mining, logging and other industries could become "complicated and controversial."
"If we want to take control of all that," said Democratic Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, who opposes the plan, "I think we'll go broke as a state."
Crowd control measures were in place for the hearing. Capitol and local police made aware of the rally and other meetings were pushed back to accommodate a big hearing.
Opponents, including Battle Born Progress director Jocelyn Torres, say the measure would take land access out of the hands of everyday Nevadans.
"Federal lands belong to everyone, and they're limiting it to folks who can buy these lands and exploit them," she said. "If it's unconstitutional, it will get stopped at some point."