Nevada is flush with public lands and awash in public lands bills

View from the Paradise Range looking east over the Ione Valley to the Shoshone Mountains, Nye County, Nevada - image - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

To read or hear that the United States government manages 86 percent of Nevada’s land is somehow less striking than seeing a map of that distribution. The Ally has identified 9 public lands bills active in Nevada that would enable federal lands to be sold for commercial development purposes.

In Nevada, islands of private and municipal lands adjoin federal lands largely managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Only Congress can authorize the disposal of federal lands, so in a broad sense, a public lands bill is a piece of federal legislation that enables the federal government to sell or “dispose” of land through a bidding process. The proceeds are typically earmarked for conservation efforts in more environmentally sensitive areas, though sometimes not.

The stated goals of public lands bills are typically two-fold, economic development and conservation.

The Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA), made law in 1998, is a model for other lands bills in the state and allows for federal lands in southern Nevada to be sold for development. The money raised is used for conservation projects across the state. According to the BLM, parcels are jointly selected by local governments and the BLM. In 2018, 736.46 acres were sold for $96,305,640. In 2019, 814.84 acres were sold for $206,125,000. There have been 18 rounds of SNPLMA funding.

In public hearings on lands bills, many question the wisdom of exchanging sprawl for conservation money. Proponents are largely limited to municipal administrators and real estate development advocates who argue that lands bills help ensure wise growth patterns in one of the nation’s fastest growing states. Opponents are diverse and often say the bills inspire unsustainable sprawl development and result in a giveaway of federal lands to benefit developers and few others.

In addition to the SNPLMA described above, The Ally has identified 8 public lands bills active in Nevada.

Fallon Range Training Complex Modernization Act

What will it do?

The Navy’s preferred plan includes renewal of the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres. The plan also requests an additional withdrawal of 618,727 acres of public lands and the acquisition of approximately 65,159 acres of private or state owned lands. Under this preferred alternative the complex would total 886,750 acres, more than four times its current size.

Status:

Awaiting a Record of Decision from the US Bureau of Land Management regarding environmental impacts of proposed public land withdrawal and expansion. A bill would be drafted in Congress to enact the Navy’s plan.

Read an in-depth report on the proposed expansion of the Navy training facility at NAS Fallon. Hear an audio report on the NAS Fallon proposed expansion produced in association with KUNR Reno Public Radio.

Several years ago the Navy began scoping an expansion of the bombing ranges at the Naval Air Station in Fallon to accommodate a new generation of weapons. This expansion is timed to coincide with the need for Congressional approval to renew the Navy’s current public land withdrawal, which is set to expire in November of 2021. The Navy must bring their renewal request to Congress in the form of a bill.

Before a bill is drafted in Congress to enact the withdrawal of federal land, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The law requires an exhaustive public engagement process to include communication with all entities and individuals that may experience negative impacts of the proposed actions.

This graphic shows the existing and proposed boundaries for 2 of the Navy’s training ranges near the Naval Air Station in Fallon, NV – image – US Navy

A draft EIS was released on November 18, 2018. As mandated in NEPA, the Navy held a series of 9 public meetings and accepted oral and written comments.

To satisfy the requirements of NEPA, the Navy had to conduct a “rigorous exploration and objective evaluation of reasonable alternatives.” After integrating public comments, the Navy issued a final EIS on January 10, 2020, which started a 30 day waiting period before being presented to Congress and the issuance of a Record of Decision (ROD) by the US Bureau of Land Management. In Congress, a bill will be drafted to enact the land withdrawal based on the ROD.

The 4,196 page Final EIS was published at the end of January of this year and contains analysis of potential impacts on land use, mining and mineral resources, livestock grazing, transportation, airspace, noise, air quality, water resources, biological resources, cultural resources, recreation, socioeconomics, public health and safety, and protection of children, and environmental justice.

The final EIS contains four actions and alternatives including a “No Action Alternative.” The “No Action Alternative” would require the Navy to not pursue renewal of the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres which is scheduled to expire in November 2021. Under the No Action Alternative, the Navy would not attempt to acquire any new land. This choice would effectively close the facility.

