The godfather of the North American Model of Conservation, Aldo Leopold, once said, “To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” Accessing those last few blank places on public land should become a bit easier after the Nevada legislature’s passage of SB 316, which is designed to stop private landowners from illegally blocking public access to our public lands.
The new law now falls into Nevada’s Code NRS 202.450 under “Public Nuisances”. The bill makes it a misdemeanor for any individual to construct a fence around or claim exclusive rights to the use of public land if that person has no leasehold or claim to that piece of land. Additionally, it is now unlawful for a person to use force, threats or intimidation to prevent any person from traveling over or through public lands. A person who commits any of the above offenses is guilty of a misdemeanor, and a court may order the person to abate the nuisance and pay a civil penalty between $500 and $5,000.
This has some ranchers in Elko County concerned that the burden now falls on them to determine what is private and what is public on their property. Many ranchers use public lands to graze their cattle and construct gates in order to keep cattle in specific areas at certain times of the year. Landowners that use vast amounts of both public and private land to maintain their livelihoods question whether having unlocked gates will lead to an increase in problems caused by recreationists who seek to utilize public land within their area. No one is arguing whether putting up gates on public lands is acceptable or not. Rather, the issue is when locked gates prevent public landowners from accessing their public lands via a public road.
This topic strikes a chord for me and my ambitions for this year’s hunting season in Nevada. In preparation for my upcoming elk hunt north of Elko, I contacted the local biologist to ask about the elk herd in my hunting unit. My excitement for the adventure increased when she told me that the elk population was roughly 2,000 animals over objective – and growing. As a hunter, I take great pride in participating in the North American Model of Conservation, which uses hunting as an effective management tool to keep wildlife populations healthy and sustainable. As a public land hunter, it is my responsibility to be an advocate for public land access and ensure that my opportunity to hunt, fish and recreate on those lands is not threatened. My greatest fear while accessing public lands is coming to an illegally locked gate that prevents me — and others — from setting foot on the public lands we all own.
As public landowners it is our duty to respect all land, no matter whether it is public or private. It doesn’t take many bad apples to spoil it for the rest of us. So, if you are out enjoying our public lands this year, a good rule of thumb when encountering a gate is to “leave it as you found it.” This practice will help keep all interested parties in good spirits and hopefully will lead you to gates that don’t have locks at all.