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Desert Companion

Shifting Lands

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Shifting Lands
Photo Illustration by Scott Lien

Is the county hiding something in its public lands bill, or are the scientists just paranoid?

Nevadans are outdoorsy! It’s a thing outsiders don’t know about us. But what does it mean? That we take for granted the privilege of getting in our cars and being at a recreation spot within an hour. What we do there is wildly diverse. Hiking with the dog around the Calico hills of Red Rock. Target practice in the dunes off the 95 north of town, out past the jail. Jeeping the steep, bumpy roads of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge’s furthest reaches. Meeting up with the road bike gang at the Starbucks on Warm Springs for a ride out to the River Mountains Loop Trail. Or taking visiting family to Sloan Canyon to see the petroglyphs.

An afternoon on a pontoon at Lake Mead, a snowboard at Lee Canyon, or a mountain bike at Cottonwood Canyon. Put 10 outdoorsy Southern Nevadans in a room, and they’ll have radically different ideas about the best uses of the public lands bounding Las Vegas. But they’ll likely agree on one thing: They don’t want their elected officials divvying up those lands and selling them off to private developers, at least without having had some say in the process. Is that part of the process — public input — getting chipped away in the latest public-lands controversy?

When Jim Rhodes’ Gypsum Resources proposed a housing development on top of Blue Diamond hill, Save Red Rock rallied hundreds of protesters to line up at the Clark County Government Center and object. Hearings took hours, filled entire days. But Clark County’s recent proposal to expand into sensitive habitat around the valley had no public vetting before being sent to the state’s congressional delegation for passage as federal legislation. How did this happen?

The ‘Town Hall’ that Wasn’t

In early 2017, President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, made a priority of studying the national monuments that Trump’s predecessors had created, with the apparent intent of scaling them back or opening them up to development by the oil and gas, and mining industries. (Secretary Zinke resigned in December 2018 amid multiple controversies, including one in which Zinke’s wife and an executive from oil and gas developer Halliburton were planning a commercial real estate development on land owned by a fund Zinke started.)

It was the opening salvo in a two-year campaign that environmentalists — from hunting and wilderness associations to biodiversity and conservation advocates — would broadly describe as the new administration’s assault on public lands. One popular tactic they used was to do only the minimum required to gather public input. The longstanding, if tedious, tradition is to hold open hearings, where the public is notified of an issue and given the chance to put in their two cents. If they had strong feelings about it, they could show up, sign in, and wait in line to air their concerns (no matter how crazy or irrelevant) one by one. Reporters like me have recorded hundreds of these comments, staying awake through the droning of retired bird watchers and wildlife biologists for the occasional conspiracy theorist, drunkard, or neighbor with a bone to pick. 

Under Trump, this process was replaced with so-called “town halls,” run by hired third-party meeting organizers. They’d arrange posters containing proposed plans on easels around the back of hotel ballrooms, invite the public to look them over and ask questions of government public relations reps for a couple hours, then give them two minutes to make their comments on record, while a giant timer ticked down on a screen at the front of the room. Dispassionate contractors with no stake in the community would cut off elderly citizens who’d given up their evening to voice a genuine concern for their favorite stream or park. Dazed individuals complained at the exits that they didn’t have enough time to lodge a meaningful complaint. They felt the government had already decided what it was going to do and solicited their input to check a necessary box. But at least they’d gotten notice — through the newspaper or social media — that something was afoot, and they cared enough to show up, futile though it felt.

That traditional process, part of the government’s cumbersome requirement to withdraw public lands for a nonpublic use, hampered the Trump administration’s (Zinke’s and his successor Acting Secretary David Bernhardt’s) agenda to open up as much public land as possible to development while it was in power. For example, it allowed a broad coalition of locals to kill the BLM’s 2017 proposal to lease more than 53,000 acres in the Ruby Mountains for oil and gas/mineral exploration.

