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The Nevada Independent

Billionaire proposes massive Nevada land trade with federal government

Possible consolidation of parcels puts public land users on edge as concerns about access abound.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo
Environment
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In the 19th century, the federal government, looking to boost railway construction across the relatively undeveloped West, offered railroad companies an incentive: Expand the rail lines and receive alternating sections of land along the railway corridor. The railway companies delivered, laying thousands of miles of track, and in return they received square-mile plots surrounding the tracks. 

Decades later, portions of the West are a mishmash of public and private land. Known by the “checkerboard” appearance it creates on a map, the intermingling of public and private land has resulted in some parcels that are landlocked and inaccessible, frustrating public land users. In Nevada, more than 2 million acres of public land are landlocked and inaccessible.

For public land managers and ranchers, it can be a logistical nightmare, with projects fragmented by alternating federal and private land ownership.

“We were really dealt a tough hand when the federal government decided they would divvy up the West in that checkerboard pattern,” said Wyatt Anthony, land manager for Kroenke Ranches, which includes Elko County’s 1.2 million-acre Winecup Gamble Ranch. “All of us have been left with a difficult situation.”

Billionaire Stan Kroenke, owner of the Winecup Gamble Ranch, as well as the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Rams and estimated by Forbes to be worth $14.6 billion, is proposing a potential land transfer with the federal government that would consolidate a substantial chunk of the checkerboarded land in northeastern Nevada. 

Despite Kroenke’s backing, the project faces considerable hurdles, as it will need to either go through extensive administrative paperwork or congressional approval, and controversy surrounds the plan. Thus far, it has faced skepticism from hunting groups and local and state officials, with one state wildlife official saying the scope of land the ranch would receive is “out of proportion” to what the public would receive.

The proposed areas include some of northeastern Nevada’s most prized hunting grounds, including sizable herds of elk, antelope and mule deer, and the suggested transfer has drawn the ire of many who fear it could drastically alter access to public land.

The tentative plan introduced by Western Land Group, the company brokering the deal for Kroenke, would shift more than 230,000 acres of federal land to the ranch while transferring about 84,000 acres of ranchland to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency tasked with managing the nation’s federal lands, including roughly 48 million acres in Nevada.

Once a final proposal is drafted, it will be introduced to Congress for legislative approval rather than going through the BLM’s administrative process, according to Western Land Group. Understaffed, the BLM doesn’t have the bandwidth to accomplish such a project, Western Land Group said.

The transfer of public and private land would be the largest ever involving BLM land, according to Western Land Group. Kroenke’s representatives said the deal would remedy inefficiencies brought on by the fragmented ownership of the land. It also could permanently cement conservation easements and protect breeding grounds for species such as sage grouse and migration corridors for mule deer.

But local and state officials aren’t convinced.

“Our concerns have been pretty consistent through the process,” Nevada Department of Wildlife Deputy Director Caleb McAdoo told The Nevada Independent. “The challenge here is that it’s such a large landscape. We aren’t talking a chunk here or there — it’s whole mountain ranges and valleys. The scale is significant.”

Western Land Group originally planned to work through Congress as early as next year to initiate the transfer, but key Nevada lawmakers have not been approached on the subject, something at least one Nevada public land and law expert said should have happened by now. At the same time, the group’s tentative plans were made public through a series of meetings with state officials; now, instead of a clearcut plan to streamline property boundaries, the talks of consolidation have caused frustration and confusion in Elko County.

“There’s not a lot of details,” according to Curtis Moore, Elko County assistant manager and natural resources director. “Nobody’s really articulated what the public’s getting from this.”

Sign where the road diverges between Winecup Gamble Ranch property and a public access road north of Wells on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

‘This doesn’t look good’

It is not uncommon for groups to attempt to consolidate chunks of public land, as the Trust for Public Land did in 2003 in California. That year, the trust launched its multi-phased Sierra Checkerboard Initiative to clean up an area spanning 1.5 million acres, purchasing private parcels for public ownership, protecting private parcels with conservation easements, and exchanging private and public parcels in the northern Sierra. 

But a shift in ownership of checkerboarded land at such a massive scale as the potential Winecup Gamble transfer “raises concerns,” said Dre Arman, coordinator of the Idaho and Nevada chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Western Land Group first approached state wildlife officials about cleaning up checkerboard parcels on the Winecup Gamble Ranch in 2022. By spring of this year, maps of potential transfer areas were put forth. Not long after, Elko residents and local government officials caught wind and started asking questions.

“It was always this —air quotes — nonproposal, this is just an idea, we want to hear what you think about it,” said Karen Boeger, a founding member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness and a board member for multiple conservation and sportsman groups. “When this came to the Elko County commission for a presentation and the Elko County CAB (citizen advisory board), everything hit the fan after that. We began to beat the drum that this doesn’t look good.”

A flurry of meetings hosted by NDOW, its wildlife commission, the Elko County Board of Commissioners and its advisory board ensued. Through it all, proponents of the project have emphasized the proposal is still being developed.

“The initial map that was put out there was putting the ball in their court and seeing how far off we were,” Anthony said. “Those maps kind of got out a little prematurely. We didn’t think we had a proposal that was ready to go out to the public yet.”