The ROD is expected to be published in early March of 2020.

Nevada Test and Training Range Withdrawal

What will it do?

The Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) is the largest military training reserve in the world and currently consists of roughly 2.9 million acres of federal land that has been withdrawn from public use. Congress authorized the withdrawal under the Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1999. The current NTTR land withdrawal ends in 2021 unless Congress passes legislation to extend it, and the Air Force has formally notified Congress of a “continuing military need” for the NTTR land withdrawal.

During the 2019 Nevada State Legislative session we published an audio catalog of testimony on a resolution to formally oppose the expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Status:

In coordination with the Department of Defense, the Air Force submitted a legislative proposal, and Nevada US senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jackie Rosen introduced legislation to reauthorize the current withdrawal and the proposed expansion: S. 3145: Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Nevada Test and Training Range Withdrawal and Management Act. No action has been taken on the bill.

In August of 2016, the United States Air Force published notice of its intent to prepare a legislative environmental impact statement to renew and expand the size of the Nevada Test and Training Range. See the image below for expansion area options.

Map shows proposed expansion alternatives and associated land areas – image – US Air Force.

The Air Force prepared a draft legislative environmental impact statement. The public comment period began in December 2017. People submitted some 32,000 comments in opposition to the expansion.

In January 2018, the United States Air Force held public meetings throughout Nevada and accepted public comment on the draft legislative environmental impact statement.

In October 2018, the United States Air Force issued its final legislative environmental impact statement for the Nevada Test and Training Range Land Withdrawal.

Nevada’s senior US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced the legislation that would extend the current land withdrawal and reservation of certain public land in the State of Nevada for the continued use of the Nevada Test and Training Range. The bill would also designate eight areas in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness among many detailed provisions.

Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act

What will it do?

The proposed plan is multi-faceted and would effectively expand the disposal boundaries of the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act and make roughly 56,000 acres available for development. According to the markup bill, additional lands would be available in the Las Vegas Valley, Moapa, Moapa Valley, Glendale, Mesquite, Desert Springs Correctional, Indian Springs, Sandy Valley, Goodsprings, Jean, Primm, Nelson, Searchlight, and Laughlin.

This map illustrates the proposed expansion of federal lands available for development in the Las Vegas Valley and Moapa Valley – image – Clark County, NV and The Sierra Nevada Ally

According to Clark County, the plan would also preserve some 130,000 acres from development. The Great Basin Water Network has criticized the plan as a right of way red carpet for the water pipeline proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The controversial and vigorously contested project would appropriate water in select valleys some 250 miles north of Las Vegas.

Image – The Sierra Nevada Ally / ESRI and Clark County Department of Aviation

Status:

In 2018, the Clark County Board of Commissioners voted 6-0 to urge Congress to advance federal legislation and went so far as to write the language of a bill titled the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act. The proposal has drawn the criticism of several environmental groups. No one from the state’s congressional delegation has signaled they would carry the legislation.

Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act

What will it do?

Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks are developing a multi-faceted proposal that would designate certain federal lands within the southern part of the county for privatization and development. Proceeds from the sale of the lands would be spent to further develop regional infrastructure to include parks, trails, hazardous fuels reduction and the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands.

See our primer on the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act

For an understanding of the many and diverse public lands stakeholders, The Ally recently published a catalog of testimony offered on the Truckee Meadows Public Land Management Act.

In addition to land disposals, the proposal assesses 12 Wilderness Study Areas in northern Washoe County. A Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is an area designated for further study to determine if it meets congressional criteria to be designated as a wilderness area. The study areas in Washoe County were originally established in 1991. The new proposal recommends that parts of the study areas be designated as wilderness, some of the land be returned to public multi-use, and some designated as a National Conservation Areas.

Learn more at www.landsbill.org

Image from www.landsbill.org

Status:

This proposal process began in the late spring and early summer of 2016 when Washoe County, Reno, and Sparks approved written resolutions to create a lands bill. Since then, plans have been developed, spurring complaints of a cloistered process and lack of public input.

