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Nevadans in Congress proposing big new federal lands bill

March 4, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this May 20, 2015, file photo, a barren road is seen in Garden Valley, Nev. Nevada's entire congressional delegation, governor and several advocacy groups have lined up behind a bid for Congress to set aside vast areas of federal land in the state for conservation and recreation while freeing some for development around Las Vegas. Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto called the bill introduced Wednesday, March 3, 2021, to protect more than 2 million acres a preservation measure and key to allowing population growth in one of the nation's fastest-growing urban areas. (Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 20, 2015, file photo, a barren road is seen in Garden Valley, Nev. Nevada's entire congressional delegation, governor and several advocacy groups have lined up behind a bid for Congress to set aside vast areas of federal land in the state for conservation and recreation while freeing some for development around Las Vegas. Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto called the bill introduced Wednesday, March 3, 2021, to protect more than 2 million acres a preservation measure and key to allowing population growth in one of the nation's fastest-growing urban areas. (Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada’s entire congressional delegation, governor and several advocacy groups have lined up behind a bid for Congress to set aside vast federal lands in Clark County for conservation and recreation while freeing some for development around Las Vegas.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, called the bill introduced on Wednesday a landscape preservation measure and key to allowing population growth in one of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas. The bill seeks to protect more than 2 million acres and would affect some 3,125 square miles (8,094 square kilometers), or an area larger than the state of Delaware.

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“It is vital that we preserve the incredible outdoor spaces that provide immense economic, cultural, and ecological value to southern Nevada,” Masto said in a statement, “while also allowing Las Vegas and its surrounding communities to diversify their economies and provide additional affordable housing to Nevada families.”

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., introduced the bill in the House, with backing from Republican Congressman Mark Amodei and Democrats Steven Horsford and Susie Lee. Titus called it the largest conservation bill in state history.

Cortez Masto chairs a Senate subcommittee on public lands, forests and mining. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen also backed the bill — called the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act — along with Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Clark County lawmakers and advocacy groups ranging from the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association to Get Outdoors Nevada, the Colorado-based Conservation Lands Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts endorsed the measure.

Critics dubbed it a “sprawl bill.” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said it would allow too much growth in a desert environment that is warming due to climate change and dependent on water from the dwindling Colorado River.

The network was among groups that fought more than a decade to defeat a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to tap groundwater beneath vast rangelands in northeast Nevada and pipe it to Las Vegas. Water planners have not proposed an alternative.

Las Vegas has about 2.3 million residents today, and the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas projects the population will approach 3 million by 2040.

That growth faces constraints because the federal government controls more land in Nevada than any other state in the U.S. About 80% of land in the state is in national park, conservation, military and security reservations. Vast rangelands are administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

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The congressional proposal grew from pressure to provide space for private development as well as affordable housing funded with proceeds of federal land sales under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998.

Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Paul Selberg said the bill addresses community needs while expanding places including Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Friends of Nevada Wilderness Executive Director Shaaron Netherton called it “the single largest designation of wilderness acres in the state’s history, ensuring continued public access and critical habitat and cultural resource protection on more than 1.6 million acres.”

Annette Magnus, head of Battle Born Progress, projected that the money raised through the sale of property under the measure would be used for climate change mitigation.

The sale of federal land authorized by Congress in the 1998 act generated billions of dollars for recreation, wildlife habitat and public lands projects in Nevada, the Lake Tahoe Basin and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Ten percent of funds raised through that act goes to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and 5% goes to Nevada schools.