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Jeb Bush Puts Public Land Management On Agenda


And let's return to the United States to the presidential campaign and an issue rumbling underfoot in many Western states. It's a debate over the use of public land. Republican Jeb Bush has released his plan for managing Western lands and resources, and he will announce it later today in Reno, Nev. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: A little background for those of you not versed on public lands. There's no shame in that, Easterners. Less than 5 percent of the land back east is actually owned by the federal government. Out west, it's closer to 50 percent. And in Nevada, where Jeb Bush is scheduled to talk later today, it's more than 80. So out west, public lands are a huge part of people's lives, which has led to decades of civil discourse over just how those lands are managed; civil discourse that, at times, can be contentious.



ROTT: East or West, you'd probably remember the standoff between the federal government and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014. Armed antigovernment protesters lined up against federal law enforcement. On the surface, the standoff was over Bundy's use of federal lands and unpaid grazing fees.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: BLM, go away. BLM, go away.

ROTT: Boiling underneath was a strong feeling in parts of the West that the federal government has no business owning all the land that it does. In the last year, nearly a dozen state legislatures have considered bills that would demand the transfer of public lands from the federal government to states. But until today, the only Republican presidential hopeful take a strong stand on public lands as been Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

ERIC HERZIK: And for a Republican, this is a tougher issue.

ROTT: Eric Herzik is the chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

HERZIK: You will have to deal with this very vocal and small but determined and also high turnout rural percentage of the voters.

ROTT: Voters that could help in the primaries. But appealing to them comes at a risk, Herzik says, of upsetting more moderate urban voters in the general election. So it's a tightrope and, Herzik says, a minefield.

HERZIK: Non-Westerners come out here and they're trying to view this from a liberal, conservative kind of lens and, no, this is a rural, urban, liberal, conservative, environmentalist - you've got multiple corners that you have to try to square.

ROTT: On its face, Jeb Bush's proposal tries to do just that by not doing anything too drastic. It avoids the issue of federal land transfers, instead calling for more state deference in land-use decisions. It reaffirms Western water rights while wagging a finger at the Obama administration's over-regulation. And it promises access for sports and recreation. John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University, is not impressed.

JOHN FREEMUTH: That sounds like a garbage can of interesting ideas, old cliches and things that almost contradict each other sometimes.

ROTT: Freemuth doesn't see these policies helping Bush much at all. By not taking a hard-line stance, he could anger the people who would help him in the primaries. And the moderates he's appealing to, in states like Wyoming and Idaho, they're likely to vote Republican in the general election anyway. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nate Rott