Endorsing that coalition’s concerns, last May, U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger told the Elko Free Daily Press, “I want to thank everyone who provided feedback and comments during the National Environmental Policy Act process. Based on extensive analysis and public input, I feel that my decision best serves the public.” That decision not to lease the land to oil and mining companies was the result of public input that revealed there probably wasn’t enough oil or gas to justify tearing up the land used for camping, hunting, fishing, and motorized recreation — a $12.5 billion, 87,000-job industry — anyway.

In other words, the process worked the way it was supposed to. The community spoke up, and public officials listened. U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), building on the momentum, sent out a release hailing her bill, the Ruby Mountains Protection Act, which would prohibit oil and gas exploration within the Ruby Mountain Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forrest.

Pleas and Protests

The Sierra Club built on that success to gin up opposition to the BLM’s proposed sale of another 570,000 acres in Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties, emphasizing the possibility that development in the areas under consideration could pollute the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, and eventually Lake Mead. It was a message that the two mayors and a Clark County Commissioner whose jurisdictions included the lands proposed for sale got behind, sending official letters of protest to the BLM on behalf of their constituents. Public input won again: The BLM postponed the sale to December, minus the parts to which the elected officials objected.

Member-based groups like Sierra Club depend on this public process to accomplish their goals. Toiyabe Chapter Director Brian Beffort wrote in the club’s winter 2019 newsletter that he’d recently “met with two staffers of Nevada’s Congressional Delegation in Southern Nevada, laying out my concerns about the proposed military expansion over the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and sprawl in the Las Vegas Valley, and each encouraged our members to communicate their (your) concerns often and vocally.” He then pled with members to write letters to editors and contact their representatives.

The Department of Defense’s 300,000-acre expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge has attained such high-profile status that the Washington Post covered it recently. In October, a couple dozen military veterans and Code Pink protesters gathered at Nellis Air Force Base to manifest their opposition to the plan. Las Vegas Sun reporter Miranda Willson wrote, “Navy veteran Jeoff Carlson said the expansion would cause undue environmental harm and questioned whether it was necessary for military activities conducted at the range.” The public has been airing its opposition to the test-range expansion plan at public meetings since the Air Force floated it in 2017. Still, as of this writing, a draft bill is circulating in Congress that would transfer sole jurisdiction of more than 1 million acres from the Department of Interior to the Department of Defense, allowing the Air Force to take over most of the refuge for military exercises. Only U.S. Representative Steven Horsford (D-Nevada) has officially, publicly opposed it.

But opposing the federal government is almost as popular a hobby as outdoor recreation among Nevadans, particularly in rural areas. And how are citizens supposed to provide feedback on Clark County’s Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation plan — Beffort’s “sprawl” — anyway? Critics and activists say the county has made it particularly difficult.

Clark County held an open house and passed a resolution to move forward with its intent to send a plan to the state’s congressional delegation for hopeful introduction as federal legislation in June 2018. Here’s what that means: The county — not in its current form, mind you (there’s since been an election that replaced three commissioners) — voted to endorse a public lands development plan allowing the county to balloon its boundary, and then send that plan on to our U.S. representatives and senators for passage as federal legislation. Since then, have you heard anything about it? Have your new county commissioners been keeping you apprised? How about those member organizations, like Beffort’s Sierra Club, that you perhaps send money to, in part to help keep you up on what’s going on at local, state, and federal levels?

Of Confusion and Consensus

One reason you might not have heard much is because those groups are having a hard time agreeing on what to do about it themselves.

In July, a coalition of environmental groups wrote to the congressional delegation “… the draft legislation prepared by Clark County does not include adequate amounts of conservation protections, undermines bedrock environmental laws, and limits citizen participation in public land management. … We believe the Nevada Congressional delegation is best served by starting with a new draft for this important legislation that utilizes standard legislative language, does not undermine bedrock environmental laws or citizen involvement in public land management.”

Since then, consensus has unraveled. More politically connected groups now endorse the plan, having gotten what they want included, such as designations of wilderness areas. Groups led by scientists are shocked by the bill’s apparent effort to circumvent a thorough environmental review. A public hearing would have aired this division — but, again, there hasn’t been one since that first open house a year and a half ago.

