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Homes under construction about two miles north of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Clark County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a contentious federal lands proposal, even after dozens of environmentalists and off-road racers voiced concerns about the plan in nearly two hours of public comments. The discussion taps into a larger debate over what tradeoffs are acceptable to balance the demands for growth, open space, recreation and wildlife in one of the nation’s fastest growing — and most arid — regions.

The plan approved Tuesday will now be sent to the federal delegation, which is expected to package the county’s proposal into a congressional bill. Although the details could still change, the county’s plan provides Congress with a structure for what possible legislation might look like.

That framework, first reported by The Nevada Independent in March, would open up about 44,000 acres of land to homebuilders and commercial developers in the future. To balance new development, the proposal would require federal land managers set aside more than 290,000 acres for the threatened desert tortoise to fulfill the county’s obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Under the plan, the county also calls for protecting 82,000 acres of wilderness and withdrawing more reserved land — about 40,000 acres — for the Moapa Band of Paiutes.

In a statement after the vote, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto called the vote a “first step.”

“I look forward to working with the commission, members of our congressional delegation, and stakeholders across Nevada to develop balanced federal legislation that meets the county’s needs, prioritizes smart growth, and invests in conservation,” Cortez Masto said.

Given its scope, the county’s proposal has engendered backlash from a variety of different groups, even creating an unconventional alliance between off-highway vehicle racers and environmentalists, who worry that language in the plan could subvert tortoise protections.

“We clearly understand the scope of issues in front of us,” said Marci Henson, who directs the county’s air quality program and has been shepherding the lands proposal through a year-long negotiations process. “There are some difficult decisions in front of us as a community and some tradeoffs depending on what our visions and goals are for the communities we represent.”

In an orange shirt plastered with the slogan “I Ride OHVs And I Vote,” Ken Thatcher appeared before the commission in opposition. Thatcher, the president of Southern Nevada Offroad Enthusiasts, said he dropped off a petition with about 1,500 signatures. If Congress approves them, the new land designations in the proposal would likely change how the Bureau of Land Management balances the use of off-road vehicles on public lands. For Thatcher and other off-road racers, the proposal adds insult to injury. They’ve seen recreation opportunities diminish as more pressure, including regulations, is placed on the lands, they said.

“We’re going to lose more land than we’ve already lost,” he said.

The off-road community often finds itself battling environmentalists who want to preserve ecosystems from the impacts of racing. But at the meeting on Tuesday, they found themselves arguing the same thing to the county commissioners: Vote no on the resolution or table it.

Numerous environmental groups raised concerns that the language in the plan sets an arbitrary standard for mitigating the effects of development on the desert tortoise, relying on Congress to undermine a science-based administrative process for determining compensatory mitigation.

“This proposed legislation would put politicians, not scientists, in charge of the future of the desert tortoise,” the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter wrote in comments Monday.

The county has pushed back on those claims, arguing that there will be environmental reviews involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the endangered species list.

“We are fully prepared to be in long, protracted negotiations with the [agency],” Henson said.

The Tortoise Group, a nonprofit that focuses on the desert tortoise, said the organization conditionally supported the bill and favored moving it forward if discussions continued.

“We would rather be at the table,” Kobbe Shaw, its director, argued during public comments.

Some environmental groups said that they supported specific parts of the bill, such as the designation of about 82,000 acres of wilderness, but most groups were neutral or opposed. Nevada Conservation League and the Conservation Lands Foundation supported moving forward with the proposal, noting that it is a first step and the plan is not set in stone.

Save Red Rock, an organization aiming to stop development around the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, sent out an email Tuesday morning urging the county to delay the vote. They are concerned about about 7,000 acres of new lands that would be open to development as part of an expansion to the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, or SNPLMA.

That bill created a “disposal boundary” around the Las Vegas Valley. Federal land within that boundary could be sold to developers. Most of the proceeds go into an account that allows the Bureau of Land Management to fund conservation projects across the state. The county’s proposal aims to expand the disposal boundary, which has been done several times, to bring in about 44,000 acres of land near Red Rock and along the I-15 Corridor. County commissioners have argued the land changes are necessary to keep land prices affordable as the county grows and pave the way for the construction of a second airport in Ivanpah near the California border.

On Tuesday, the commissioners approved two other items too assuage concerns that turning these lands over to private hands could jeopardize the character of Red Rock and access for off-road racing. One was a resolution supporting smart growth around Red Rock and the other was the creation of a committee to “preserve and enhance” off-road vehicle recreation.

The county has been working on the proposal for more than a year. It was slated to appear on an August agenda but was pulled after concerns were raised by some environmental groups. The proposal was first reported in The Nevada Independent in March. The county formally presented the plan to the public at an open house earlier this month. During public comment, several groups criticized the process for not including more groups, such as the offroad racers.

After discussion, several commissioners asked county staff how urgent the resolution was, given the chorus of groups asking that a vote be tabled. Commissioner Susan Brager noted that she had received about 3,800 emails on the issue and wanted time to review them in depth.

“Is today drop-dead date?” she asked.

Henson said the county needs to come out with its framework given other public lands planning taking place in the region. The commission, she said, needed to act as soon as possible.

This process is going on as the Bureau of Land Management updates its regional management planning for Southern Nevada. The concern, Henson told commissioners, is that if the county did not get on the record with its proposal, federal land managers would draw the lines in a less suitable way. Henson said the commission could pass another resolution once a bill is drafted.

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