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Potential nuclear waste rail line threatened

WASHINGTON — A bill quietly introduced in Congress would restrict mining and energy exploration over a sweeping area of rural Nevada, preserving scenic valleys and buffering a landmark piece of desert artwork.

The bill would also target an area the U.S. Department of Energy planned to build a $2 billion, 319-mile railroad from Caliente to Yucca Mountain skirting around the Nevada National Security Site. The DOE submitted 116 applications to the Nevada Division of Water Resources to drill 103 wells along the proposed route. But President Obama cut the funds for the Yucca Mountain program.

Sen. Harry Reid last month introduced legislation to withdraw 805,100 acres of federal land in Garden Valley and Coal Valley straddling the Lincoln and Nye county lines, an area bigger than Rhode Island.

The restrictions would not affect current valid land use such as grazing, but it would forbid the Bureau of Land Management from selling any land or granting permits for oil or mineral prospecting. Activities for new geothermal, solar or wind energy development also would be restricted.

The bill would ensure the most significant feature in the 1,250-square-mile area would be “City,” one of the largest earth sculptures ever created. It is roughly the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and has taken its creator, noted artist Michael Heizer, more than 40 years to craft.

“In general I don’t think the county supports any kind of land withdrawals for that,” Nye County Planning Director Darrell Lacy said. “The 800,000 acres is a very large area and in many cases you’re looking at stuff 30, 40, 50 miles away from that art installation.”

The withdrawal includes about 200,000 acres in Nye County, Lacy said. Formal comments have yet to be voted on by the Nye County Commission, the Lincoln County Commission has already come out against the bill.

When it comes to the proposed Yucca Mountain rail route, Lacy said, “Whether it goes there or not taking this land out of multiple use and putting it in a restricted use is not something we have typically supported. It’s land that has potential for mines, there’s a scenario for a potential for oil and gas exploration.”

In one of more than 200 technical protests against the Yucca project the state of Nevada argued the “City” artwork was “a cultural resource of national and international significance” and should not be disturbed.

But conservationists said the withdrawal would have a much broader impact, offering a level of protection to some of Nevada’s more stunning landscapes.

Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said the area provides habitat for mule deer and Pronghorn antelope, and contains Native American rock shelters and ancient Shoshone and Paiute trails. The withdrawal area includes the White River Narrows, an archaeological district of native rock art.

“When you think of unspoiled basin and range country, this is a place that best fits that description,” O’Donnell said. “These are two of the most scenic valleys in Nevada, two of the most undisturbed, least roaded, and least populated portions of the state and therefore the country.”

Reid did not respond to a request for comment on the bill. His spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman, said the Nevada Democrat “has long had conversations about how to protect the scenic, natural and cultural values in and around Garden Valley.”

The area once was considered for possible wilderness study but was set aside when Congress debated a Lincoln County land act in 2004. More recently, its natural and historic values prompted the BLM to reject it as a site for fast-tracking solar projects, O’Donnell said.

Reid introduced the bill Sept. 16, and was the only listed sponsor. Neither Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., nor Rep. Steven Horsford, a House Democrat who represents Nye and Lincoln counties, would comment.

Reid floated a similar proposal in 2010 that would have designated portions of Garden Valley and neighboring Coal Valley as a national conservation area to preserve the area around “City,” said Ed Higbee, chairman of the Lincoln County Commission.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the government planned to crisscross the valley and others nearby with railroad tracks that would carry MX missiles to and from hidden silos. The program was killed by President Ronald Reagan.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project has received new life with the release of an October report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deeming the site safe, and the control of the U.S. Senate swinging to the Republicans with the Nov. 4 election.

Pahrump Valley Times reporter Mark Waite contributed to this report.

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