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How Yerington land bill, beloved by Nevada lawmakers, got mired in politics

Updated Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | 1:25 p.m.

Mark Amodei

Mark Amodei

WASHINGTON — When the Yerington land conveyance bill began its journey through Congress, it had the bipartisan support of the whole Nevada House delegation.

By the time the legislation passed the House Tuesday afternoon, however, the matter had become mired in yet another bitter political fight.

Yerington has been after the federal government for years to sell about 10,400 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to it to develop a copper mine at a site known as Pumpkin Hollow.

Rep. Mark Amodei inherited the issue when he came to Congress last year; earlier this spring, his bill passed through the House Natural Resources Committee with little difficulty.

“There are no mining issues, cleanup issues, surface water, groundwater, environmental — none of those issues,” Amodei said Tuesday, saying the project would yield 800 jobs with a salary of $75,000 apiece.

“There has been not a single voice raised in opposition to this,” he said. “You want to do something for the people of the state of Nevada? Get behind this bill.”

But the bill didn’t get a chance to be judged solely on its own merits, as it was woven, between committee passage and its day on the House floor, into a greater public lands bill that many Democrats found objectionable.

Chief among their objections was a provision to let Border Patrol agents bypass environmental laws where inconvenient — creating a “drone zone,” as Democrats termed it, that would cross through several national parks and nature reserves.

Nearly all Democrats, including Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, voted against the bill.

“It is extremely unfortunate the House did not have the opportunity to vote on this important job-creating measure except as part of a larger legislative package that has no chance of passing in the Senate, and faces strong opposition in Nevada,” Berkley said after the vote, reminding that she had been an original co-sponsor of the Yerington land bill on its own.

But Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the Republican facing off against Berkley for the Senate this November, did not accept that nuance.

“Shelley Berkley needs to explain why she sided with environmental groups over Northern Nevada,” Heller said in a statement released by his campaign. “Instead of supporting legislation that would have created jobs in Yerington ... she cast another vote in a long string of votes where she stubbornly refused to acknowledge that people in Nevada are actually hurting.”

The Democrats’ opposition to the public lands package, which was expected given the way it was bundled, was not enough to keep the measure from passing. The final vote tally was 232 to 188, giving Amodei the opportunity to claim at least partial bragging rights for his first successful piece of legislation.

Heller has sponsored companion legislation to the solo Yerington bill in the Senate. But the Senate is not expected to pass the package that came out of the House.

This story has been updated to clarify who supported the bill.

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