At issue is a particular part of the plan that would designate around several Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs, for protection of endangered species and habitat. In exchange for this protection, the county would bank credits for future development on an equal number of acres and get an up-front Endangered Species Act (ESA) permit allowing it to take potentially restricted habitat without going through the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, process. The proposed bill specifically provides for this on some 60,000 acres — a combination of existing undeveloped private land and land that the BLM would sell to private developers — and holds open the possibility for another 300,000 in the future. In other words, the county is proposing that the federal government legislate something (the ESA permit) that should be decided through a scientific process (NEPA). It’s using a Trumpian tactic of curtailing the public vetting process to push privatization of public land, without the community’s input.

In November, directors of two conservation groups who’d signed the July letter wrote an op-ed for the Las Vegas Review-Journal hailing a revised version of the plan as a potential boon for Southern Nevada and calling out its potential to address climate change. (A head-scratcher, since the plan contains nothing that would address carbon emission reduction and much that would create more car commuters.)

Directors of a biodiversity and progressive political group wrote their counterpoint for the paper a month later, describing the plan as “the worst kind of greenwashing.” Its misguided efforts to withdraw public lands notwithstanding, they wrote, its most dangerous element is its attempt to do away with the traditional public lands withdrawal process, granting a blanket permit to transfer public lands to private interests, rather than filing separate applications for discrete developments that would have to be vetted and completed one at a time.

“People across the country are outraged by this land grab, because it would set a dangerous precedent,” wrote Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a November newsletter. “It’ll put imperiled wildlife nationwide in the crosshairs when we’re already in an extinction crisis.”

The county seems to hope federal legislation will allow it to avoid the same open discussion that kept the BLM from selling oil and gas leases in the Ruby Mountains.

When that community got wind of the government’s Ruby Mountain plan, it banded together and fought to keep developers out. If Elko County residents hadn’t had the chance to line up and yell at the feds about invading their beloved mountains, would a Halliburton contractor be pouring well pads a half-mile from Lamoille Canyon right now? And do Sloan Canyon hikers, Hidden Valley OHVers, and friends of the endangered Desert Tortoise care as much as those Northern Nevadans did — enough to take on the county the way Red Rock enthusiasts did?

I’ve heard a lot of crazy talk at public meetings, but I never wondered why it was being allowed. A good moderator can control it and move the discussion along constructively. I thought it went without saying that that’s how public lands policymaking worked. Is the “town hall” what we get now — two minutes to hear concerned citizens react in real time to a plan they’ve barely had time to look at?

Jose Witt, former Southern Nevada director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, told me in 2017, when the Air Force was presenting its proposal for the Desert Refuge in ballrooms around Southern Nevada, “We’re disappointed that it’s an open house, because this is a great way for agencies to divide and conquer. It’s going to be different representatives talking about different things, so you can’t have one-on-one conversations, and you don’t get to ask question in front of a general audience, like you do at a county commission meeting, where everyone is listening.”

He didn’t understand how any meaningful compromise could come out of such a perfunctory exercise. The thousands of comments his organization gathered and submitted in reaction to the Air Force’s proposal were essentially ignored in the final plan (the one circulating in Congress now); the rationale for ignoring them was that they were the result of an effective organizing campaign, not representative of the collective public view. But isn’t the view of those who care enough to show up and write down their thoughts the one that matters most?

Or has the public just been worn down from the two years of relentless public-lands onslaught? There’s only one way to find out: Let them have their say.

Editor’s note: The day after our January issue went to press, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto announced a compromise bill concerning the Air Force’s proposed changes to jurisdiction and boundaries of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. This bill — which would preserve the current jurisdiction of the refuge, create 1.3 million acres of wilderness, and makes other changes to the Nevada Test and Training Range’s current withdrawal and management plan — supersedes the “draft bill circulating Congress” referred to in the story and was supported by Nevada’s entire Congressional delegation. Details on it are available here.

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