|Las Vegas SUN - WP County Lands Bills|
Today: August 03, 2006 at 9:28:12 PDT
Protecting White Pine County
Bill before Senate would preserve 545,000 acres for wilderness
By Launce Rake
White Pine County's elk, pronghorn antelope, bristlecone pine, ice-covered mountains and alpine valleys would get a measure of protection against development in a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this week.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat and the senior member of Nevada's delegation, and his Republican counterpart, Sen. John Ensign, who is up for re-election this year, jointly introduced the White Pine County public lands bill. It would set aside 545,000 acres as federally protected wilderness, a designation that prohibits mechanized travel or development.
The bill, which would also release 45,000 acres of federal land for private uses, got generally positive reviews from conservationists. John Wallin, director of the Nevada Wilderness Project, said some of the state's "outstanding wild lands" are named in the 71-page bill.
A centerpiece of the bill is wilderness designation for 120,000 acres that includes the Schell Creek Range east of Ely, the White Pine County seat. The range includes 11,000-foot peaks, thick groves of aspen and, in winter, areas of heavy snowfall, he said.
The Reid-Ensign bill also designates 70,000 acres south of the Great Basin National Park as wilderness, and transfers management of another 50,000 acres from the U.S. Forest Service to the Bureau of Land Management. Wallin said both moves would give the nation's newest - and Nevada's only - national park greater protection from incompatible uses.
Wilderness advocates, however, do have a few concerns. One is that areas of northeast White Pine County - including the Kern Mountains - would not be designated wilderness, Wallin said. Another is that the Egan Range in southern White Pine County would receive wilderness designation but would be divided by a general use area. That would allow roads to encroach on wilderness, he said.
John Chachas, a White Pine County commissioner, said years of public discussions produced the bill, and that many of the discussions went very smoothly: "That has been a very diplomatic and cooperative effort from ranchers, private landowners, environmental groups, elected officials and the general public in agreeing on the land."
One issue, however, remains divisive - the more than 3,500 acres that would be given to the Ely Shoshone tribe.
The issue had been the subject of sometimes combative public hearings. "In 16 years, that has been the most divisive issue in this community that I've ever had to deal with," Chachas said.
He said he hasn't had a chance yet to study the bill's provisions for Shoshone land in detail, and that past conflicts concerned the location of the land to be given to the tribe.
Diana Buckner, chairwoman of the 500-plus-member Ely Shoshone tribe, said the tribe had originally asked for 15,000 acres to add to about 110 acres it now controls.
"Of course the tribe would like more," she said. "We're still very pleased. The senators have tried to be as fair as they can. We believe it was as fair as they could get it to be."
John Hiatt, a Las Vegas conservationist, expressed concern that the land released for development in the bill doesn't necessarily come with water rights. He notes that private water developers, energy companies, private landowners and the Southern Nevada Water Authority are vying for shares of White Pine County's ground water resources.
"There is the implicit understanding that there would be water available," he said. The White Pine bill shares a lack of planning for water resources with earlier land bills for Clark and Lincoln counties, Hiatt added.
"That is something we would be wise to consider: What is the available water supply and what will be the demand for it in the future?"
Jo Anne Garrett of White Pine County's tiny town of Baker said that while she welcomes the wilderness designation, she, too, is concerned about water issues. Garrett, who opposes the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plans to export about 40 billion gallons of White Pine ground water to Las Vegas annually, said she would have liked the legislation to include funding for more detailed studies of the potential effects of the plans.
But, she added, "Anything they put into wilderness from my standpoint is all to the good."