Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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Yerington land swap bill bogged down in House

The Nevada delegation had hoped that the Lyon County Economic Development Act, their first priority public lands bill by mutual agreement, would be moving through the House at a little bit faster clip than this.

After all, Rep. Steven Horsford filed the bill in February to transfer over 10,000 acres of public lands to the city of Yerington to develop a copper mine, in exchange for declaring 48,000 acres of the Wovoka forest as wilderness land.

At the time, no one objected to the legislation at its mid-April hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee — just a few technical creases that had to be ironed out of the Department of Interior’s testimony, which Horsford says they did long ago.

But Yerington was noticeably absent from the committee’s most recent markup of bills, at which lawmakers debated other land swaps, other Nevada-related bills, and other pieces of legislation farther down the chronological queue.

“I have to defer to the chairman, who decides when the bills get brought up for markup,” Horsford said when asked about the prognosis on Yerington, adding that he did not know when the bill would be scheduled.

But Rep. Mark Amodei, who sponsored the last version of the Yerington bill, has a few ideas about how, and when, it could proceed.

“I think the bill will probably move within 30 days,” Amodei said Wednesday.

But if so, he said, it won’t fly solo.

Amodei said he and Rob Bishop, the chairman of the public lands subcommittee, have been discussing ways to package the Yerington bill with other legislation.

If Amodei is right, Yerington would move through the House as part of a larger package of Nevada bills that have yet to be considered by the Natural Resources committee.

“He wants to move Pine Forest with it, which is something that I had asked for,” Amodei said. “He said, ‘I need to get that bill in final package form so I can move it’... we’re looking to see if we’ve got one more bill, something that’s noncontroversial, to put into (a package).”

Neither Horsford nor a spokesman for the Natural Resources committee would confirm or deny the plans to package the Yerington bill as Amodei laid them out. But if a package is in the works, it isn’t coming out of nowhere.

Last year, Amodei had hoped to join his version of the Yerington legislation — which in the 112th Congress was simply a mining bill — with a bill to designate 26,000 acres of wilderness in Pine Forest, located in Humboldt County north of Winnemucca.

Amodei was adamant that Pine Forest should be the first tract of land to get a congressional nod, as local planners had taken the most procedural steps toward securing the designation.

“I’m not going back to Winnemucca and saying, ‘Hey guess what? Congratulations, you’ve done everything right but you’ve got nothing to show for it,” Amodei told the Sun in December.

But when the bills were written, Pine Forest lost out to the Wovoka, Sen. Harry Reid’s preferred — not to mention, larger — wilderness area in waiting.

Still, when the Nevada delegation decided the House should act first on public land matters, they opened to door for Amodei to make his case for reintroducing the Pine Forest legislation as an element of the Yerington deal again.

Although Horsford is the author of the current Yerington bill, the legislation was under Amodei’s purview until the start of 2013.

But he and Horsford agreed at the beginning of the year to join forces in working both sides of the aisle. Horsford would work on convincing Democrats to support a mining bill, while Amodei would work on selling the idea of wilderness to the Republicans in the majority — putting him in a prime bargaining position to press for the Pine Forest wilderness designation as well.

Amodei insists that a package of bills will be a better all-around deal.

“Processing a bill that has multiple use elements in it: Mining, 75,000 acres of wilderness, and maybe something about having very transparent public appraisals to give a community that needs to have land the ability to buy a thousand, 1,500 acres — quite frankly I think that has something for everybody,” Amodei said.

What the third piece of this package deal might be, however, Amodei hasn’t said — only that he’s looking for a project that needs about 1,000 acres of public lands or less to enter into the mix.

The rest of the Nevada delegation has neither endorsed nor condemned the idea of packaging Nevada bills in the House. But if that ends up being the way forward, there are procedural hurdles that could complicate Amodei’s presumed 30-day window.

The House Natural Resources Committee schedules markups — sessions in which amendments are presented and the committee votes on whether or not to send up bills to the whole House of Representatives — about once a month.

But before a bill can be placed on the markup roster, it has to have a legislative hearing. The Yerington bill had that hearing last month — but Pine Forest hasn’t.

In fact, of all the pending public lands legislation specific to Nevada, the only other bill to have received a hearing is a measure to transfer federal lands to the Fallon Naval Air Station (the House committee also approved that bill Wednesday).

The Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources committee has made more headway, passing both the Pine Forest wilderness bill and the Multi-species Habitat Conservation implementation bill for Mesquite and Lincoln County on Thursday.

If the House Committee on Natural Resources approves either the Pine Forest or Yerington bills, it will be the first time in two years that the committee votes in favor of designating wilderness.

“Doc’s tough on wilderness stuff and in many instances, rightfully so,” Amodei said, referring to Doc Hastings, the committee chairman. But, he added, passing Yerington or Pine Forest would “get the stereotype monkey” off the party’s back.

Other Republicans on the committee spent Wednesday trying to play up the idea that the GOP could be pro-conservation.

“You’re trying to destroy our image,” Bishop joked, when one of his Republican colleagues brought up the merits of conserving land that would be exchanged for a mine site in Arizona. “If we’re the ones that aren’t doing conservation, what in the hell are you doing putting conservation in this bill? We’re becoming bleeding hearts. I don’t know if I can handle this.”

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