It’s Time to Stop the Public Land Giveaways to Oil and Gas Speculators


As Nevadans, we cherish our public lands and all they have to offer: from diverse wildlife to endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. One of these cherished places is the Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. Encompassing 77,000 acres of sagebrush steppe, high desert landscapes, ancient bristlecone pine groves, and alpine tarns, the park is home to a broad array of wildlife, including yellow-bellied marmots, beavers, porcupines, bighorn sheep, pygmy rabbits, and ringtail cats. The park also offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, including hiking, camping, fishing, wildlife watching, and star-gazing.

Entrance to Great Basin National Park near Lehman Caves Visitor Center on Nevada State Route 488 – image: cc 2.0, courtesy of Russell Kuhlman

Unfortunately, all of this is put at risk by a wasteful practice called noncompetitive leasing. Here’s how the process works. When public lands receive no bids at auction, they are sold to speculators for as little as $1.50 an acre – even when there is very little potential for oil and gas. Forty percent of all acres leased for energy development are leased this way. There are four noncompetitive leases on the doorstep of Great Basin National Park, even though the potential for oil development there is very low.

Last week, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report that showed that nearly a million acres of land in Nevada has been leased in this reckless manner. Of those 345 noncompetitive leases, more than a third overlap lands with wilderness characteristics, two-thirds overlap sage grouse habitat and half are on lands that have little potential for oil. This study is backed up by a Government Accountability report last year that showed that 99% of noncompetitive leases issued nationwide between 2003 and 2009 never enter production. This is a huge rip-off for taxpayers since the process incurs unnecessary administrative costs, but never actually generates revenue for our state. Put simply, the federal government is wasting taxpayer resources to run a leasing program that does not actually produce oil and gas.

The bigger issue is that once these lands are leased, they can’t be actively managed for conservation or recreation. These lands would be much more beneficial for all Nevadans if the lands weren’t tied up by these speculative leases.

Great Basin National Park – image: cc 2.0, courtesy of Russell Kuhlman

Fortunately, Sen. Jacky Rosen is co-sponsoring legislation that would stop this public lands giveaway. It’s long past time to end this wasteful practice with commonsense legislation to restore good governance. Nevadans lose out when large swaths of land are set aside for speculation instead of conservation or recreation. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation in Nevada generates over $5.5 billion dollars every year and is responsible for 60,000 jobs. Just imagine how we could grow those numbers if the million acres of public land that are leased noncompetitively could instead be used for hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife watching. 

At a time when there is renewed interest in making sure our nation is energy independent and when there are discussions about increasing domestic oil and gas production, it’s incumbent that we fix the antiquated leasing system and end the practice of noncompetitive leasing so that we are not giving away lands that have almost no potential for oil and gas development. It’s time to make the leasing process efficient and competitive, so that Nevada’s taxpayers receive their fair share and so that all of us can benefit from expanded opportunities to connect with nature. 

Russell Kuhlman, Executive Director – Nevada Wildlife Federation

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.

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