Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN)As part of his pitch to create a "new relationship with the West," Jeb Bush said Wednesday his "first step" would be to move the Interior Department's headquarters away from the nation's capital. He also called for less federal involvement in public land issues.
Jeb Bush: Move the Interior Department out West
It's not the sexiest topic in the presidential race, but land management is a huge issue for the dozen or so states that make up the country's western half, where a vast majority of public lands exist.
Bush traveled Wednesday to Nevada, one of the first four early voting states in the Republican presidential nomination race, to unveil his policy plan.
A few chickens strutted around the former Florida governor as he sat down outside at the Rancho San Rafael Regional Park for a roundtable discussion with local elected officials and concerned northern Nevada residents.
His biggest message of the day: There should be less federal government involvement in public land decisions/ Bush argued for more local control, or at the very least, more partnerships between Washington and local government.
"The impulse of people in government -- that only know government, that have only worked in government, that just believe in government -- is to take power," he said. "My impulse is the opposite."
The gap between bureaucrats and people on the ground, he said, would shrink if the Interior Department relocated somewhere out West, like Denver, Salt Lake City or Reno.
"Ninety percent plus of their activities are out here," Bush said. "But the folks that actually do the work, that impede the partnerships from being created, all live in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. I think they ought to be living out amongst us."
The most recent Interior Department employment figures show the agency has nearly 72,000 permanent and seasonal employees. Of those, 93% are based in the field, outside of Washington and just 7% are based in or near the nation's capital.
According to the Congressional Research Service, 90% of land that the government owns and manages is in the West, including Alaska. It owns just 4% of the remaining 37 states in the more densely populated East.
It's a statistic Bush used in a Medium post to illustrate what he considers federal overreach that interferes with recreational and private purposes.
While he opposes expanding more federal land and designating more national monuments, he showered praise on the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year.
"Our land is part of our heritage ... (and the National Park Service is) one of the most amazing federal contributions to our country," Bush said.
He called for moving funds from the Bureau of Land Management's land acquisition budget to the National Park Service to help with its $11 billion backlog, thought he didn't specify how much money he had in mind.
He also proposed what he calls "states-first" wildlife conservation policies that give more deference to governors and state legislators in determining solutions to protect animals.
Bush, who has said he believes the climate is changing and that man is partly to blame, took a shot at climate change activists.
"Has anyone measured the carbon emissions of massive forest fires?" he asked at the roundtable. "Maybe all the people freaking out about the climate change issue could bring their passion to bear to bring about better forest management."
Bush is also in favor of the permanent re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired earlier this month for the first time. The program, which has helped protect parks and outdoor recreation with the help of royalties from offshore oil and gas, faces opposition from some House Republicans who want to gut the program or reform it.
"The program simply needs to be reauthorized and fully funded -- what it doesn't need is 'reforms' by extreme anti-conservation activists in Congress who want to undermine this wonderful program," said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands at The Wilderness Society.
Bush said he backs a temporary modification of the program but was not specific on what he would modify.
When he was governor, Bush famously paired up with President Bill Clinton to lock hold of an $8 billion restoration plan for the Everglades in South Florida, an achievement he regularly mentions on the campaign trail to show his concern for the environment.
While he's known as a Republican who fought for a major environmental project, he still staunchly defends protecting the interests of business and the economy just as much as the environment.
Public land issues occasionally boil into national political debates. In recent memory, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy rallied conservatives to his defense when he protested grazing fees by the Bureau of Land Management.
For years, Bundy has refused to pay the fees for his cattle, like many other ranches, but last year tensions flared into an all-out standoff between Bundy's allies and government officials.
"He is breaking the law," Bush told reporters this summer during a stop to Carson City, Nevada, when asked about Bundy's refusal to pay. "I think people, and the law ought to be enforced, and I'll let the federal government authorizes figure out how to do that."
Jennifer Rokala, the executive director for the Center for Western Priorities, argued that Bush's policies on Wednesday for more local control, however, could lead to confusion that result in more Bundy-type situations.
"Anyone proposing more 'local control' over public lands needs to be clear about what that means," Rokala said. "Vague pronouncements are a dog whistle to anti-government extremists who insist the federal government has no right to own land at all."