Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

Currently: 75° — Complete forecast

Critics of Clark County lands bill hope it’s not too late to rein in proposal

At-risk Desert Flowering Plant Could Impact Lands Bill

Patrick Donnelly / Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity wants the at-risk Las Vegas bearpoppy desert flower added to the Endangered Species List.

Nevada lawmakers have been meeting with Clark County officials about a controversial proposal to modify protected lands and open more than 56,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to development through a congressional bill.

Some of those opposed to the proposed bill are taking notice.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a critic of the county’s aspirational development expansion, submitted a petition Aug. 14 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the at-risk Las Vegas bearpoppy to the Endangered Species List, with the hope that federal protection for the flowering plant could impact a future lands bill.

“Tough little desert flowers like the Las Vegas bearpoppy are at the very heart of the Mojave’s magic,” said Tara Cornelisse, a senior scientist at the organization, in a statement. “If it doesn’t quickly get the federal protection it deserves, this beautiful wildflower will be bulldozed, trampled and blasted into extinction.”

The organization is similarly petitioning for the white-margined beardtongue, another at-risk flowering plant native to the Mojave Desert, to be added to the Endangered Species List, also in an attempt to influence a potential lands bill. Both plants’ limited habitats include areas slated for new residential and commercial development under the county’s proposed bill, said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center is one of several organizations that has balked at the county’s efforts to expand development in Clark County through a draft congressional bill, dubbed the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act. County officials say that the proposed land changes and development expansion are needed to meet projected population growth, keep housing prices low and accommodate new light manufacturing and industrial businesses in the Las Vegas Valley.

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County Federal Lands Bill Map

But the Center for Biological Diversity argues that the plan, which would be the largest expansion of developable land in Clark County since 2002, would exacerbate sprawl, worsen air quality and put rare and native species at risk. Donnelly also says the county’s attempt to mitigate impacts on plants and wildlife by creating new Areas of Critical Environmental Concern through the same bill skirts environmental laws.

The other major constituency criticizing the county’s proposal is off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, who say the development expansion would eliminate prime land for recreational off-highway driving and mountain biking. They, too, are gearing up for the introduction of a possible congressional bill, encouraging passionate off-roaders to submit comments to Nevada’s federal delegation on the county’s proposal.

“It is so important now for the public to get involved because this is where, maybe, it might make a difference,” said Debbie Burgos, chair of the Clark County Off-Highway Vehicle Advisory Committee.

Proposal has changed since introduced

Clark County officials had considered expanding and modifying development boundaries for a few years before the county made its ideas public last spring.

Just weeks after the public was briefed on the issue, the county commission approved a resolution in June 2018 to urge Nevada’s federal lawmakers to “expand conservation of public lands and economic development opportunities” in Clark County through a congressional bill.

Commissioners also directed Department of Air Quality staff to work on a proposed map of the changes, said department director Marci Henson. Some details of the map and the bill were to be left to the department’s discretion, she noted.

“They adopted the (resolution) and provided staff broad direction to work on a map and a bill draft that would bring to fruition those principles,” Henson said.

Click to enlarge photo

The Penstemon albomarginatus, or white-margined beardtongue, is native to the Southern Nevada desert.

At the time, the county floated around the idea of opening about 39,000 acres of BLM land to new development and setting aside an additional 370,000 acres for conservation purposes. The latest county map, however, would have Congress unlock 56,230 acres of land for new development, designate 130,712 acres as off-highway vehicle recreational areas and bar development in some areas adjacent to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area originally included in the county’s proposal.

The county chose to modify the development map to no longer impede on Red Rock Canyon in response to complaints raised by advocates of the conservation area, Henson said. County officials also added the designated off-highway vehicle areas, which would be scattered in rural areas throughout the valley, to appease enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, the number of acres of ACECs and wilderness areas remains relatively unchanged since last year, according to the latest map on the county’s website.

State leaders mulling proposal

Congressional lawmakers and their staff engaged in “in-depth discussions” over the last few weeks with county officials and lobbyists about the county’s proposal, said Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones. Spokespeople from the offices of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Sen. Jackie Rosen, Rep. Susie Lee and Rep. Dina Titus each confirmed that lawmakers have been in touch with local stakeholders about land-use issues and the county’s draft legislation.

None said when they would introduce a version of the county’s bill.

“As far as federal legislation, we don’t have a timeline since we’re still seeking input,” wrote Kevin Gerson, communications director for Rep. Titus in an email.

While Congress is set to return from summer recess Sept. 9, Henson said that Nevada officials probably won’t have enough time to introduce the county’s legislation before the end of the year. Nonetheless, some members of the federal delegation have expressed interest in introducing a bill at some point, she said.

“We’re still on the track of at least getting a bill draft settled on. Should an opportunity (to introduce it) come at the end of this year, great. But more likely than not, it’ll be sometime next year,” Henson said.

Donnelly and Burgos remain hopeful that it isn’t too late to at least modify the county’s proposal by vocalizing their respective concerns.

“Right now, all we have is an aspirational piece of paper signed by the old county commission. So we’re encouraging our congressional delegation, the new county commission or both to go back to the drawing board,” Donnelly said.