Exclusive: Rosen introduces Washoe county lands bill years in the making
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced a much-anticipated lands bill for Washoe County, opening up new parcels for development in the housing-starved area in a conservation and development compromise mirroring prior Nevada lands bills.
The Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act, first requested by Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks in 2016, has been studied and drafted by Rosen’s team for more than four years. The product unveiled Friday represents the result of lengthy negotiations with city officials, developers, conservationists and other stakeholders.
Using the model popularized by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA), the Washoe bill would convey 15,860 acres of public land for disposal. Some of that land will be sold at auction to developers; an additional 3,400 acres are designated for specific purposes, including roadway expansions, regional parks and K-12 school sites. All proceeds from land sales would remain in Nevada — 85 percent to a special Treasury account designated for environmentally focused projects in Washoe County, 10 percent to Truckee River conservation projects and 5 percent to the state’s education fund.
In a new twist on the traditional lands bill concept, the Washoe lands bill requires the managing government agency to evaluate each parcel for affordable housing suitability before bringing it to market, and stipulates that all land sold to affordable housing developers must be done below fair market value.
In exchange, nearly 950,000 acres of public land in Northern Nevada would receive conservation designations, creating new national conservation and wilderness areas to permanently protect them from development and preserve the nature within.
If passed, it would be the largest federal conservation effort in Nevada, by acreage, since the Black Rock Desert Act of 2000. And it would permanently protect 30 percent of Washoe County, in line with the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative to conserve 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.
The bill also places about 20,000 acres in trust for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.
In an interview, Rosen said the bill will help Washoe County grow responsibly as its economy diversifies.
“As Washoe County continues to grow, because we have a lot of new projects — lots of new development, especially with our lithium battery recycling, Technology Hub and the like — that it's important that we're smart about it, and smart in the way that we set aside places that people can afford,” Rosen said.
Rosen’s bill introduction was cheered by economic development advocates in Northern Nevada, several local elected officials and conservationists. The original Reno City Council resolution requesting a lands bill was approved by all but one member, Jenny Brekhus (who terms out this year) who believes the lands bill model is outdated and incentivizes sprawl rather than promoting more efficient land use on existing private lands.
In addition, some conservationists have grown weary of the tradeoff model, which they say holds up enshrining already-undeveloped land with conservation protections as the gold standard for environmentalism rather than pursuing more environmentally friendly development.
[For more on the history of Nevada lands bills, read our series on their history and future.]
But for the most part, the bill was met with approval from a variety of stakeholders in Nevada — Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Wildlife Federation and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Tribal Chairman among them. In a statement, Lawson called the bill the region’s “single largest federal priority.”
The final product was similar to a working draft Rosen’s team released in April; changes reflect requests made during the comment period and feedback from local entities. The final bill took about 3,000 acres off the table for conveyance, compared to the draft, and added about 230,000 acres in conservation easements, mostly in new lands for proposed national conservation areas and withdrawal areas where uses such as recreation are permitted but mining and development are banned.
Overall, the bill was significantly pared down from proposals made years ago to draw a large disposal boundary around the Reno-Sparks area — a win for environmentalists.
“[For] each of those parcels, folks had to really justify what they needed and why,” Shaaron Netherton, the executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said in an interview, praising Rosen’s staff. “It made for a much better bill.”
Even among land bill skeptics, including the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin Director Patrick Donnelly, the Washoe bill isn’t too offensive, particularly when compared to a proposed bill for Clark County. Donnelly said original proposals for the county contained about triple the amount of land conveyed for development.
“I never expected to get to a place where I wasn't screaming bloody murder about this lands bill,” Donnelly said. “And yet, here we are. It could be a heck of a lot worse.”
