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New State Park Opens Access for First Time in 100 Years

A new state park is coming to Northern Nevada, opening 12,000 acres and 28 miles of property along the East Walker River.

Reno Public Radio's Noah Glick took a trip to the new Walker River State Recreation Area, which offers access to an area that's been closed to the public for more than 100 years.

"So, this will be a slight path to the group area from here," says Randy Denter, park supervisor for Nevada State Parks. "Right now, it's just a bunch of weeds. So right now, we're just in a big weed field, some tumbleweeds and mustard."

About 13 miles outside of Yerington sits the Pitchfork Ranch, one of three historic ranches that make up the new Walker River State Recreation Area. Right now, the path to the river is somewhat treacherous, covered with giant weeds, some as tall as six feet.

Park Supervisor Randy Denter leads the way.

Credit Noah Glick
Park Supervisor Randy Denter walks through tall tumbleweeds and brush to get to the Walker River.

"We've got a lot of work to do," he says. "There are no trails right now. There are animal trails, game trails. That's about it."

Denter says much of the property is comprised of old farmland. And aside from a giant home on the ranch, there's very little infrastructure in place for visitors.

"We have no campgrounds, so we got to put in campgrounds. That comes with all the utilities you need," he says. "So, the water and the power and the septic and the sewer. We need roads. When it comes to getting the park ready, we need the most basic things you wouldn't think of: phone, Internet, signage."

That's a tall order, especially compared to what campers used to expect.

"Back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, your typical camper would be in a tent out in the dirt," Denter says. "And if you had a tap of water that was close by, that was great and that was one of those awesome amenities."

The area had been under private ownership with limited access for more than a century. But, in approving Governor Brian Sandoval's budget last year, Nevada lawmakers appropriated nearly $4 million to build the new park.

Sandoval says the investment will be a benefit to Lyon County and Nevada.

"This was a multimillion dollar value donated to the state, and now it's our responsibility to make sure that it's taken care of, that people have a wonderful experience, that it's going to be a place that people come from, I think all over the West, to recreate," Sandoval said.

The land for the park was purchased by the Walker Basin Conservancy, an organization that works to restore Walker Lake by acquiring water rights and restoring much of the land back to native vegetation. The organization then conveyed the land to the state.

Executive Director Jeff Bryant says the work is really just beginning.

"In that 12,000 acres that we moved over, there's still a lot of re-vegetation and work to do to retire that farmland," he says. "So, we're going to have our crews down there working very intensively for a good decade to make sure that we accomplish that."

But the idea for the park really began in earnest several years ago-when a group of state conservation employees were brainstorming ways of using this ranchland.

Steve Tomac is one of those employees. He worked for the Nevada Department of Wildlife for 28 years.

"I've never seen property with this kind of wildlife habitat quality become potentially available from private ownership into public ownership," Tomac says.

Currently, there are no amenities on the properties, but there are several buildings, including large multi-bedroom homes on the Pitchfork and Rafter 7 ranches.

Randy Denter with State Parks says he hopes to use those for big events, like weddings, corporate retreats or family reunions. And he's looking to house the visitors' center at the Pitchfork Ranch, where he can display iconic photos of the new park.

"People can see a picture of Tahoe and they say, 'Oh, that's Tahoe. That's easy.' Or Valley of Fire, those red rocks. But here we haven't really developed that yet," he says.

Credit Noah Glick
A look at the Walker River from the Pitchfork Ranch. This part of the river corridor will be open to the public for the first time in more than 100 years.

"I just thought of that baby analogy. This is the baby. We're taking those infant pictures now, and we're going to have this whole portfolio photo album of this park, this thing growing up," Denter adds.

Right now, though, much of the work involves returning land to its native state, after decades of farming and ranching.

While plans can change, the goal is to have primitive campgrounds available this spring, with construction of full hookup campsites and RV camping beginning this summer. Crews also hope to offer cabin rentals near the river as early as this fall.

Jeff Bryant with the Walker Basin Conservancy says this is a huge effort, but it's all worth it in the end.

"Being able to open this up, I mean it goes outside of just a job for me. I'm very passionate about it," he says. "I really don't know how to put into words what it feels like to be a part of this." Bryant says the park may also help to restore Walker Lake's historic fishery downstream, which has been unable to sustain the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout since 2010.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.