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Regulatory capture has Nevada’s great outdoors in a bind, say enthusiasts

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by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

Nevada’s wildlife commission and its mining commission don’t reflect the state’s diversity and are dominated by industry insiders who profit from the decisions they render, say critics who want them revamped and funded in a more democratic manner. 

Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, characterized the regulatory scheme as “pay to play” Friday at a hearing of the Joint Interim Standing Committee on Natural Resources.  

“Ultimately, I think it’s appropriate these commissions are overseeing the regulatory agencies, but as such, they really need to have independence from the regulated industries,” he said. 

Donnelly and others want the Legislature to approve a study of how the commissions could be more responsive to the desires of Nevadans in general. Last year, Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed a bill that would have required that study. 

By statute, the Nevada Commission on Mineral Resources must have two members familiar with large-scale mining; one familiar with oil and gas; one familiar with mineral exploration; one familiar with small-scale mining and exploration; one familiar with geothermal resources; and one member representing the public.  

The commission makes policy for the state’s Department of Mineral Resources, the regulatory agency for oil, gas, geothermal and mineral resource exploration and drilling. The agency’s funding is sustained by mining permits. 

The nine-member Nevada Wildlife Commission has five members who represent hunting and fishing license holders; one member who represents farming; one who represents ranching; one who represents conservation; and one member who represents the public.  

The current public representative “also comes from industry,” notes Donnelly. Alana Wise, appointed by former Gov. Steve Sisolak to represent the public, is an environmental planning and permitting expert, according to her LinkedIn page. 

Wise is the only woman on the commission. The remaining eight members are white men. 

Demoratic Assemblywoman Natha Anderson noted hundreds of state boards and commissions are appointed by the governor without any oversight. 

Fred Voltz, representing the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, suggested a citizen committee could vet applicants for further consideration by the governor. 

“The current construct of the Wildlife Commission is undemocratic and it’s unfair,” he said, and “not operating for most of the population in the state who don’t buy a license…” 

Voltz, who says he’s attended Wildlife Commission meetings for 14 years, said those “outside of the status quo” are “basically completely ignored and dismissively treated.”

‘Expertise’

An estimated 3% to 4% of Nevadans hold hunting and fishing licenses, Donnelly testified, and less than 1% of the state’s workers are employed in the farming or ranching industries. 

“And yet hunting and fishing license holders comprise 55% of the commission seats, and farming and ranching get 22% of commission seats,” he said. “This is vastly over-representing the interests of those sectors on the commission relative to people who don’t hunt and don’t farm.”

Clark County residents are underrepresented on the commission, says Donelly. Almost three- quarters of the state’s population resides in Clark County, but state law limits Clark County to no more than three members on the nine-member board. 

“We have more than earned our level of representation,” asserted Larry Johnson, president of the pro-hunting Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife, who noted hunters provide 95% of NDOW’s funding but are represented by 55% of the board’s representatives. “I would ask our detractors how much funding or volunteer man hours they have invested in Nevada’s wildlife.

“These are people that are engaged,” Republican Sen. Pete Goicochea said in defense of commissions composed of industry insiders. “You’ve got to have a certain level of expertise on any commission, whether it’s the Real Estate Board, whether it be the Minerals Commission or the Wildlife Commission.”

“It’s a little bit of a pinch to hear when we’re talking about how can we be more diverse with gender, race, disability, veteran status, and the automatic assumption is ‘well, we need expertise,’ as if those people can’t be experts, as well,” Laura Martin of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) noted. 

“The question is who gets to decide who decides the policy?”Laura Martin, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada

Democratizing regulatory commissions will “protect biodiversity, strengthen democracy and prioritize coexistence,” said Dr. Michelle Lute of the national organization Wildlife for All, who testified that states are increasingly evaluating and revamping antiquated wildlife regulation established a century ago by Pres. Teddy Roosevelt. 

“It prioritizes the production of harvestable surpluses of a handful of game and sport fish species over a diversity of other species in need of conservation,” Lute said of the current system. “And by doing so, it further disenfranchises the many diverse stewards of land and wildlife across the state and all the states in North America.” 

Lute added that only about 35% of NDOW’s funding comes from hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, with the remainder paid by federal grants and firearm excise taxes, the vast majority of which are derived from the purchase of handguns and ammunition not used for hunting. 

She suggested money from the state’s general fund “could help with accountability and funding an underfunded agency. …The state wildlife agency’s work benefits everybody.”

“The concept of going to a general fund funding of the department, given Nevada’s small government approach and limitations on increasing taxes would be extremely difficult. And so I’d love to hear your creative ideas on how to do it without changing taxes,” Assemblyman Rich DeLong told Lute. 

DeLong was one of several Northern Nevada Republican lawmakers who suggested the commissions are doing a commendable job and don’t require tweaking. 

“The question is who gets to decide who decides the policy?” asked Martin of PLAN. “Is there gatekeeping? Or is there an intention to ensure that policy is directed by the most diverse voices possible?” 

Martin suggested the wildlife and minerals commissions’ should focus on “education and the survival of our wildlife and wildlands and not necessarily about the lobbying and the preservation of these industries that extract wealth from our state.”

Sen. Melanie Schieble noted that given the inability to truly regulate wildlife, the commission is “a proxy” for regulating the hunting, fishing, and ranching industries. She asked if there is a comparable business model that relies on “land being undisturbed. That depends on the land being hospitable for wildlife. That depends on the land being natural and wild,” or whether respecting nature is a value independent of its economic usefulness. 

Donnelly of the Center for Biodiversity noted ecotourism “is a huge part of the state’s economy, and some of that is hunting and fishing for sure, but a lot of it is not hunting and fishing.” He added that proper management of wildlife and habitat is existential to biodiversity. 

“Biodiversity gives us clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and puts food on our plates. And without biodiversity we ourselves are at risk of extinction,” he said. “And so, managing the wildlife of the state, not for the benefit of extractive use, but for the whole benefit of functional ecosystems and preservation of biodiversity, is essential for all of us.”

Nevada Current
Nevada Currenthttps://www.nevadacurrent.com
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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