This land is my land: new criminal penalties for blocking access to public lands

The 2019 Nevada Legislature passed SB316 in response to the growing problem of public access to the public land being illegally blocked by private landowners. The bill was sponsored by Senators James Settelmeyer and Ira Hansen. The bill went into effect July 1, 2019.

The new law, now NRS 202.450, creates criminal penalties for those who illegally and intentionally block access to public lands. Senator Hansen says there is there is a “strong body of both Nevada legislative and case law on the issues of public access to public land” citing cases as far back as 1962 and as recently as 2018.

Senator Hansen said the motive behind the law was to correct a weakness in the previous law which lacked enforcement and penalties for denying the public access to its own land. The new statute makes intentionally close a public access road a misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $500 dollars up to $5,000 dollars and six months in jail.

During western migration during the 1800s and early 1900s, homesteaders carved out millions of acres from federal holdings in the West through the Homestead Acts. In the meantime, the federal government also encouraged settlement in the West by dispensing sections of land to railroad companies, creating checkerboards of private land within those public-land islands.

This checkerboard of landowners—federal, state, local, tribal, and private—can make it difficult to access public lands without trespassing. Lands may be completely surrounded by private lands. There may be a public road running through private property, which has been closed off. Some landowners have even been known to illegally fence off public roads, shutting out the public from crossing onto public lands. Others have granted access only if a payment is made to do so. 

Now, four federal agencies—the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) within the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture—oversee roughly 95 percent, or 608 to 610 million acres, of federal land. 

With nearly 85% of land owned by one or more of these federal agencies, Nevada has the greatest percentage of federal land within a state. That's about 94,000 square miles and that is a lot of open space, which goes a long way towards attracting both visitors and new residents. 

According to the Nevada Association of Counties, federal, state, local and tribal government entities own 82% of land in Humboldt County. Nye County has the highest percentage at 98%.

Open and accessible public lands are essential to hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in the West, and the economic activity they derive. A 2013 study published by Headwaters Economics showed that 13% of total per capital income (PIC) can be explained by the presence of public lands. The Census Bureau defines (PIC) as the following: "Per capita income is the mean money income received in the past 12 months computed for every man, woman, and child in a geographic area."

This study looked at the U.S. West’s 286 non-metro counties as a region and found a meaningful relationship between the amount of protected public land and higher per capita income levels. According to the analysis, on average, western non-metro counties have a per capita income that is $436 higher for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries

In a 2015 poll conducted by Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade association for the outdoor recreation industry, confirmed the widespread support for the growing outdoor economy among Westerners. When asked what types of businesses they hope to see more of, Western voters ranked outdoor recreation businesses above healthcare, oil and gas drilling, and mining. In fact, 74% of Nevadans believe protecting public lands improves opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities.