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Reid bill would preserve Nevada’s chunk of Grand Canyon


Brian Beffort/Friends of Gold Butte

The colorful sandstone formations near Whitney Pockets in Gold Butte entice visitors to camp and explore.

Updated Thursday, May 23, 2013 | 6:30 p.m.

Click to enlarge photo

A petroglyph panel known as "Newspaper Rock" is among the areas in Gold Butte, near Mesquite, for which conservationists have pushed legislators to pass protections.

Sen. Harry Reid announced Thursday that he has introduced legislation to create the Gold Butte National Conservation Area, a public land site in Clark County that would include 220,000 acres of wilderness.

“Gold Butte is Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon,” Reid said in a statement. “As more and more people discover this remarkable place, we must protect these resources for future generations while continuing to allow recreational opportunities we enjoy today.”

Gold Butte’s attraction lies largely in its history. The site is home to historic mines, ancient Native American petroglyphs, wild sandstone formations and is a habitat for critical wildlife species, including the desert tortoise.

A coalition of conservation, community and business organizations applauded Reid’s action Thursday. Businesspeople who operate tour companies say the designation would turn Gold Butte into a go-to destination.

The coalition — Protect Nevada — has been advocating protection of the area for more than 10 years. The primitive area is about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas on the northeast end of Lake Mead near Bunkerville. The region is known as a convergence of the Great Basin, the Mohave Desert and the Colorado Plateau.

“We are thrilled that Sen. Reid recognizes all the amazing things about Gold Butte,” said Nancy Hall of Friends of Gold Butte. “This diverse landscape represents our cultural history with petroglyphs dating back centuries, it is home to threatened species and it provides top-notch recreational opportunities including hiking, photography and bicycle and off-road vehicle riding.”

Some outdoors enthusiasts say the designation could lead to Mesquite becoming the “gateway to Gold Butte.”

“The addition of Gold Butte to our map of destinations in Southern Nevada will be important for businesses like mine to grow, creating more jobs and more opportunities for all Nevadans,” said Jared Fisher, president of Escape Adventures, a Las Vegas-based tour company with a second tour center in Moab, Utah.

But designating the area as wilderness and conservation land has not been a universally popular mission among members of the Nevada delegation to Congress.

“We all don’t agree on how we should handle Gold Butte,” Reid said last month following a meeting of the delegation in which public lands issues were discussed. “This may be one issue where we won’t be able to agree.”

In particular, Reid and his Senate counterpart, Dean Heller, did not appear to be in agreement.

On Thursday, Heller’s spokeswoman Chandler Smith confirmed that Heller did not support the legislation — but more because of the process than the policy.

“While greater protections for Gold Butte are needed, good public land policy is made through a transparent and open public process. This legislation does not meet that threshold,” Smith said. “This legislation does not have the requisite local support at this time, so Sen. Heller cannot support it.”

In the House, Rep. Steven Horsford has held off introducing a Gold Butte bill, even though he has been making visits to the site and meeting with residents and officials for several months to discuss the designation.

“It’s my intent that anyone and everyone who wants to have input will have an opportunity to do so,” Horsford said in a recent interview with the Mesquite Citizen-Journal. “We should try to work together and reach a consensus.”

Horsford spokesman Tim Hogan said Horsford planned to introduce a version of the Gold Butte bill in the House when lawmakers returned to Washington in June, following a one-week congressional recess.

Nevada has several pending public lands issues before Congress, chief among them the Lyon County Economic Development Act, which would trade land for a copper mine in Yerington for the designation of the Wovoka forest as a wilderness area.

When the Nevada delegation agreed to top its public lands agenda with Yerington in February, lawmakers pledged to try to work together on public lands bills and try to advance them through the House first.

But Reid is not concerned that his independent introduction of a bill will complicate or upset the process of winning the support of the rest of the Nevada delegation.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Nevadans and the delegation to improve this proposal through the legislative process,” he said in a statement.

Sun reporter Richard N. Velotta contributed to this story.

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