|NEW WILDERNESS AREAS ENVISIONED|
NEW WILDERNESS AREAS ENVISIONED: White Pine County land bill advances
WASHINGTON -- A bill that would reshape federal land in eastern Nevada, setting aside 577,000 acres of new wilderness while designating thousands of acres to be sold or transferred, advanced toward passage in Congress on Friday.
While lawmakers focused on reconfiguring public land in White Pine County, portions of the sweeping land bill that would have had more of an impact in Clark County were dropped during talks among Nevada senators and county leaders, environmental groups, developers and other interests, congressional officials said.
For instance, an "affordable housing" provision that would allow developers to bid for discounted land if they promised to build at least 5 percent of homes for low- and middle-income families on the property was deleted.
Also excised was approval for the Southern Nevada Water Authority to expand a popular "cash for grass" water conservation program using funds from a federal land kitty.
Similar authority for spending on a $750 million wastewater treatment plant and pipeline system to Lake Mead being planned by local governments also was set aside.
Funding for a 10-year program to reduce fire hazards in the Spring Mountains and at Lake Tahoe survived, as did authorization for Washoe County to buy part of the 1,019-acre Ballardini Ranch south of Reno, according to a synopsis of the final bill obtained Friday.
The Nevada land measure passed the House as a rider onto a wide-ranging tax and trade bill that was approved, 367-45. The bill was sent to the Senate, which was expected to take up the bill as one of the final measures to be considered before today's anticipated adjournment.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he expected a close vote in favor of passage.
Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., were mum Friday on the White Pine County bill and the negotiations that cleared it for action in the final session of the year.
Among the challenged pieces, Nevada lawmakers argued that the Lake Mead pipeline would improve water quality. But the Sierra Club said that it would encourage sprawl and that home builders and sewer customers should foot the full $750 million bill.
Likewise, the housing provision was criticized by at least one environmental group, the Western Lands Project, as a developer subsidy.
Reps. Jon Porter, R-Nev., and Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said they would consider other strategies next year for programs that failed to be included.
"We will be back in January working five days a week, and I suspect what is not in there now we will try to get then," Berkley said.
For White Pine County, the legislation will have far-reaching impact.
Like measures that Congress passed in recent years on Clark and Lincoln counties, the new law would rebalance public land management and prospective private land ownership.
It would create 13 new wilderness areas while expanding two others that were created in 1989. A total of 577,000 wilderness acres would be created.
At the same time the federal Bureau of Land Management would be authorized to identify up to 45,000 acres that could be made available for controlled development through auction.
"There were a couple of cherry stems added and a couple of cherry stems taken out," said John Wallin, director of the Nevada Wilderness Project.
Wallin said Nevada environmental groups supported the bill even though land in two areas, the Blue Mass/Kern Mountains near the Utah border and the Antelope Range north and east of Ely, were not designated as wilderness.
The bill would further convey 1,500 acres of BLM land to expand the Ely Airport and 200 acres to enlarge a county industrial park.
Another 3,500 acres in four parcels would be put in trust for the Ely Shoshone Tribe, according to a bill summary.
White Pine officials did not get everything they wanted. Ensign and Reid did not agree to a county demand for funding further studies of groundwater, contending that they did not want the bill to get tied into the ongoing dispute about a proposal to pipe water to Las Vegas.
John Chachas, vice chairman of the White Pine County Commission, bemoaned the political process. "It goes to show that Clark County is running White Pine County," he said.
Chachas said county officials were told by Nevada's senators that adding money to study water science "would be the poison pill for our lands bill."
"Obviously they're not listening to White Pine County's elected officials. ... They do what they want to do," he said.
But in one concession to that county, leaders will be able to propose local projects for funding out of the overflowing Clark County public land fund.
Sales of excess BLM land in Southern Nevada have brought in $2.7 billion since 1998. Federal law requires the money to be spent on Nevada education, water supply and parks and conservation efforts.
Supporters of some of the omitted provisions said they hoped issues such as affordable housing and water conservation can be addressed through other means.
Douglas Bell, manager of Clark County's community resources, said his staff will continue to work "very diligently" on a pilot project with the BLM to establish affordable housing for moderate and lower income families.
"This isn't over. The issue is going to continue," Bell said. "I don't blame anybody. It's a political process."
Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said rejecting expansion of the so-called "cash for grass" program for schools doesn't change the overall program that's in place. Residences, businesses and entities can seek rebates of $2 for every square foot of turf replaced with desert landscaping.
The provision that was dropped from the bill means only that federal funding won't be available for schools to pay for removal of grass, he said.