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Public Lands
Photo by Andreas Selter

Environment: Missing the Bus

Desert Companion

Why does a big public lands bill have so little for Nevada?

Nevadans who watch public lands legislation may have reflexively joined in the near-universal applause that accompanied the recent passage of the Natural Resources Management Act. After all, it was truly bipartisan legislation, clearing the U.S. Senate 92-8 on February 12, and the House of Representatives 363-63 two weeks later, then earning President Trump’s signature in March. It was a rare environmental win in the Trump era, yet one that appeased many other factions as well, from hunters to rural developers. And it was widely hailed as a “sweeping” package of bills that had something for everyone, from sea to shining sea.

… Except Nevada? Notwithstanding two technical fixes to pre-existing land management plans — one in Lincoln County and the other in Storey County — there was nothing in the omnibus bill’s 265 pages that was specifically for the Silver State. It would designate 1.3 million acres of wilderness for protection in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah; zero in Nevada. It would create five new national monuments across the country, yet do nothing to fix the limbo that Gold Butte National Monument has been stuck in since former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended it for ambiguous reductions in December 2017. And it would set aside land for solar development and an airport expansion in La Paz County, Arizona, and Custer County, South Dakota, but not take up the land-management plan that Clark County proposed last year.

Support comes from

Why? It’s complicated. The main factors, insiders say, are as follows.

 

Because Senator Harry Reid is no longer in office. This is, perhaps, the most tempting explanation, as it invokes a House of Cards-style political intrigue in which Nevada falls out of favor following the retirement of its most powerful politician.

The truth is less romantic. Pull up a Nevada map that’s color-coded by jurisdiction/ownership, and you’ll see that the privately owned and locally managed splotches stand out as surprisingly small compared to the vast swaths of federal land, which account for more than 80 percent of the state. Clark County, home to more than two-thirds of the state’s residents, has visibly less developable land than Northern Nevada.

During Reid’s 34 years in Washington, he pursued a deliberate plan to expand the land available for development around Las Vegas while balancing that with the need for conservation, says Bret Birdsong, a UNLV law professor who was an Interior Department deputy solicitor under President Obama.

“Reid would go through, county by county,” Birdsong says, “and look at public lands bills in a comprehensive way.”

Although there are plenty of Nevada congressmen and women who subscribe to Reid’s view, several are fairly new to their offices, and none has, so far, pursued this issue with the same organized vigor as King Harry.

 

Because legislating is hard, slow, and tedious. Birdsong describes omnibus public lands bills like the current one — and the last one, which passed in 2009 — using a very Schoolhouse Rock analogy: Imagine a bus that’s going around picking up passengers. In order for a bill to get on the bus, everyone has to agree it’s ready, and all its details have to be worked out. Nevada may have missed the bus due to the simple reason that it had no bills ready to go.

“(The measures in the act) are bills that have been in the process for years, a decade in one case,” says Jocelyn Torres, Nevada program director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “Once something has been introduced, it takes a couple years to get it together. It’s a long process. I think this package is just clearing the queue of bills that have been sitting in Congress. And because they’re so hard to move on their own, doing them as a package made sense.”

Torres doesn’t see the lack of Nevada-specific legislation as a problem; on the contrary, she says, having people’s desks cleared of lingering pieces of old legislation frees them up to consider new issues. Like Gold Butte, say, or the Clark County public lands proposal.

 

Because Gold Butte is Gold Butte. Gold Butte National Monument can’t catch a break. Just when all the big stakeholders got behind bicameral federal legislation to make it a national conservation area, the Bundy standoff turned it into a lightning rod for Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0. Just when it looked like Obama had saved the day by using the Antiquities Act to declare it a national monument, Trump was elected, Zinke was appointed, and Gold Butte was under the microscope, along with many other protected areas.

With the monument in limbo, and former Senator Dean Heller on the opposition’s side, it wasn’t a likely candidate for the kind of bipartisan bill that made it onto the bus, so to speak.

But supporters are busy on a workaround, legislation that would solidify national monuments as declared through the Antiquities Act.

 

Because Clark County’s proposal wasn’t ready. Last summer, Clark County had a public hearing on its plan to withdraw more than 30,000 acres of public land around the periphery of Las Vegas for development. The plan — which was introduced under the guise of potential federal legislation, in the hope it would be picked up and introduced by someone from Nevada’s congressional delegation — drew wide criticism. Clark County didn’t make an expert available to comment on the status of the plan, but observers believe the plan simply missed the bus this time around.

 

Conservation-minded Nevadans can take heart in this: They, along with all Americans, did get something in the Natural Resources Management Act: the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This 55-year-old program provides for the creation of public spaces using funds from offshore oil and gas extraction. It has benefitted every state (and many counties) with cultural and recreational resources ranging from city parks to national parks. It expired in September 2018, and the legislation to restart it had been languishing since. The current omnibus bill includes a provision to permanently reauthorize it, though funding is a separate hurdle that’s expected to be tackled later. Boulder City, which had applied to use LWCF funds for a railroad museum, will be among the first in line to apply.

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