Largest Conservation Bill in State History Earns Praise, Balances Need for Conservation and Development in Southern Nevada

Residential development in Las Vegas, Nevada - photo: Jan Buchholtz, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act, a bipartisan bill put forward by Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jackie Rosen, was introduced to the US Senate with resounding support from conservation groups across the state. A companion bill has also been introduced in the US House of Representatives by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.-01). The proposed legislation is said to be the largest conservation bill in Nevada state history. 

“My most excited reaction was the protection for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge,” Shaaron Netherton, Executive Director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said. “We’ve been working for the last four years on keeping the military from taking more of that Refuge over and shutting the public out, so it was very exciting to see 1.3 million acres for the Refuge that will provide the highest protection possible and keep it open to the public.”

Additional provisions of the bill allow for a 51,000-acre expansion of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and 337,406-acres of wilderness in Clark County. In conjunction with the expanded protection of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the bill would set aside a total of over 2 million acres of federally-owned land in Clark County for conservation and recreation purposes. 

For Netherton, this expansion of protected lands would come at a crucial time considering the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One thing the pandemic clearly brought to bear is that Las Vegas is really dependent on the tourism that comes with gambling, mostly,” Netherton said. “By diversifying the economy with the outdoor recreation industry, there’s still work to be done educating the public on how to take care of these public lands because the pandemic showed that people were getting out and, frankly, overwhelming places that didn’t have the facilities or people getting out who really didn’t understand Leave No Trace or Pack It In, Pack It Out.”

The prospect of developing a more diversified economy in Nevada with more outdoor recreation opportunities, however, has been a common theme in a number of recent bills at both the state and federal level. Specifically, Netherton points to Nevada SB52, otherwise known as the Dark Sky Bill, that was recently introduced in the State legislature. 

“The conservation bill and others that are going around the state could really help the economy be diversified by offering more outdoor recreational opportunities, whether it’s in the day or at night with the dark skies,” Netherton said. “SB52 really highlights how Nevada has some of the darkest skies in the country and that’s a growing place for recreation, so [developing] outdoor tourism will help people discover so many cool places around the state.”

Another provision of the Act will enable funding from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act to be used for sustainability projects related to the changing climate. 

“[Making that funding available] can help with the great work that [Clark County] is already doing with All In and other climate strategies, so I thought that was a really positive thing as well,” Netherton said.

Netherton, however, admits that she had concerns regarding certain aspects of the Act when it was still in the Discussion Draft stages last year. But since then, those concerns have been addressed in the current legislation as it’s been introduced. 

“The biggest [concern] was the County looking for acre for acre mitigation and we recognize there is a delicate balance of protecting habitat and allowing growth in the Las Vegas Valley area, particularly because of the desert tortoise habitat nearby,” Netherton said. “There was language in [the Discussion Draft] that we didn’t think was consistent with the Endangered Species Act, but that’s been cleaned up in that it’s not based on an acre for acre value. It’s based on the scientific worth of the area for protecting the habitat.”

The legislation has support from Nevada’s lone Republican member of Congress.

“In Nevada, everybody realizes that lands bills are a fact of life and that they can be responsible tools for economic development, natural resources management, and conservation. This legislation carefully balances each of those priorities and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on Clark County’s land use needs,” said Congressman Mark Amodei (NV-02).

With some projections for Las Vegas’ population predicting as many as 820,000 residents by 2060, the bill would also open up over 30,000 acres of Clark County to be made available for affordable housing and business development. 

Although there are some disposal boundaries poised for this development that Netherton isn’t particularly excited about, she understands it’s part of the balancing process between conservation and development. 

“These public land bills are really complex and the delegation has to mix the needs for growth with conservation,” Netherton said. “As a part of that, there are places in the disposal boundaries that we would rather not see developed. But the Senator has also said that she’s still open to ideas on how to make the bill better, so we’re excited to continue to work with her.”

Historically, when it comes to public lands bills in Nevada, there has been a tendency to have a conservation component when development is involved. This is something Netherton appreciates and hopes will continue with public lands bills in the future. 

“All the public lands bills that have happened in Nevada have all had a conservation component,” Netherton said. “We are blessed with having a high percentage of public lands, so it’s also a challenge because it literally takes an act of Congress to do things with those public lands. So whether it’s Las Vegas or Ely, when those communities go up against public lands and you want any more land for development, there’s got to be a conservation piece. That model has continued in Nevada and I think that’s a fair deal.”

Finding that traditional balance between development and conservation, in addition to the bipartisan nature of this Act, is something Netherton believes represents the character and values of the state of Nevada.

“It’s great that our entire delegation is working on this together,” Netherton said. “The bipartisan nature of [this bill] and the fact that the Nevada delegation has always come together unanimously for these kinds of public lands bills, speaks well to the state.”


Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.