By Mark Waite
Nye County Commission Chairman Lorinda Wichman got the support of her board Monday to pursue a county lands bill, hopeful it won’t be tampered with by environmentalists once it gets to Washington, D.C.
Wichman had memories of a White Pine County bill, which was sponsored by U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign in 2006, authorizing the auction of up to 45,000 acres of federal land but also creating 13 new wilderness areas in what Wichman called an 11th hour decision.
In 2008, Nye and Esmeralda County officials were pleased the senators backed off on an attempt to enact a public lands bills for those two counties. The Nye-Esmeralda County lands bill would have cleared up trespass issues in Ione and Gold Point.
Esmeralda County Commissioner Nancy Boland called the 2008 attempt “essentially blackmail.” Her board was concerned about wilderness areas being designated that would affect mineral exploration and alternative energy.
At the time, Nye County Commissioner Butch Borasky was unwilling to sign off on a public lands bill in exchange for 280 acres for a Pahrump community college. Commissioner Joni Eastley said, “I am not in favor of being held hostage to a lands bill in order to get these other things, my fear is we would have to give up significantly more than we would get in a lands bill.”
A Lincoln County land bill passed in 2004 opened up 87,000 acres of federal land for public auction.
The mood of Nye County commissioners has softened somewhat this year.
Wichman said the county’s Washington, D.C. lobbyist Rick Spees received assurances from U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. and staffers for U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., that “the stars have all lined up” on a county lands bill that will appeal to the county. She said the senator and congressman both pledged to closely monitor a Nye County lands bill to ensure there are no changes that aren’t acceptable to the county commission, and remove the bill if there are.
Wichman sees more advantages than disadvantages in clearing up some of the pending lands issues. Those include a requirement to designate a desert tortoise habitat conservation zone in Pahrump, land for the Pahrump community college, lifting restrictions on the Pahrump fairgrounds site and providing an area around the proposed Pahrump airport for development. The 2008 bill would have offered land for a new Pahrump landfill and the Amargosa Valley Science and Technology Park.
Nye County may be the third largest county in area in the country, but 98 percent of the over 18,000 square miles is federal land.
“I’m also not naive enough to think a land bill will get passed by the Senate without something that they can tout as a victory on their part,” Wichman said.
After consulting with Esmeralda County’s Boland, Wichman said they agreed a wilderness study area near the border of both counties that doesn’t have any mineral potential might be submitted for a wilderness area as “a gimme.”
“There are many things we’re required to do around our communities to help our communities grow and expand and come across with any type of development. This is an opportunity for us to take a shot and see if the stars are lined up,” Wichman told the commission Monday.
She wanted to see if there was an appetite for the county lands bill by fellow commissioners before county staff begins work on it.
Borasky wants to see a list of areas of federal land requested by each community.
“Once I do that I feel I can support that as long as there is very, very, very, very, very limited anything given up by Nye County. If I had my druthers we’d give them nothing, they’ve given us nothing,” Borasky said.
Commissioner Gary Hollis referred to a mountain top the U.S. Forest Service wants to designate wilderness area, Hollis said he wouldn’t have an objection as long as it’s limited to areas above the 5,000 foot level, above where mineralization could occur. But Wichman cautioned against using topography, adding wilderness areas will include a buffer zone around them.
“I don’t believe in making deals with the devil and throwing environmentalists a bone. Don’t believe in it. It’s ours,” Eastley said. “The bone that we’re throwing them belongs to us.”
Actually what motivated Wichman to request a county lands bill was a controversy over a Manhattan resident who couldn’t bury his father in the local cemetery. Wichman asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to approve a direct sale of the cemetery, which has run out of room, but she has been waiting over a year. The alternative was to renew a recreation and public purpose lease for the cemetery, but Wichman said the BLM didn’t want to renew it.
“They told me no because it’s hazardous waste,” Wichman said.
Nye County has also been trying to renew leases for shooting ranges the BLM is reluctant to renew because the used lead in the bullets is seen as hazardous waste.
Wilderness study areas were designated probably 30 years ago, but were never converted to either wilderness or other use. Nye County Geoscientist Levi Kryder has mapped out the WSAs with the highest mineral potential, which the county wants to prevent being converted to wilderness areas.
The forest service, BLM, Mineral County, Esmeralda County and the Yomba tribe in northwest Nye County are on board with this land bill, Wichman said. She hopes there will be pieces of land in the bill that will appeal to everybody, a win-win situation.
Wichman told the Pahrump Valley Times: “What I’m trying to do is get all this housekeeping stuff cleaned up so we can move on to other things. I’m better than 50 percent sure we might be able to get one through, but I still have some reservations, even though I’m the one sponsoring this and pushing it. We have a chance.”