The trio of governmental entities and the Nevada Department of Wildlife held an open house on February 18 in the Reno Convention Center to present the proposal and answer questions. A public input meeting was held on February 20 of this year.

The county and cities are gathering and incorporating comments for a proposal they hope a member of Nevada’s Congressional delegation will champion. No timeline has been published.

The Pershing County Lands Bill

What will it do?

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 awarded land grants to railroad companies based on the amount of track they constructed. For every mile of track the company got 10 square miles of land. For 20 miles on each side of the rail line, the government gave the railway every odd numbered lot in the Public Land Survey System.

Contemporary land managers struggle to effect a variety of conservation and development aspirations because of the highly segmented pattern of ownership. The most populace third of Pershing County is made up of checkerboard lands.

Under the bill, the BLM and Pershing County will identify the “appropriate” parcels. Through a bidding process the land will be sold for at least fair market value. Those with adjacent property have first option.

Seven wilderness areas will be designated in the county as part of the legislation.

Ten percent of the money raised through the sale of federal land will go to Pershing County. Five percent will go to the state general education program. The remainer will be held in a Department of Interior account to be used for a variety of specified uses to include conservation, fire suppression and other conservation related activities.

Status:

Nevada congressman Mark Amodei introduced the Pershing County Economic Development and Conservation Act on January 4, 2019. No other action has been taken.

Fernley Public Lands Act

What will it do?

In 744 words buried in the 2014 National Defense Authorization, the City of Fernley was enabled to take possession of approximately 9,779 acres of Public Lands for economic development purposes. Difficult to say what’s going to happen. There are no designations for the distribution of funds generated from the sale of the land. There appear to be no restrictions on the nature of land use. The City is asking for industrial, commercial, mixed or conceptual projects and expects to begin land use and sale negotiations during the summer of 2020.

Douglas County Lands Bill

What will it do?

Provides for the conveyance and management of important federally-owned cultural sites for the Washoe Tribe. Conveys 2,669 acres to be held in trust for the Washoe Tribe where significant cultural sites exist to include land within the Dance Hill Management Area.

The bill establishes a mechanism for the transfer and sale of 60 acres of federal land.  Money from these land sales will help fund additional conservation efforts, support state education programs and will be eligible for use on “projects to protect the Carson River flood plain and surrounding environment.”

The bill would designate nearly 12,400-acres as the Burbank Canyons Wilderness Area, noted sage-grouse habitat.

The plan would convey 67 acres to the Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park.

The legislation creates an Open Space Recreation and Management Area near Dance Hill to better manage OHV recreation and public activities.

The Wilderness Society and the Tahoe Rim Trail Association are on record in support of the proposal.

Status:

Nevada US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto has drafted a discussion bill. No timeline has been published.

Nye County Lands Bill

What will it do?

The proposed Nye County Lands bill would designate an undetermined amount of public lands for disposal for economic development at fair market value in the communities of Amargosa Valley, Beatty, Carver’s/Smoky Valley, Pahrump, Railroad Valley/Currant, Round Mountain and Tonopah.

The proposal also calls for the release of 774,694 acres of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas in Nye County “to promote multiple use of these lands for all Americans.”

Money from the sale of federal lands would be distributed to three accounts.

The Nevada State education fund would receive 5 percent of the proceeds from the sale of federal land.

Ten percent would be earmarked for fire protection, law enforcement, public safety, housing, social services, and transportation.

Eighty-five percent of the money would go to the Pahrump and Tonopah state BLM field offices. The funds would be used to fund staff to carry out land sales, and the NEPA and FLPMA-required surveys reports.

Land sales money would fund the development of a Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) for Nye County. The funding would pay for the inventory, evaluation, protection, and management of unique archaeological resources.

Status:

On November 5, 2019 the Nye County Board of Commissioners ratified a resolution to request that the Nevada Congressional delegation draft federal legislation to enact their plan. No federal action has been taken.