Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Conservationists say permanent land protections, full evaluation needed in Clark County lands bill

Sloan Canyon Petroglyph Canyon Trail

Wade Vandervort

A black-tailed jackrabbit is seen near the Petroglyph Canyon Trail at the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area south of Las Vegas, Monday, July 15, 2019.

Fifteen environmental organizations have identified five principles they would like to see reflected in an anticipated Clark County public lands bill that, as drafted, would modify protected areas and open more than 56,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to development.

Public lands legislation in Nevada should balance conservation, recreation and development needs and should result in “a substantial net conservation gain,” the local, regional and national organizations state in a letter sent last week to officials in Clark County and to the Nevada congressional delegation.

The organizations want any public lands bills to establish permanent protections for “high-value conservation lands” in Clark County, to clearly outline the process for following bedrock environmental laws, and to allow for full public participation in the process, the letter says. It also calls for an evaluation of the “ecological, scenic, recreational, cultural, historical and natural values” of the affected public lands and for consultation with tribal nations prior to the implementation of any lands bill.

The letter was signed by the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Nevada Conservation League, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the Conservation Lands Foundation, the Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Great Basin Water Network, Red Rock Audubon, Save Red Rock, Friends of Sloan Canyon and Protectors of Tule Springs.

Clark County officials drafted an initial version of the proposed public lands bill last year and sent it to members of Nevada’s congressional delegation for evaluation and eventual introduction. It seeks to expand and modify the developmental boundaries for the county, primarily along the Interstate 15 corridor south of Las Vegas.

The congressional delegation is currently reviewing the proposal, and it is unclear if and when a bill could be voted on in Congress.

“Our understanding is they’re conducting a variety of meetings with stakeholders, taking input, kind of doing their due diligence on the draft we’ve offered and following up with folks on their feedback on the bill,” said Marci Henson, director of the Clark County Department of Air Quality, which spearheaded the measure.

While a handful of environmental organizations have raised concerns about elements of the draft bill over the last year and a half, this is the first time that so many organizations have demonstrated unity in their priorities, said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This letter is not about any one provision in the bill,” Donnelly said. “These are just overriding principles we want to see adhered to. There are ways the current bill doesn’t live up to those standards, so we’d like to see that improved.”

Because of the breadth and complexity of the county’s proposed bill, a broad coalition of constituents and organizations are following it closely, said Jim Stanger, president of Friends of Sloan Canyon. His organization’s primary concern is that the county’s proposal would allow development closer to Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, potentially compromising bighorn sheep populations there, Stanger said.

“Sloan Canyon ... would be almost surrounded on three sides by urban development, which is concerning to us,” he said.

Another noteworthy element of the bill for many of the organizations, including Friends of Sloan Canyon, is the county’s proposal to designate 296,690 acres of land as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). This would protect these areas from development, but the bill also suggests that the county would have the right to open up an equivalent number of acres to development.

Stanger questioned if it was appropriate to offset development with the establishment of ACECs — which are typically created by the Bureau of Land Management — on an “acre-for-acre basis,” as stated in the bill text.

“We’re concerned that the scientific and public processes used to determine how this area (near Sloan Canyon) will be impacted may be compromised,” Stanger said.

Donnelly is critical of the county's decision to create new ACECs, seemingly without input from scientists or biologists regarding their size, location and quality when it comes to biodiversity, he said. He also questioned whether the designation would result in permanent conservation protections. 

"I think the ACEC designation is a little squishy," he said.

Henson said that conservationists have “misunderstood” the implications of the ACECs as a mitigation effort, describing it as one of many ways that the county plans to mitigate the environmental effects of new developments. The bill as written does not create a “mitigation ratio” of one acre of developable land per one acre of conserved land, she argued.

“Instead, we’re asking to be assured that these ACECs would be credited as mitigation,” Henson said.

Henson also stressed that the designation of ACECs through a congressional act, rather than through the BLM, is “not unheard of," pointing to the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the Dinosaur Trackway Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Nonetheless, she welcomes the conservationists' letter and looks forward to working with the organizations. Since first hearing the concerns of some of the groups, the county has modified past bill language to reflect its commitment to environmental laws, Henson added.

“We went back and made clearer what applicable laws would apply,” she said.

Jocelyn Torres, the Nevada program director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said her organization sees the letter as a way to be proactive in communicating priorities when it comes to the management of public lands. This is particularly important now as the Trump administration seeks to weaken environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and policies addressing climate change, Torres said.

Organizations such as hers opted to draft this list of principles, rather than list critiques of specific bill elements, recognizing that the working draft bill could change significantly before it gets introduced in Congress.

“This (bill) is very much in a concept phase rather than an introduced phase,” Torres said.