North Snubbed on Sensitive Land Purchase List

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For the first time, northern Nevada has been left off a proposed list of environmentally sensitive land to be purchased by the federal government.

In the fifth round of purchases authorized under the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, all four parcels proposed for purchase are in Clark County.

And $20 million of $27 million in the proposed acquisitions would be used to buy the Hacienda Hotel & Casino near Hoover Dam in the Lake Mead Recreation Area.

Conservationists are pushing for the purchase of thousands of acres in northern Nevada, including portions of the Granite Range near Gerlach, the Truckee River and the Carson Valley.

Sen. John Ensign's father, brothers and sister hold a 33 percent interest in the 36-acre Hacienda property. Ensign, R-Nev., authored the lands act in 1998.

The act authorizes the purchase of environmentally sensitive land across the state with money raised from large sales of public lands in southern Nevada.

While officials said Ensign had no involvement in nominating the casino for purchase, the senator has been pushing for two years to keep all the money in Clark County for sensitive land sales.

In its nomination, the National Park Service said the casino sits in prime habitat for bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has lobbied to get the Hacienda on the list.

"It's an eyesore," Reid told the Reeno Gazette-Journal. "You drive in from the dam, it's the first thing you see in the national park. I think it's a good time to get rid of it."

Ensign has recused himself from any involvement in the acquisition and disclosed the family ownership to the Senate Ethics Committee. He said neither he nor his staff was involved in the Hacienda listing.

Clint Bentley, a member of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, said the land is being offered for sale because a new highway will cut off the casino from most motorists.

"It won't have any customers," he said.

Longtime Reno conservationist Tina Nappe questioned acquisition of the casino property.

"I don't know about the appropriateness of that," she said. "I have some concerns that (the Bureau of Land Management) is acquiring things that are not a high priority.

"And BLM's mission is one of the things I would have to look at: its responsibility to wildlife, ranching and public recreation. I can imagine properties that would have more value," Nappe said.

In northern Washoe County, owners of 18,600 acres of private land in the Granite Range, Wall Canyon and Buffalo Hills said the land could be sold if the federal government doesn't buy it.

Larry Johnson, director of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited in Reno, said the Granites offer prime habitat for bighorn sheep, deer and sage grouse.

"It is one of the most magnificient ranges in the state," he said.

In the first four rounds of land sales, nearly $101 million has been approved for northern Nevada for about 50,000 acres. Clark County has been approved for $71.2 million in land purchases.

Every time money goes north for land purchases, "we get all kinds of hell in southern Nevada," Reid said.

A committee will review the proposed list and consider public comments before making a recommendation to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in June.

The BLM is accepting public comments on the list through Wednesday.