On the conveyance side, Rosen’s team created a model slightly different from SNPLMA and prior Nevada lands bills. In Clark County, Congress drew a “disposal boundary” around Las Vegas, and made federally owned parcels within the enclosed area available for sale — largely due to the Las Vegas Valley’s geographically circular pattern. For Washoe County, Rosen staffers went parcel by parcel throughout the county, making specific acres available throughout the county based on feedback and expressed interest. The area most rich in developable parcels is between Fernley and Spanish Springs.
Of the nearly 16,000 acres that would be made available to develop, the presiding agency — either the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service — would conduct an environmental review and evaluate a parcel’s potential for affordable housing. If the agency deems a sale to be appropriate, Washoe County must also issue an approval. It will then be sold — either at fair market value or below market value if sold to an affordable housing developer. Once privatized, the land would be subject to local zoning ordinances.
The bill also explicitly designates 30 acres for affordable housing, some near Stead and some near Cold Springs.
Additional land conveyed for public purposes — 3,467 acres — will go toward new and expanded regional parks in Reno and Sparks, fire reduction areas around Incline Village, flood management along the Truckee River, trails and a proposed new elementary school.
On the conservation side, the bill would permanently protect over 220,000 acres as wilderness — the gold standard of conservation — in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge along the Oregon border, in Bitner Table along the Massacre Lakes Basin, in Wrangler Canyon, in the Granite range near Gerlach and around Burro Mountain. The majority of the land would become national conservation areas — a slightly lesser conservation standard in that extractive uses such as mining are not allowed but vehicles can still pass through the area.
The new conservation areas would be interspersed throughout the county — in Massacre Rim, the Smoke Creek Desert, in the Fox Range north of Pyramid Lake and Kiba Canyon, along the California border.
Donnelly said he was disappointed by the reliance on national conservation areas rather than wilderness designations but was still glad the regions would be permanently protected from mining and oil and gas exploration. Netherton agreed, saying the conservation area-wilderness balance was “the one thing we’re not super thrilled with” but it was done in the spirit of compromise with state agencies, sportsmen and ranchers who want more flexibility to recreate, work and fire rehabilitation.
Netherton added that the protections will be critical for sage grouse in the northern part of the county.
Finally, nearly 175,000 acres would be designated as withdrawal areas, where recreation and other uses can continue, but development and mining cannot.
“Anybody who loves backcountry recreation should be happy with this,” Netherton said.
For Indigenous people, the bill holds about 8,500 acres in trust for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, 11,500 for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and 1,100 for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.
While Rosen’s team built consensus among a bevy of stakeholders in Washoe County, earning consensus in the Senate is another matter. In former Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) time, state-specific bills were often passed via unanimous consent. With such bipartisanship agreements hampered by obstructionists and fraying traditions in the Senate, Rosen’s bill will likely need to ride along with a bigger legislative vehicle.
In August, Rosen said her preferred method would be a public lands package, in which senators from multiple states package their federal lands priorities together as one mega-bill. Such a package was last passed in 2019, and typically come up every eight to 10 years.
She said after introducing the bill, her first step will be getting it marked up in the Energy & Natural Resources Committee. Luckily, her closest Senate ally — Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) — chairs the public lands subcommittee. From there, she will need to find an appropriate legislative vehicle and talk to other senators, very few of whom outside of the Mountain West and Alaska understand why bills essentially handling local zoning involve the federal government.
“Most states don't need federal legislation in order to develop or preserve the beauty of their state,” Rosen said. “Of course, we're very lucky to have that [beauty] in Nevada. So we do need a vehicle.”
But a number of factors are at play in the committee — for one, chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) is retiring at the end of the year; secondly, the Nevada delegation has had trouble moving its lands bills since Reid retired. Plus, the 118th Congress has been uniquely unproductive, 2024 is an election year and Washoe County is a traditional bellwether.
Rosen said she hopes to find other senators with legislative lands priorities to move a bill she says “Nevada needs.”
“We partner in a bipartisan way with our friends to make sure that our states can continue to preserve what we need to, support our tribal communities and develop where we need to in smart ways,” she said.