For months, Clark County and other groups have been negotiating the details of possible federal legislation to clear about 38,000 acres of public land for development, opening up land near the Spring Mountain Range and toward the California border. The proposal, outlined in a draft resolution obtained by The Nevada Independent, was set to go before the commission last year.
According to the resolution, maps and interviews, the county plans to ask congressional representatives to introduce a bill that would make changes to how public land is managed in a county where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees 57 percent of the total land.
Most notably, the resolution proposed to open up BLM parcels “throughout Clark County to meet the needs of economic development and infrastructure.” It also looked to expand land for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose chairman has pushed for more large-scale solar development.
The plan was listed on an August agenda, but it was taken off to continue discussions over specifics. Conversations are ongoing and the county confirmed last week that it was still working on the plan. In recent weeks, there has been discussion of putting a new version on the agenda.
Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who has been involved in the process for more than a year, said opening up more land along the I-15 corridor could create opportunities for developers to build affordable housing as the county’s population grows. It would also give the city of Henderson an opportunity to expand its footprint with more commercial space. He said the area’s proximity to California and the interstate could make it an ideal distribution hub.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm as it [relates] to opportunities,” he said.
The ability to develop in Clark County is often limited by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, a 1998 bill that delineated what BLM lands could and could not be purchased and transferred from the BLM to private companies within Clark County. The proposed federal legislation, according to the August maps, would expand the “disposal boundaries” — lands available for purchase — by about 38,000 acres. The move would come with wilderness protections and could create more land for businesses. But environmentalists have raised some concerns. They worry more construction could increase sprawl and further strain resources like water.
“The exact disposal boundary is still up in the air,” said Christian Gerlach, an organizer for the Sierra Club based in Las Vegas. “[The proposal] hasn't been formalized."
Gerlach said the environmental group generally opposed transfers of public land unless there was a clear indication that a swap would benefit the environment too. In the past, groups have found ways to compromise on public lands bills. The typical way of doing that has been to offset disposal land expansions with environmental protections, such as wilderness designations.
The envisioned Clark County lands bill would attempt to do that, according to the August draft. The bill would protect some land as wilderness and expand Areas of Environmental Concern, regions on which the BLM places restrictions on recreation activities, including off-road racing.
"We've been asked what wilderness protections we would like to see,” Jose Witt, the Southern Nevada Director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said in an interview last month.
Congress does not typically designate Areas of Environmental Concern. The BLM does.
In a recent call with reporters, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke alluded to talks with the federal delegation about public lands and development. Zinke said he had spoken to the congressional delegation, the governor and local officials about “what the demand valve is for property.”
Department of Interior spokesperson Heather Swift confirmed in a follow-up email that those conversations occurred but said Zinke “is not involved in crafting any legislation on the issue.”
Sisolak noted the environmental concerns and said that the county has worked closely with conservationists to identify land for preservation. He said the federal legislation would potentially expand desert tortoise habitat.
“They were all involved and had seats in the table,” he said in an interview this week.
Still, some are frustrated that negotiations have gone on for months with limited inclusion.
“The tradition in Nevada is to have broad compromise lands bills that balance conservation with development,” Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s state director wrote in a recent email. In the current political climate and with the new administration, he wrote that “it’s hard to imagine that balance being favorable for the preservation of wildlife habitat and water resources, which are the two most pressing environmental issues facing southern Nevada.”
If introduced, Clark County’s envisioned federal bill would come as Southern Nevada officials sort through several public land issues. Many of them are contentious and politically sensitive.
There’s tension over whether the land should be part of the incorporated cities — the City of Las Vegas and Henderson — or part of the county. The city is currently seeking to annex islands of county land that fall within the city’s boundaries. The debate has grown tense, and the county, which would lose about $3 million in revenue, according to the Las Vegas Sun, has pushed to stop the effort. Under a proposed lands bill, there would likely be similar arguments about what entity would control purchased BLM land. Much of the disposal land could end up in Henderson.
“Clark County and the city of Henderson have discussed land use and zoning issues, which have centered on where appropriate residential, commercial and industrial development should occur,” Erik Pappa, a spokesperson for the county said in an email Wednesday.
Henderson officials have had some internal discussions but declined to comment further. In recent weeks, lobbyists for the city of Las Vegas and the county have met with members of the delegation. “The city is working with the county and the region on the lands issues,” Jace Radke, a city spokesman said in an email earlier this month about a Clark County public lands bill. “We are still working to ensure that all of the needs of the city of Las Vegas are addressed."
Another variable might involve the U.S. Air Force and its push to expand the boundaries of the Nevada Test and Training Range by about 300,000 acres. The military has been pushing to expand its 2.9 million flight range to enhance it for modern warfare. The expansion, however, would transfer land in the Desert Wildlife Refuge to the Air Force, which has conservationists concerned. The public has until March to comment on the Air Force’s environmental impact statement. Since the land is federal, Congress must make a decision by 2021, the current sunset date for the range.
Conservationists are lobbying the delegation to wait until at least 2019, when the environmental impact statement process is scheduled to be completed.
But Congress can act at any time, even before an environmental analysis is finalized. For instance, a bill to expand the Air Force range could be folded into a larger public lands bill.
Although the county is expected to reintroduce its resolution, the process still remains in its earliest stages. No bill has been drafted, and the county would still need to get members of the delegation to the carry the bill in Congress. With a Republican Congress and White House more amenable to transferring public land for development, some had seen an opening to get a bill done before the end of the year. It’s unclear how difficult that will be in an election year.