By Mark Waite
TONOPAH — Nye County courted the environmental group Friends of Nevada Wilderness to make a presentation before the Board of County Commissioners Wednesday, in the hopes they would work together when it comes time to introduce a lands bill.
County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said the Nye County lands bill was a major topic of conversation when she spent the last several days in Washington, D.C., attending meetings of the Western Counties Alliance, the Western Interstate Meeting and a public lands committee.
“The congressional delegation isn’t telling us what has to be done, they have to have a component about access to public land and wilderness, that those people have a right to participate in our lands bill process. It’s a much greater probability of getting something passed and through the process,” Nye County Director of Natural Resources Darrell Lacy told commissioners.
The Yerington Land Conveyance and Sustainable Development Act, now under consideration by Congress, would hand over 10,000 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property to the city of Yerington for the development of a copper mine, but in exchange 48,000 acres of the Wovoka Forest in Lyon County would be designated as wilderness.
There was heartburn when White Pine submitted a lands bill in 2006, which allowed the auction of 45,000 acres of BLM land, but required the designation of 13 new wilderness areas in what was described as an 11th hour decision made in Washington, D.C.
Wichman has suggested “a gimme,” where a wilderness area would be included in the county lands bill near the Esmeralda County line that has low mineral value, as a concession to environmentalists.
Shaaron Netherton, executive director of the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said there was only one wilderness in Nevada, in Jarbidge along the Idaho state line, when the Wilderness Act was created in 1964. It involved the U.S. Forest Service until the Federal Land Policy Management Act passed in 1976, when the BLM got involved in the Wilderness Act.
A wilderness area has to be at least 5,000 acres that has either outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation, she said. It may also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historic value.
Those values were weighted against mineral and energy resources, recreational off-road vehicle use, livestock development, vegetation projects, wood harvesting and wildlife concerns in evaluating wilderness study areas.
A BLM wilderness inventory that began looking at 49 million acres in the 1970s, dwindled down to 110 wilderness study areas comprising 5 million acres by 1980, Netherton said; in Nye County 12 areas comprising 700,000 acres were found to have wilderness quality.
Nye County WSAs include names like Kawich, with 54,320 acres, Rawhide Mountain, 64,360 acres, South Reveille, 106,200 acres, Palisade Mesa, 99,550 acres, The Wall, 38,000 acres, Park Range 47,268 acres, Blue Eagle/Riordan’s Well 116,562 acres, Fandango 40,940 acres, Morey Peak 5,070 acres, Antelope 87,400 acres and Mount Stirling 69,650 acres. In 1988 several BLM wilderness study areas were transferred to the forest service, which requires them to be managed to protect their wilderness character.
“These areas have been wilderness study areas for 35-plus years,” Netherton said. “They’re stuck until Congress decides to designate them as wilderness or use them as something other than that.”
“A potential lands bill could be an opportunity to look at those areas and does the establishment of a wilderness area make sense? Should the boundaries be changed? What areas make sense to bring forward, which don’t at this point in time?” she asked.
Some activities are more restrictive in a wilderness study area, Netherton said, which is an area being protected until Congress can act. Other restrictions are tougher in a wilderness area, like a prohibition against motorized or mechanized devices, even a mountain bike. That prompted a gibe from Commissioner Dan Schinhofen who often attacks environmentalists.
“We’re talking about a bicycle,” he said. “That’s considered mechanized? Oh boy.”
Wichman said when local officials in Tombstone, Ariz. had to repair a water system by traveling through a wilderness area, they had put their tools in a wheelbarrow and were stopped because a wheelbarrow was mechanized.
“We just look forward to being a part of this discussion,” Netherton said. “We’ve worked with a lot of counties on bills.”
Wichman said she told the Nevada congressional delegation she’d give them a list of what Nye County needs in a lands bill and what other agencies want. The Friends of Nevada Wilderness were asked to give their recommendations within the next 30 days.
Bob Adams, chairman of the Pahrump Public Lands Advisory Board, read a statement in which he conceded there are specific and unique areas that need to be protected for all Americans.
But he said, “the continued expansion of wilderness is very often poor management and negatively impacts the lives of residents in rural areas.”
Adams said flexibility is required to adapt to local needs and local participation is needed in the management of public lands.
“Wilderness takes that and moves it to Washington D.C. There is a method that’s been set forth in the Federal Public Lands Management Act where public resources can be protected allowing good science, sound management, flexibility in participation by county government and residential stakeholders in the planning process,” he said.
By allowing roadways into these areas, it allows fire prevention and suppression, Adams said. Public use also allows grazing which provides a livelihood for rural residents and food for all, he said, it also allows mining.
Recreation and tourism is also a very large economic asset, Adams said. He said off-highway vehicle recreation provides over $1 billion per year to the Colorado economy, $3 billion to $4 billion in Arizona and over $1.5 billion per year in Nevada.
“Closing off areas to mechanical travel closes off these areas to recreational opportunities,” Adams said.
There was a plug for economic development in the presentation. Kurt Koznicki, southern Nevada director for the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said his organization is working with the U.S. Forest Service to hire six-member trail crews to work in Nye County wilderness areas like the Alta Toquima Wilderness, positions that pay $14 to $15 per hour.