Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2017

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Compromise difficult to reach in public lands fight


Karoun Demirjian

Nevada’s full congressional delegation met in the Mike Mansfield Room of the U.S. Capitol to discuss Nevada policy for the first time in several years, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.

Nevada’s congressional delegation emerged from its first family meeting in years boasting a unified strategy for pursuing federal public lands policies, starting in Yerington.

The team agreed to present a united front on a bill to free up more than 10,000 acres for a copper mine in exchange for creating 48,000 acres of new wilderness land elsewhere in Lyon County.

But at least one member of the team is concerned that what it took to achieve harmony in the Nevada delegation may ultimately hurt the effort’s prospects of being approved — especially in the House.

“The complicating factor may be this: When we moved Yerington (legislation) last time, there was no wilderness,” said Rep. Mark Amodei. “I’m not blaming anybody, I’m just saying: There’ll be some wilderness that comes out of the House this time, but that ain’t gonna be on the fast track.”

Wilderness is a touchy issue among House Republicans, and especially with Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which vets all public lands measures before they get their day on the floor of the House of Representatives.

“(Hastings) certainly has concerns that the creation of the new wilderness restricts access to public lands for recreation, public use, and all types and varieties of access,” said Spencer Pederson, spokesman for the House Natural Resources committee. “It’s a very permanent thing to declare wilderness ... It’s the most restrictive designation you could put on land. That’s not something he takes lightly.”

Hastings considers wilderness “on a case-by-case basis,” Pederson said.

Individually or otherwise, the track record for wilderness hasn’t been great under his watch: In the last congressional session, not a single public lands bill designating wilderness areas that the Natural Resources committee considered ever made it out of the House.

“Wilderness tends to get packaged,” Amodei explained.

And so does Yerington — even when wilderness isn’t part of the equation.

During the past congressional session, Amodei was the sponsor of an earlier version of the Yerington bill that contained no wilderness provisions. (This year, Rep. Steven Horsford is the sponsor of the House bill; the land in question is largely in his new, 4th Congressional District.)

With the support of almost the entire Nevada delegation, Amodei pushed the earlier Yerington bill through committee and toward the House. But it was ultimately packaged as part of a larger public lands measure that included a few poison pills for Democrats, among them a provision to let U.S. Border Patrol agents bypass environmental laws wherever inconvenient. The Senate never took it up.

The package’s failure gave Nevada Sen. Harry Reid a second chance to take a stab at the Yerington bill he never fully backed in the first place. By the end of the year, he and Sen. Dean Heller unveiled a new iteration, this time rounded out with the wilderness provisions.

But while the senators may have struck the deal on Yerington, the onus is on Nevada’ House members to now clear higher political hurdles to make it a reality.

In the delegation meeting, Reid and Heller told Amodei that the House would need to move the Yerington bill first, before the Senate took it up.

“Okay, you guys have asked us straight up to move it first, we’re going to go to work trying to move first,” Amodei said, remarking that even though House Republicans weren’t warm to the idea of wilderness, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House subcommittee that handles public lands, was “a friend of Nevada.”

Horsford said he was less worried about the bill’s prospects than Amodei, but acknowledged it would be a heavy lift to get the Yerington bill through the committee.

“We’re double-teaming it in a bipartisan way,” Horsford said, explaining that he and Amodei were already pressing members of the Natural Resources committee for their approval.

Members of the Nevada delegation will be watching Horsford and Amodei’s efforts. If successful, the Yerington experience could pave the way for tackling public lands projects that have been waiting on congressional approval for years, sometimes decades.

“The way the Yerington bill happened, doesn’t surprise me ... I think it was Sen. Reid himself who said ‘I’m a wilderness guy,’” Heller said in an interview last week. “In the future, if we’re going to have these deals, it’s going to require some of this negotiation. The key is — and this was the hard part — to have everybody involved in it that’s around it.

“We literally got everybody to sign off on it,” Heller continued. “The county commissioners unanimously supported it. The city council supported it. All the ranchers that were affected, with the wilderness area, all signed off on it. I give both my staff and Sen. Reid’s staff a tremendous amount of credit for making that happen.”

Staffers for Reid’s office and the House Natural Resources Committee Democrats declined to comment on the record for the piece. But according to a Democratic aide, non-Nevada lawmakers are also watching the Yerington process closely, for signs that the House’s absolute zero approach to wilderness may have changed — and as a test for how well commercial and wilderness initiatives may be married to develop public lands in the future.

It will be difficult, the aide said, to object to approving wilderness legislation when it is presented in a balanced package such as Yerington, and there is complete local agreement behind the measure.

While no schedule has yet been set for considering Yerington — or any of the bills that might follow — the Natural Resources Committee is indicating that this year, each bill will be considered on its own merits, and that it is unlikely any non-Nevada lawmaker would try to strip out the wilderness provisions from the bill.

“If it has the support of the member, it’s his district, and it has local support...the expertise of the member that represents the district is usually not infringed upon,” Pederson said.

After that, it will just be up to Amodei and Horsford to get their colleagues to vote aye instead of nay.

“We’ll endeavor to do that,” Amodei said. “The worst thing that can come of it is House: 2, Senate: zero.”

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