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Fire-scarred sagebrush in the Owyhee Desert on May 15, 2019. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

In an effort to provide a more comprehensive report on water, land and development issues, this “beat sheet” will break down the news of the week with a peek into the future. Let me know whether you have any suggestions, criticisms, tips or story ideas at [email protected]. If you want to receive Indy Environment in your inbox, you can sign-up here. If you want to help our mission of providing nonprofit reader-supported journalism, please support us here.

What does it mean to burn 1 million acres?

What’s captured in the photo and so much more that you simply cannot see by walking through the Great Basin. That fire-scarred sagebrush stands in the Owyhee Desert, a casualty of the Martin Fire, which swept through northeastern Nevada last year and burned more than 400,000 acres. It was the largest single fire in Nevada history. After more than 1 million acres burned last year, lawmakers and federal land managers are starting to look at tackling increasing megafires.

I took that photo on Wednesday as part of a journalism workshop hosted by the Intermountain West Joint Venture. There were a lot of interesting discussions among journalists, state wildlife biologists, ranchers and federal land managers charged with fighting fire and restoring burned lands. Some are closely watching Assembly Concurrent Resolution 4, which would create an interim committee to study wildfires. The workshop focused on two issues — stopping wildfire or fire restoration — that are heavily intertwined. As with nearly all public land issues, many of the potential answers, from fuel breaks to non-native seeding, are challenging or controversial.

But there is wide recognition that something needs to be done.

As more acres burn, more land is converted to cheatgrass, a well-adapted flammable invasive species that makes fire more likely. It’s a vicious cycle that poses a serious threat to sagebrush habitat and the wildlife that rely on it. As one federal land manager noted, firefighting has often focused most on forests but it has been difficult to get Congress to recognize rangeland fires.

The workshop this week offered a look at a complicated issue. One speaker called it a “wicked problem,” one so intertwined with a whole system of issues that it’s difficult to solve. Wildfires impact many resources, from water to air, and there are a lot of different perspectives to explore.

I’ll be reporting more on this. There’s a lot to unpack. Until then…

Water bills are fluid: You might have noticed that instead of receiving this newsletter on the regular Thursday day, you received a photo of a horse. That’s because a) I was in Elko. And b) I was finishing up a story on water policy. The story looked at the dynamics facing Assembly Bill 30 and Assembly Bill 65. As I wrote, the debate around the bills illustrates the difficulties of updating Nevada’s water law. Litigation — past, present and future — looms over the changes.

Both pieces of legislation have changed significantly since last week. The state posted a new amendment to Assembly Bill 30, which was pulled from a vote in the Senate Natural Resources Committee yesterday. It will be heard today at 4 p.m. The committee voted yesterday to move forward with a simplified version of Assembly Bill 62, which was aimed at curbing speculation by limiting extensions on some water rights. Under the new version, the topic will be dealt with through rulemaking. The amended version also asks the state to study what other states do.

Watery eyes: “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden. That quote was posted on Twitter last week by a former NASA researcher who has done important work on worldwide groundwater drawdowns. And it’s worth sharing because this is a real issue that affects policymaking, even in the nation’s driest state.

The continued push for plutonium accountability: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said she wants “regular briefings” to ensure that the Department of Energy is removing plutonium stored in the state, the senator told my colleague Humberto Sanchez last Friday. In a letter last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Cortez Masto he would commit to start removing a half metric-ton of plutonium from the state by 2021 and promised not to ship another metric ton. The senator’s spokesperson told me last week that the letter is not meant to preempt state action. “It is meant to complement state efforts,” said Ryan King, the senator’s communications director.

To that end, state officials applauded the letter, but the attorney general’s office is continuing its litigation, hoping that it will result even stronger accountability measures from the agency. The lawsuit has other benefits in addition to assuring the letter stands even if Secretary Perry is not Secretary Perry forever. It is a way for the state to get more information from a department that it has argued, in the past, is not negotiating in good faith. The case is pending at the 9th Circuit after the state lost a preliminary injunction this year. Oral arguments will likely happen this fall.

In Yucca news: The DOE budget is poised to trigger a Yucca fight next week.

“This is Shoshone land.” Amid concerns that the Turmp administration could push to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository, the Western Shoshone National Council demonstrated near the Nevada Test Site this weekend. The Nevada Current posted a good story on the three-day demonstration and the legacy of nuclear testing. From the story: “Our elders who are sick now and the ones who passed on, they told the story, and that’s where I come in to tell the story.” My colleague Megan Messerly reported on an ad Sen. Bernie Sanders put out centered on this.

Land managers terminate Southern Nevada plan: Federal land managers officially posted a notice in the Federal Register terminating an update to a comprehensive public lands plan for Southern Nevada. The Review-Journal’s Henry Brean has been on this story since Day 1. He reported that the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 67 percent of the state’s land, will instead pursue “smaller, focused” amendments to its regional plan, which dictates how land use for an area that includes Red Rock National Conservation Area to Gold Butte National Monument. That decision frustrated local officials who had been working on the plan for years.

Cortez Masto questions Forest Service: Sportsmen for the Rubies put out a release Tuesday praising the senator for introducing the Ruby Mountain Protection Act, which would prevent oil and gas exploration in the area. The move came after the U.S. Forest Service recommended no oil and gas leasing on about 53,000 acres, citing “unfavorable geologic conditions” as part of its decision. Although hunting and angling groups are behind the bill, the senator has not received that kind of support for the Forest Service, which said it’s unnecessary. Cortez Masto, a former prosecutor, questioned why they took that seemingly conflicting position at a hearing this week.

Good Ruby Mountain news: The Elko Daily Free Press reported on a $1 million effort to restore a Lamoille Canyon camp after a devastating fire last year destroyed its main lodge.

Clips from the news:

  • The Bureau of Land Management is raising concerns about soil in target shooting areas around Reno. Lead there can be four times the allowable level. (Reno Gazette Journal)
  • Death Valley National Park announced that it grew this week. The park acquired 680 acres of private inholdings from the Mojave Desert Land Trust. (Review-Journal)
  • You belong among the wildflowers. Does your Instagram account? (KNPR)
  • “USDA seeks project proposal to protect and restore critical wetlands” (USDA)

What I’m listening to: I was in Elko this week, so there was some Railroad Earth. Eight hours of driving later and with more driving coming up, I need new music. Suggestions very welcome!

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