Melissa Sherburne, principal at Western Land Group, said “informal courtesy” meetings have been held with multiple federal agencies including the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but those meetings were not public, spurring rumors that the group is not working with all the appropriate agencies.

“That is a misconception,” she said. “There’s no question we’ve had multiple meetings with them.”

Public meetings will come after a formal proposal is drafted, she said, and that is still a ways out.

Despite the lack of a formal proposal, Western Land Group said in August that it would introduce legislation in 2024, although the group has since pushed the introduction date back to 2025. The alternative would be going through the federal government’s administrative process.

But working through the BLM to accomplish a land transfer is a lengthy and time-consuming task, Andy Wiessner, legislative specialist for Western Land Group, told state wildlife commissioners this summer. Going through environmental assessments and paperwork would take 10 to 15 years, he estimated.

“There’s just no way we believe an exchange of this size and magnitude can happen administratively,” he said. “They just don’t have the capability to do it in-house.”

But the group has not yet broached the transfer with any lawmakers, either in Nevada or other states, Sherburne said.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto’s (D-NV) and Sen. Jacky Rosen’s offices (D-NV) confirmed by email that the senators had not been approached by any of the project’s stakeholders. 

“I would want to have the major stakeholders on board, including state agencies dealing with wildlife and natural resources, and county government,” said Bret Birdsong, a public lands and natural resources law expert at UNLV. “If you’re asking a lawmaker to carry the bucket of water in legislation, they’re more than a stakeholder. You need them. I would think that it’s important to find those members of Congress and get them interested in the project.” 

Now, with maps, acreage and rough details in the public’s hands, the horse is already before the cart, according to Elko County Commissioner Jon Karr.

“If they’re trying to get it through Congress, they’re not doing a good job of wining and dining,” he said.

Potential blow to Elko County's economy

The Winecup Gamble Ranch — at one time two separate ranches — is a sprawling operation that at various times was owned by early Nevada governor John Sparks, actor Jimmy Stewart and former Reebok owner Paul Fireman.  

Thousand Springs Creek winds through the property, fed by year-round springs and intermittent streams, and herds of Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn antelope and mule deer roam the area.

In addition to owning the Winecup Gamble Ranch, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Rams, he also owns a British soccer club, 60 million square feet of real estate and more than 1.5 million acres of ranches across the U.S. and Canada, including the 525,000-continuous acre Waggoner Ranch in Texas, the country’s “the largest ranch under one fence.”

Some of the developments on Kroenke’s other properties, such as the 367-megawatt Western Trail Wind Farm on Waggoner Ranch in Texas, have sparked concern for what might happen at the Winecup Gamble Ranch.

Cows at the eastern side of the Winecup Gamble Ranch property north of Wells on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

A transmission line is slated to run across a portion of the Winecup property, and a solar developer has plans for a relatively small project on the ranch.

The Southwest Intertie, a permitted transmission line that hasn’t started construction yet, is slated to stretch 285 miles from Ely to Twin Falls. Once built, it would connect the One Nevada Transmission Line that runs from Ely to Las Vegas and the Gateway West Line that runs through southern Idaho and Wyoming.

At a February Elko County Planning Commission meeting, a consultant for renewable energy developer Pivot Generation updated commissioners on a 53-megawatt solar project it’s partnering with Blue Earth Renewables on. The companies have secured a land lease with the Winecup Gamble Ranch to install  about 300 acres of solar panels. Power generated from the project will go to Idaho Power’s generation system — the line that runs very near to where the solar project is being installed.

Energy development is something the ranch has considered, Anthony said, but “it’s certainly not our main focus. It’s primarily a cattle operation.”

Construction of solar energy fields often involves clearing large patches of land, severely affecting local wildlife. But even larger than fears of energy development on the land is the fear by many hunters and public land users that large sections of now-accessible land will be lost in the transfer. In 2022, the state issued 1,900 mule deer, 278 antelope and 762 elk tags for the area included in the proposed land exchange.

According to Elko County’s wildlife advisory board, the transfer could result in a loss of $9.3 million annually in hunting-related revenue for the county.

It “appears to be a land grab,” Jim Cooney, the board’s chairman, wrote to the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners in an Aug. 22 letter.

Not all land is equal

As it stands, the ranch is proposing to transfer about 1 acre of private land to the federal government for roughly every 2.7 acres of public land it receives. That means Kroenke’s company would end up with more land than it started with.

The exchange might look unfair on paper, Tom Glass, founder of Western Land Group, told the state’s wildlife commissioners. But, he said, the acreage the ranch is looking at giving up comes with water, making it more valuable than dry land. One wet acre is worth about 2.5 dry acres, he said.

“It’s not really acre per acre,” he said. “The public would be receiving mostly wet, higher-value land.”

Additional details about the potential transfer show the ranch retaining water and mineral rights to the land it swaps with the BLM.

McAdoo, the deputy director of NDOW, described the ratio of land to be swapped as “out of proportion” and the ranch’s retention of its water rights as “problematic.”

“We want to make sure, for the public and wildlife, that when an exchange happens, that proportional values are exchanged,” McAdoo said. “If we’re giving up one acre of good habitat, we want to get one acre of good habitat.”

In a call with The Independent, Sherburne said Western Land Group has “heard loud and clear the balance of land needs to be more equalized.”

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