Nevada Lawmakers Want to Expand Federal Land Auctions

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A measure to sell federal government land in a rural Nevada county to pay for economic development, infrastructure, recreation and conservation was being introduced Wednesday by the state's congressional delegation.

Nevada's five federal lawmakers in Washington said they modeled the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2004 after a program that has sold almost 8,200 acres and raised $1.4 billion in the Las Vegas area.

"This bill represents a Nevada solution to a number of tough land and water challenges," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement. He called it "a comprehensive compromise" for selling public land for the public good.

Lincoln County, with fewer than 4,000 residents, is just north of fast-developing Las Vegas and Clark County - home to 1.6 million of the state's 2.3 million residents. The federal government controls 98 percent of the mountains and deserts of Lincoln County, which covers an area larger than Vermont.

The measure would authorize the sale of 100,346 acres - the equivalent of about 157 square miles or the size of the city of Denver - adjacent to existing private landholdings.

The act also would set aside 1,205 square miles as wilderness and earmark an additional 383 square miles for possible future sale. Some land would be turned over to the state and county for parks.

A strip along U.S. Highway 93 would be specified as a utility corridor - a contentious issue because it would provide a route for a proposed $1 billion water pipeline reaching north from Las Vegas to tap groundwater in Lincoln and White Pine counties.

The act also would designate a Silver State Off-Highway Vehicle Trail running 260 miles on existing backcountry roads in the central part of the county.

Like the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998, the Lincoln County measure would set aside 5 percent of auction proceeds for schools. But it differs in designating 45 percent of the money raised for Lincoln County economic development, while placing the remaining 50 percent under control of the Interior Secretary, who could disburse money for environmental management, conservation and recreation.

The Clark County act designates that 10 percent of proceeds from land auctions conducted by the Bureau of Land Management go to water infrastructure and 85 percent for acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands in the state.

"With the federal government owning virtually all the land in Lincoln County, this bill will provide a much-needed economic boost to the people who live there," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., the sponsor of a companion House measure, called it "a good bill for Lincoln County." Nevada Reps. Jon Porter, a Republican, and Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, pledged their support.

A leader of a coalition of environmental groups offered a qualified endorsement of the measure.

"While the legislation protects some key places, much more needs to be done," said John Wallin, Nevada Wilderness Project director.

Wallin, whose group supported the Clark County measure, promised to study why some areas were denied wilderness protection.

Auctioning land around Las Vegas has drawn praise from officials, including Interior Secretary Gale Norton, as a model for the disposing of federal land and protecting sensitive areas. But it has remained unique to Clark County, where the federal government owns 80 percent of the land.