ALAMO, Nev. — This was territory nobody wanted -- not homesteaders, not city dwellers, not even the railroads. It remained the big empty: a state-sized expanse of sagebrush, canyon lands and jagged mountains left almost entirely to the federal government.
But now Nevada's Lincoln County, a 10,637-square-mile piece of the lonely Old West, might be headed for a bit of a New West boom. "Let us grow. Let us develop our water. Let us bring in some industry," pleads County Commissioner Tim Perkins.
The Nevada congressional delegation is doing its best to oblige. In June, members introduced a bill that would ease the way for hundreds of miles of water pipelines across federal land and carve out 87,000 acres of public holdings -- the equivalent of nearly three San Franciscos -- to sell for private development around the county's scattered little communities.
Big enough to swallow New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Lincoln County is home to fewer than 5,000 people. An air of abandonment hangs over many of its settlements. Occasional gas stations and small markets are strung along the roads. Ranchers in pickups rumble up to tiny cafes veiled in homemade curtains to hear the local gossip.
With about 1,800 residents, Pioche -- the county seat and historic silver-mining center a three-hour drive northeast of Las Vegas -- is as bustling as the county gets.
The proposal to sell off federal land here is the latest in a series of congressional acts, launched in 1998, that are helping fuel southern Nevada's explosive expansion. The approach Nevada officials are pushing is being eyed as a model in other Western states where the federal government controls huge swaths of land.
Originally designed to divest the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of property it owned around the Las Vegas Strip -- so-called urban islands that didn't make sense for a wild-land management agency to keep -- the Nevada land bills now reach beyond the metropolitan fringe into distant desert.
Members of Congress from Nevada promise more to come as they move to pare the federal government's historic share of their state.
"We have 17 counties. We have 15 to go after this," vowed the Senate's second highest-ranking Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, who with others in the delegation intends to draw up similar bills for every county in the state.
In addition to selling federal land, the bills funnel portions of the proceeds to local and state government to subsidize any ensuing growth. The Lincoln bill would hand 45% of the sales revenue to county government to foster economic development -- a bigger share for locals than granted in any previous southern Nevada legislation.
"This is a fairness issue here," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican who has been pushing to give local and state government a larger piece of the revenue pie.
"Everything that you and I rely on for our county government to do," he said, "they struggle with, because there is no private land there and no tax base. There aren't many people, but they are spread out. They still need roads, they still need a court system, they still need schools."
Where Gibbons sees equity, others see a giant giveaway of public resources.
"It's a big-time lands bill, set up to facilitate development in a part of Nevada that doesn't have the resources or water to support it," objected ecologist Daniel Patterson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of several environmental groups opposed to the Lincoln proposal.
"You're talking about selling a national asset -- land that belongs to the American people -- and the money goes into the pocket of the county."
The legislation taps into a resentment of the federal government's pervasive presence that is deeply rooted in Nevada. Bypassed by homesteaders for more hospitable territory, most of the state remained in federal hands after the frontier's closing.
Today, Nevadans recite land ownership statistics like an angry dirge: 86% is controlled by the federal government, a greater percentage than in any other state in the nation. In Lincoln County, the figure is 98%.
"Nevada is very much like a colonial possession in terms of control of the actual land," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "To speak of the county is almost laughable. It's a swath of federal land." The land legislation, he said, is a way to redress a historical imbalance.
But as the auctions spread beyond the booming Las Vegas Valley, some environmentalists say they are creating a dangerous national model and promoting leap-frog growth in a state already in the grip of a historic drought and clamoring for more water.
"There's a reason most of Nevada belongs to the public: It's very arid," Patterson said. "Nevada is one of those states where the environment can't support a lot of development."