Mohave County looking for gold - literally and figuratively - in public lands

Supervisors hope report shows high values

KINGMAN - A report from Yuma County on the economic loss from being unable to develop federal land will be used as a model for Mohave County's own study, the Board of Supervisors decided Monday.

The board directed staff to develop a similar report on the PILT program, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, and options for the transfer of public lands to private ownership.

Yuma County analyzed certain segments of land owned by the government and what economic development of those lands would mean to the county, compared to what the county gets in PILT money.

The U.S. Department of Interior program provides payment to counties and other local governments to offset losses in tax revenue on tracts of federal land. Arizona received $34.5 million in PILT payments in June, including $3 million for Mohave County.

Mohave County Supervisor Steven Moss suggested tweaking the Yuma report to make Mohave's more in-depth. He wants the report broken down by category of lands with a "conservative estimate" on the value they would bring if privately owned.

"I want it broken down even further, not just the economic analysis, but secondary tax districts, what it brings to fire departments, police departments, schools and libraries," Moss said during the regular meeting. "Telling people it's a great idea, that's good, but the secondary districts have to buy into this for it to make sense."

Board Chairwoman Hildy Angius noted that the report mentions Mohave County and that Yuma's county manager offered to share spreadsheet information, even though land use is different in every county.

"There is a movement in the West because of our lands not being developed because of such small private ownership," she said.

The government owns roughly 7 million acres in Mohave County and private ownership has declined to 16 percent from 17 percent of the total. State and federal officials say they support conversion of BLM land to private ownership, but in the end, the plans actually result in less private land, Moss said.

"There appears to be a disconnect. They are talking the talk but not walking the walk," he said. "The gradual eroding of private property in Mohave County is, in my opinion, a significant contributor to Mohave County being ranked among the five poorest (counties) in the United States. Our tax base is declining and economic opportunity is being taken away."

Nobody wants to take back national parks, forests and wilderness areas, Moss noted. He's looking only at the 4 million acres of BLM land. That would increase private ownership to 62 percent and would create "amazing potential" for economic development.

For example, Mohave County contains considerable gold, silver and copper deposits, much of it on BLM land. While the state is good about allowing access for mining, the federal government is not, Moss said.

"We are losing literally thousands of high-paying jobs every year as the federal government prohibits mining in what is essentially scrub desert," he said.

The shortage of privately owned land affects police and fire departments, school districts and other services funded by property taxes.

Moss wants the Mohave County study to show the true costs of federal policy of acquiring private land and converting it to government ownership as opposed to getting those lands into the market.

"I believe if the federal government did so, there would be no budget crisis in Arizona and our schools would not be struggling," he said.

Yuma's report noted that if the government paid merely on the amount of acreage of BLM land, Mohave County should get $19 million of PILT, not $3 million, and the local taxing districts should get even more.

"I personally don't want more PILT," Moss said. "I want more jobs and better jobs for our residents. Those jobs would generate economic activity that would more than make up for the loss of PILT.

"But if they won't let private citizens have the BLM lands, the federal government's PILT monies should be paid in the amount equal to any other taxpayer, not mere pennies on the dollar as it is currently."