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Las Vegas Sprawl – Privatization of public lands

Las Vegas Sprawl

If only what happened in Vegas would stay there. Instead, the population of metropolitan Las Vegas has experienced staggering growth in the last 30 years, ballooning from fewer than 700,000 people to more than 2.2 million—and as the population grows, so does Las Vegas’s sprawl. Legislation in 1998, and subsequent amendments, marked almost 68,000 acres of public land for disposal, much of it sold to developers for suburban housing. Now local officials are at it again, requesting to privatize another 44,000 acres of public land.

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Las Vegas Sprawl Location

Las Vegas Sprawl

With Las Vegas’ population exploding, local officials are seeking to privatize thousands of acres of public land for development.

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Find out what public lands are, who manages them, and what their designations mean from Guardians' Public Lands Guardian.

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Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service


Las Vegas Sprawl – The Details

Las Vegas relies on tourists throwing restraint to the wind. The mindset has carried over to the region’s leaders, who have long promoted unconditional growth. A fixture on lists of fastest-growing U.S. metro areas, greater Las Vegas has grown from fewer than 700,000 people in 1988 to more than 2.2 million today. That growth has been out, not up, as the region’s footprint has more than doubled in size, as documented by NASA with a series of time-lapse photos from space.

In the mid-1990s, with city planners facing a private land shortage as a result of that unrestrained growth, local officials began lobbying their federal representatives for a solution. The resulting Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA) of 1998 overrode existing law favoring retention of public lands by directing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to privatize almost 68,000 acres of public lands through quarterly public auctions. As of September 2018, more than 22,000 acres have been sold or traded to developers and 8,000 acres conveyed to county and municipal governments. More than 29,000 acres of public lands still await the auction block under the 1998 law.[1]  Much of the privatized land has gone to residential developers who have built tracts of suburban housing that epitomize Las Vegas’ sprawl.

Sprawl has significantly degraded Las Vegas’ air quality and strained its water supply. Las Vegas has the 12th-worst smog in the U.S. (out of 187 cities), according the American Lung Association 2018 State of the Air report, and the 24th-worst annual particle pollution. Climate change and additional growth are expected to make air quality worse.

Las Vegas and surrounding communities get 90 percent of their water from the Colorado River, and climate change is expected to reduce this supply in the future. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is looking to siphon groundwater from northeastern Nevada to feed Las Vegas’ growth, a disastrous scheme that could lower water tables—drying up springs, killing native vegetation, and harming wildlife already suffering the impacts of climate change.

To make matters worse, local leaders want more growth and are not satisfied with the 29,000 acres of public lands still available for auction under SNPLMA. On June 27, 2018, the Clark County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution urging Nevada’s Congressional delegation to introduce legislation to expand SNPLMA’s disposal boundary. A map accompanying the resolution identifies more than 44,000 additional acres of public land targeted for privatization. In an attempt to appease opposition from conservation groups, the resolution also calls for formal designation of additional wilderness in Clark County. Legislation is likely to be introduced early in 2020.

[1] BLM has reserved more than 7,400 acres from disposal. See SNPLMA Quick Fact and Statistics, https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/documents/files/SNPLMA_3%20PROGRAM%20STATISTICS.pdf for more information.

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