Bill seeks to conserve land and way of life in Carson Valley

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Bill seeks to conserve land and way of life in Carson Valley

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The weathered relics of wagon wheels on J.B. Lekumberry's lawn are not just for show.

Much of Northern Nevada belongs to the federal government. Like many counties, Douglas County is a checkerboard of private and public lands. But a new conservation bill introduced by Nevada's senators seeks to bring more consistency to this map. The bill does many things, such as transfer some federal land to the county. But among them, the legislation is also trying to save the rural character and viability of the Carson Valley.

The weathered relics of wagon wheels on J.B. Lekumberry's lawn are not just for show.

"These two are the wagons, yeah, they came from Missouri all the way out here."

Welcome to Ranch Number 1-the first land claim in Nevada. It's a fifth-generation ranch and has been in their family since the ancestors of Lekumberry's wife, the Trimmers, bought the ranch in Genoa in 1909. Behind Lekumberry stretch thousands of acres of mostly undeveloped pastureland, skirting the edges of the Sierra Nevadas.

"We have water and sewer running right through here, so we could easily put a lot of housing here."

But they won't. Lekumberry and his family have decided to enter into a conservation easement. It's a lengthy process whereby ranchers, or property owners, give up their development rights to the government. In exchange, Lekumberry will get a chunk of money, a less onerous inheritance tax and the assurance that his land will stay as it is right now. No condos, no Starbucks, just cattle.

"The Carson Valley is at a unique juncture in its history. It's not developed like downtown Reno and Sparks."

Duane Petite is with the Nature Conservancy, which owns the River Fork Ranch right next door to Lekumberry. The conservation group entered into an easement some years ago that saved 400 acres of their land for habitat and the other 400 for grazing.

"I think that most people who live and work in the Carson Valley would agree that it's the natural setting. It's the pastoral landscape. It's the views and recreation opportunities that really contribute to the quality of life. I think the folks who live in the Carson Valley understand the connection between a healthy environment and a healthy human community."

This valley is one of the last of its kind in Nevada. It plays a critical role as the first major floodplain for the Carson Basin and preserving its agrarian legacy is not only about the scenic value. If large scale developments such as resorts were to crop up, a flood could be devastating economically and environmentally, including to those downstream like Carson City and Dayton.

"So when we have a flood event the water can rise up out of the banks of the river and spread across the floodplain. It can do that only if the floodplain is undeveloped."

Already about 15,000 acres of open space in Douglas County have been conserved and much of that is in the floodplain. Steve Mokrohisky, who's the Douglas County Manager, hopes they'll set aside at least another 10,000 acres in the coming years. And the way they'll do that is the Douglas County Conservation Act.

"This is a comprehensive lands bill. It's not about mining. It's not a jobs bill. It's truly a conservation bill that seeks to put development where development should be and conserve land that's really critical for future generations."

Senators Harry Reid and Dean Heller have co-sponsored the bill, and the county is currently working with Congressman Mark Amodei to introduce it in the House. It transfers some federal land to the county, returns some significant cultural sites to the Washoe Tribe and could possibly open up more land to recreation at Lake Tahoe. The backbone of the law, though, is what it could do to safeguard resources in the Carson Valley.

"As opposed to these islands of protection, we're moving toward corridors of protection."

Jacques Etchegoyhen was contracted by the county to help put together the bill. He drives along the edge of Ranch Number 1 and the Nature Conservancy. Once out of the car, he begins to explain this swath of land was one of the models for this new conservation bill.

"There goes a bald eagle, just flew by. But it looks like he's going to land in the tree where they've had a nest all summer long. "

Etchegoyhen points to a streak of feathers and wings, visible through the crown of a tree. It's the first pair of bald eagles in memory to nest in the valley and actually have fledglings.

"That's kind of part of the picture the county is trying to protect."

The legislation would provide the funds for many more conversation easements, similar to what Lekumberry's family is doing on Ranch Number 1. They're one of the last in line for an easement from a previous federal bill. The county hopes ranchers will follow that same path, if the opportunity is there.

Etchegoyhen says 20 years ago many ranchers in the area thought they couldn't afford to stay in the area long term, even though they wanted to.

"The best way to accomplish that is to show up with a checkbook, and these folks I think conservatively 80 to 90 percent of the ranchers in the Carson Valley would like to participate in this program were there money available."

County Manager Steve Mokrohisky says they've spent years developing the bill and receiving public input on its many provisions.

"We're really attempting to carry out the vision this community has set. This isn't our vision. Everybody who lives here has contributed to this lands bill and the efforts that we've put forth. And so it has been a longtime in coming. We still have a ways to go to get it through Congress."

This conservation movement in the Carson Valley is a different story from several thousand feet above in nearby Tahoe. There, land management decisions are oftentimes divisive as regulators, developers, residents and conservationists find themselves at odds with each other's vision for the lake.

Back at Ranch Number 1, though, Lekumberry says he believes there's room for compromise down in the valley.

"There's got to be flexibility built in there, and the way to build in flexibility is to build in a few different tools. When you get those few different tools, then you add some grey to the black and white and now you start to get some color, and pretty soon you start to get a wonderful mosaic, I think."

And while conservation easement sounds like and can be a cumbersome, bureaucratic process, he say that tool takes on more significance when you look at the big picture-saving the ranch for future generations, or what he calls the "pioneer spirit."

"You see that rock wall? Okay, that rock wall got built because they pulled rocks out of this field to make it a field. Do you think the guys that were doing that were thinking about themselves? Sure they were. Sure, they wanted to get a crop in, too. But that's a lot of hard work you're doing for somebody else."

Lekumberry says, at its core, ranching has always been about those to come and, so too, conservation.