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May 19, 2022

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Why a popular Nevada lands deal got held up in Congress

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Rep. Mark Amodei

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Steven Horsford

When Nevadans want to change how they use the land they walk on, they often need permission from Congress. That's a fact of life when the federal government owns about 85 percent of the state's land.

Between 2009 and 2010, two Nevada communities pitched Congress to preserve a wilderness area and open another piece of federal land to mining. That mine would bring at least 1,000 jobs to a county with double-digit unemployment.

Locals thought it would be an easy win. Instead, they got a lesson in why lands bills are so hard to move through a hyperpartisan Congress.

After three and a half years and about eight committee hearings, the bill finally passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September. The Northern Nevada Land Conservation and Economic Development Act would create about 73,500 acres of protected wilderness in exchange for allowing 23,000 acres of federal land for economic development, including a copper mine. The biggest Nevada lands package in 16 years now awaits a Senate vote, and its future is still uncertain.

"We didn't anticipate it would take this long or have this much resistance," said George Dini, the mayor of Yerington.

Here's a look at how a bill that has the support of everyone in Nevada got caught up in a Congress that made it about something much bigger.

Let's start from the beginning

About four years ago, two Nevada communities realized they needed an OK from Congress to change how they used their land.

Nevada Copper wanted to expand its Lyon County mine on federal land in the city of Yerington. Humboldt County residents wanted to strike a balance between wilderness protection and recreation in a beloved alpine lake in Pine Forest.

Both communities worked on proposals that won broad support from the mining company, environmentalists and hunters. They handed their work off to Congress in 2010, thinking the hard work was done.

"Here's a nice big package with a bow on it. You guys just move it through Congress," said Jim Jeffress, who worked for conservation nonprofit Trout Unlimited to strike the Humboldt County wilderness deal. "I was naive."

Congress got involved …

Nevada's congressional delegation promised to shepherd the bills through.

How Amodei got a House vote

The story of how the lands bill morphed from polarized partisanship to unanimous approval is one that still mystifies Rep. Mark Amodei.

The committee actually approved the lands package in January, but with many Democrats voting against it. Without that full committee support, Amodei had trouble getting House Republican leaders to bring the bill to the floor for a full House vote. That's because leaders weren't sure it would pass.

But Amodei was insistent it get a vote.

"I’m not going back to Yerington and telling them that I can’t get a bill that passed out of committee to the floor as a member of the majority party," he said.

So he made a unique proposition to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: Put the bill on the calendar for a vote, and Rep. Steven Horsford and Amodei would get the votes.

This is not the way Washington works. Leaders don't like to be surprised on the House floor when a bill comes up for a vote.

Ready to give up in late July, Amodei got a visit from a staff member on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Amodei was told to stop lobbying his colleagues and that leadership would make sure the bill would pass the Natural Resources committee — again — unanimously, and then the full House unanimously.

Amodei was stunned. He asked why.

"It is not often that we have a member threatening to self-immolate on the floor in order to get the committee to move the bill," the staff member said, according to Amodei.

The metaphor of setting oneself on fire was a clear reference to Amodei's willingness to risk a failed vote on the House floor, one of Washington's most public kind of failure.

Rep. Mark Amodei, a Northern Nevada Republican, led the charge with Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat representing Yerington. In the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Dean Heller championed their own versions of the proposals.

"If this is something that the locals support, then I'll hug it," Amodei said.

But just because everyone in Nevada agrees something is right for the state doesn't mean the rest of Congress does.

… And started a much bigger debate

The debate started in the 47-member House Natural Resources Committee, which vets lands bills before the rest of Congress votes on them.

There, Republicans and Democrats had polarizing ideas about how the federal government should create wilderness. Wilderness is a federal designation that restricts recreational and development activities for the sake of conservation. The Republican-controlled House has been reluctant to create more wilderness.

As part of the bill, Republicans wanted to prevent the administration from approving any more wilderness in the areas again without first going through Congress.

"We are creating more wilderness than we are actually adding to economic development," Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah and key player in the drama, said in a January hearing.

Democrats, led by Reid in the Senate, were furious with that idea, saying it undermined federal law.

What was supposed to be a rubber-stamp hearing turned into a Washington policy debate.

Finally, a breakthrough

The argument extended well into 2014.

Amodei and Horsford spent countless hours negotiating with party leaders on a compromise.

Amodei was frustrated Democrats weren't budging even though his bill would create new wilderness areas, typically a Democratic cause that puts him at odds with Republicans.

On the other side of the aisle, Horsford persuaded Democrats to recognize the bill's economic benefits with 1,000 new jobs in rural Nevada. Reid also helped lobby reluctant liberal committee members.

This summer, Amodei's and Horsford's staffs finally reached a compromise on the committee. Amodei pushed House Republican leaders to support it. Then things moved quickly.

The bill passed unanimously through the committee in July. The full House passed it unanimously Sept. 15. Its future in the Senate remains uncertain, for the same reasons it was held for years in the House.

A victory — at a cost

This process humbled Nevada leaders.

"I was surprised you couldn't pass a bill based on its merits when it has the support of the local community," Horsford said.

If the bill gets passed by Senate and signed by the president, Horsford said, the community-driven lands bill could become a model for future wilderness deals.

But the longer the proposal gets held up, the more disillusioned people in Nevada become about solving their own problems.

"It's still a hard swallow when you produce a product that's that perfect, and you can't get it through Congress," Jeffress said.

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