NV lands bill voted out of committee amid concerns

Listen to the story

NV lands bill voted out of committee amid concerns

Federal legislation that will impact huge tracts of land in Northern Nevada made a critical step forward on Tuesday, but not without some controversy among conservationists and others.

The U.S House Natural Resources Committee gave the go-ahead to a bundle of 7 Nevada land bills. The legislation transfers land to local authorities in places like Elko, Fallon, Fernley and others. Another piece sets aside wilderness and opens up recreation in Humboldt County's Pine Forest Range. The most watched bill, though, is the Lyon County Conservation and Economic Development Act. It too preserves land, in this case known as the Wovoka Wilderness, but in return it transfers about 12,000 acres in Yerington for copper mining.

"What started as simple, broadly supported bills has literally become a 'Little Shop of Horrors' that would threaten public safety, undermine the wilderness act and harm natural resources."

That's the opinion of Paul Spitler with the Wilderness Society, which helped craft the original legislation. House Republicans tacked on new language that Spitler says now undermines the wilderness components. Those include restricting the closure of roads in wilderness, allowing some logging there and prohibiting property owners from selling their land to the federal government for the purpose of conservation.

Democrat Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who's on the committee, says the wilderness was a tradeoff for the copper mining and the only thing motivating the changes is Republican animus toward the Wilderness Act and similar laws.

"Now we're having a sort of wilderness, and we're being told it's now standard language. It's not standard. It hasn't been passed into law. It's something that this committee, the majority side, would like to make standard."

None of the changes come from Nevada lawmakers. Still, Congressman Mark Amodei, who is sponsoring some of the bills, echoed his Republican colleagues, saying the changes were nothing unusual. He criticized DeFazio for interfering with a Nevada bill--the same argument leveled by DeFazio against House Republicans.

Amodei says the legislation is already a compromise because 70,000 acres will go to wilderness versus only about 23,000 acres for economic development.

The other sponsor of the legislation is Democratic Congressman Steven Horsford, whose newly drawn 4th district stretches from North Las Vegas up to Yerington.

"I would have much preferred that my bill, as originally drafted, would be the bill that the committee voted on because it would have passed with even more support, but this was the agreement that was reached with the committee leadership to bring it forward."

Horsford stood with Amodei in support of advancing the legislation, despite the changes. He says they can still work on the bill as it makes its way to the House.

"Before we rush to judgement to say something is bad, we need to get all the facts and understand what the potential consequences are and what the opportunities are."

The Yerington land transfer around the Pumpkin Hollow mining site could yield more than a thousand jobs in Lyon County, which has the highest unemployment in the state.

Horsford says drafting the legislation was a genuine bipartisan effort that came from the local community.

Jeff Page, who's the Lyon County Manager, was unconcerned about the recent changes.

"I think it's a win-win for the county, for the people who utilize that land, grazers, miners, those kinds of folks and the recreation and outdoor enthusiasts.

Page says not closing roads near wilderness areas, one of the changes to the bill, is necessary for access.

This is one of the few wilderness related bills taken up by the Natural Resources Committee in the last three years.