Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2017

Currently: 60° — Complete forecast

BLM chief helps blaze valley trail

One day hikers, bikers and horseback riders may follow a 150-mile trail linking Red Rock Canyon to Lake Mead.

Bureau of Land Management National Director Tom Fry took the first step on that path Wednesday.

Pushing a mountain bicycle up the first two paved miles of the River Mountains Loop Trail, Fry marveled at the sea of homes rising from the ancient ocean bed that forms the Las Vegas Valley. He urged continued cooperation between federal and local agencies to offer an escape from such urban growth.

"This is an opportunity to get outside and touch the land," Fry said.

The River Mountains were created by lava erupting from small volcanoes nearly 5 million years ago, creating the southeastern boundary of the Las Vegas Valley. Today through those mountains a pipeline delivers the valley's drinking water from Lake Mead.

Fry hit the trail after visiting an international mining conference in Las Vegas. Ending his tour with a flight over the valley in a helicopter, he saw how the suburbs bump into the BLM lands ringing the fastest growing U.S. city.

Fry was joined by local, state and federal officials, who agreed with his vision of a trail encircling the valley. It was the first time officials have publicly discussed a continuous trail connecting Lake Mead on the east to the Spring Mountains to the west.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority agreed to pave the beginning of the 35-mile-long trail after installing the pipeline and will build a rest stop and picnic site at the side of the trail early next year, all within a single corridor disturbed by bulldozers, SNWA's Lee Ann Miller said.

The trail parallels the pipeline, now covered in native soils and sprouting with desert plants seeded there.

The seeds for extensive trails circling the valley took root about two years ago, Alan O'Neill, new director of Outside Las Vegas, said. At that time 320 federal employees working for the BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service and the Forest Service struggled to serve 18 million visitors a year exploring Southern Nevada's wildlands.

O'Neill took the helm of the organization Monday to forge public-private partnerships for preserving open spaces after he left the Park Service a month ago.

Outside Las Vegas will teach schoolchildren about the fragility of the desert and encourage the preservation of the views from the River Mountains, O'Neill said. The trail offers an opportunity to reach the wild places.

"Why not have a 150-mile trail circling the valley from the Spring Mountains to the lake?" O'Neill asked.

Recreationists and environmentalists couldn't agree with him more.

Biking enthusiast John Holman, chairman of the River Mountains Trails Council, said the new trail is an example of an intricate partnership among the city of Henderson, the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the land, and the BLM, which manages it.

"We not only planned a trail, but we have begun to build a trail," he said.

Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Association, said the Las Vegas trails project is a national model.

"Partnerships across the country like this one would make such projects possible anywhere," he said.

Funding for the 35-mile River Mountains loop trail is coming from the Southern Nevada Public Lands Act, which allows the BLM to auction parcels in the valley landlocked by urban development and use the funds to buy environmentally sensitive lands and make improvements on already existing sites.

President Clinton is also expected to sign legislation that will free $90 million to $250 million from the land and water conservation fund created by Congress in 1964. Sales of $4 billion worth of gas and oil a year from the outer continental shelf built the fund. That money will match state funds for projects such as Southern Nevada's trails.

Las Vegas environmentalist Jeff van Ee said the trail system contributes both to emotional and economic well-being, something he has been touting for almost three decades.

"Many visitors want to get away from sitting at the gaming tables and get away to the land," van Ee said. "It's nirvana for me, this trail."

Instead of detracting from Las Vegas' main attraction, games of chance, a side trip to the surrounding wilderness may entice visitors to stay longer, one official said.

"Maybe those who go outside will want to stay a week or longer," BLM spokesman Phil Guerrero said.