WALKER RIVER PAIUTE RESERVATION, Nev.—When you drive through western Nevada, you sometimes see signs warning you of low-flying aircraft. Locals say the signs are for fighter and bomber pilots training for war. The highways are surrounded by desert and mountain ranges in what seems like every hue of brown and green.
If you’re not driving near Las Vegas or Reno, you’re likely close to public land managed by the federal government. To be precise: 84.9% of land in Nevada is managed by the U.S. government. The land is managed by five different bureaus including the Department of Defense, which uses the land for training or storing weapons, the National Parks Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, which leases it to gold mining companies among others.
But ahead of the Republican presidential caucus in Nevada on Tuesday, nearly every candidate is campaigning on a promise to seize the land back from the federal government.
“If you trust me with your vote,” says Ted Cruz in one ad, “I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners: its citizens. (State officials believe Cruz's plan would ultimately grant private business use of the land.) It’s “ridiculous,” Ben Carson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board. “What do they need with all that land?” Marco Rubio and John Kasich have similar positions.
The only candidate who disagrees is Donald Trump. The real estate mogul says he doesn’t “like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don't know what the state is going to do," Trump said during a talk with Field & Stream, a hunting and fishing magazine.
But here’s what none of the candidates have mentioned: the actual, rightful owners of much of Nevada’s land are the members of Western Shoshone Nation.
“I feel angry because they’re talking about giving away something that didn’t belong to them in the first place,” Mary McCloud, a member of the Western Shoshone Nation, told me at the Democratic caucus on Saturday. She worries about which candidate will prevail at the GOP caucus Tuesday.
McCloud married a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe and now lives on their reservation. She says her husband’s surname was Cloud, but a government official made his family change it to McCloud.
No one asked the Cloud family about changing their last name. And at the moment, none of the presidential candidates have asked the Shoshones about what to do with their ancestral lands.
McCloud lives a few miles away from Mount Grant, the tallest mountain in the area and part of the creation story for the Walker River Paiute Tribe. Walker Lake is at the base of the mountain. During seasons when the water was too high the Paiute would move to the mountain and live off pine nuts.
Today Mount Grant is fenced off, and the Paiute have to ask the military for permission to visit the mountain range. The peak of the mountain is located within the Hawthorne Army Depot, the largest ammunition storage depot in the country. Over the years chemical weapons have been stored and disposed of at the facility with some areas now contaminated by mustard gas, phosgene, and cyanogen chloride. (The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection says “there is no evidence that the contaminants at the site are migrating.)
“We don’t have access to a lot of land because the Bureau of Land management has fenced off our land. They’re the ones that controlling the land,” said McCloud.
“I want the federal government to return this land back to the Indians or at least negotiate with the Indians. They’re giving away land that was illegally taken in my point of view,” McCloud said.
Experts say it’s not just McCloud’s point of view—there’s documentation to prove it.
In 1863 the Western Shoshone Nation signed a peace treaty with the federal government that recognized Shoshone ownership of approximately 24 million acres of land, primarily on the east side of Nevada. The treaty, known as Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, was ratified by Congress and recognized as recently as 1983 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the Shoshones as being the legal owners of this land. But in 1985 the Supreme Court ruled the Shoshones lost the land due to “gradual encroachment.”
“This means that white Americans, by their numerical numbers, took over the land after populating Nevada,” said Dr. Steven Crum, a member of the Western Shoshone tribe and a Native American studies professor at the University of California, Davis.
“The problem with this argument is that Nevada is one of the least populated states in the U.S. Hardly any White Americans live on the east side of Nevada,” Dr. Crum told Fusion.
Local Democratic elected officials say the plan to reclaim federal land is doomed because the state is unprepared to manage that amount of land. The federal government manages 59,681,502 acres in Nevada, 84.9% of the state's 70,264,320 total acres.
“As representatives of county and state government, we can attest to the fact that we simply do not have the funds to provide law enforcement, trail maintenance and wildfire protection that currently is provided for us on these lands by the federal government,” wrote Chris Giunchigliani, a member of Clark County Commission and Kelvin Atkinson, a member of the Nevada Senate, in an opinion piece for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“Proponents of this plan believe we will be able to fill the budget hole for land management by selling the land to the highest bidder, or by allowing unregulated development,” Giunchigliani and Atkinson went on to say.
Still Ted Cruz and his fellow GOP running mates support transferring land management to the state of Nevada.
“I most certainly believe that the federal government controls far too much land in the Western parts of the United States especially,” Rubio told The Des Moines Register in January. “The state of Nevada is an example — it’s almost entirely owned by the federal government. And it goes well beyond the legitimate need of land ownership for defense purposes,” Rubio said.
Rubio has said he disagrees with Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the brothers who spearheaded a 41-day occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon demanding the federal government cease ownership of the refuge and that it be handed to locals. The Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, was also at the center of a standoff in Nevada with federal officials in 2014 because his cows were grazing on land managed by the federal government without paying fees. He now owes more money to the government than all other ranchers in the U.S. combined.
Ted Cruz’s 30-second ad includes scenes with a cattle rancher and cows roaming open field, pandering to far-right activists and going up against Trump.
A radio ad by the Kasich camp promises he will transfer power over land management back to Nevada from Washington and declares, "John Kasich says this land should be your land."
Mary McCloud says the next president can set an example by making decisions about land with Native Americans.
“I want the federal government to return this land back to the Indians at least negotiate with the Indians,” said McCloud.
“If Ted Cruz is going to give this land away give it back to the original rightful owners,” said Mary McCloud.