Las Vegas Sun

June 18, 2024

Cortez Masto’s public lands bill would conserve land, expand Clark County

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.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., released a draft of the Clark County lands bill this week, with noticeable differences from Clark County’s original request that have placated some of the concerns of environmentalists.

The county has been working on a federal lands bill for Southern Nevada for the past several years. All versions of the proposed congressional bill have sought to expand Clark County’s development boundaries in exchange for the creation of new conservation areas. The Clark County Commission approved a set of principles for the lands bill in June 2018.

The county’s request has been criticized by environmental organizations, which have called it a recipe for sprawl and poor air quality as well as a threat to rare and endangered species. Others, including off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, have raised concerns about the plan as well.

Cortez Masto’s draft legislation, which is based on the county’s proposed bill, is similar to what the county asked for, but offers concessions to the conservation community. It would expand Clark County’s development boundaries by up to 42,427 acres; the county requested 56,102 new acres on which to build. Development proposals within the expanded boundary would still be subject to local review.

“This draft legislation reflects extensive efforts to bring together Southern Nevada stakeholders to develop a proposal that prioritizes Clark County’s long-term conservation and economic development goals,” Cortez Masto said in a statement. “As the Las Vegas Valley grows, we must start laying the ground rules for sustainable expansion and economic development, while also addressing the looming threat of climate change and protecting our natural resources and desert wildlife.”

The draft legislation would create 308,110 acres of new wilderness areas — over three and a half times more than the 82,707 acres requested by the county — and would expand Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by 68,078 acres. It also replaces the county’s request for 298,052 acres of areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) with 353,716 acres of “special management areas.”

These areas would be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management to protect biodiversity and endangered species, such as desert tortoises, according to Cortez Masto’s communications director Ryan King. Special management areas would accommodate the “unique nature” by which these areas would be administered, King said.

Marci Henson, director of the Clark County Department of Air Quality and liaison for the county’s proposed lands bill, said county officials are “encouraged” by Cortez Masto’s draft legislation.

“It addresses several issues critical to the sustainable growth of our community and to the protection of Southern Nevada's most important natural areas,” Henson said in a statement. “We appreciate her and her team's work on the discussion draft.”

A notable omission from the bill is a request from the county to grant the Southern Nevada Water Authority a right-of-way for construction of a renewable energy pipeline. Environmental groups feared that the language could be interpreted as advancing the water authority’s controversial aspiration to pump water via underground pipelines from rural eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.

“We’re really happy about that language as it relates to the direct references to the (water) pipeline,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a coalition involved in litigation against the water authority’s pipeline project.

Other notable elements of the bill include the establishment of four recreation management areas for off-highway vehicles and the allocation of Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act funds to Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. The monument was established in 2014 and has not previously been eligible for those funds, according to the legislation.

Overall, groups critical of the original lands bill proposal said they appreciate aspects of Cortez Masto’s draft legislation. Andy Maggi of the Nevada Conservation League and Jocelyn Torres of the Conservation Lands Foundation both described the bill as a mostly positive proposal.

“This is a really strong package on the conservation side,” Maggi said. “My understanding is it’s one of the largest conservation packages put together in the state’s history.”

But other organizations remain critical of the bill’s main intent — to expand development farther from the region’s urban core, which they say would perpetuate urban sprawl, automobile emissions, water scarcity and inequality.

“This bill lets Las Vegas sprawl out into the desert outside the Las Vegas Valley. Period,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “42,000 acres of public lands turned into subdivisions and shopping malls.”

Brian Beffort, director of the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, said the bill fails to make Southern Nevada more sustainable or to improve public health and quality of life. Expanding growth outward would increase commute times, worsen the valley’s existing air quality woes and deepen geographic inequalities, he said.

“How is this bill going to benefit everyone in the community, not just the developers who get to build and the people who get to invest in those properties?” Beffort said. “How does this help the people who live in the center of town, who are struggling to get to work and the store in an increasingly auto-dependent, clogged and polluted city?”

Cortez Masto met with various stakeholders, including environmental groups, to create a “balanced proposal,” she said in her statement.

“That balance will allow for future generations of Nevadans to enjoy both Southern Nevada’s economic growth and the natural wonders and wild spaces that make the Las Vegas Valley such a special place to work, live and play,” Cortez Masto said.

County officials have described their proposal as a measured approach to growth. Population projections suggest that the county will run out of land within its current disposal boundary soon given the region’s rapid growth, which is why Southern Nevada’s development limits — referred to as the BLM disposal boundary — are due for expansion, Henson said.

“When you look at population projections and what we have available both in private, vacant land in Clark County and also in the current BLM disposal area, there’s a disparity there,” Henson told the Sun in July.

The county also contends that ample land is needed to keep housing prices low and diversify the region’s economy. Part of the expanded disposal boundary could support new light manufacturing and industrial job centers, Henson said.

Conservationists maintain that available infill land should be used up first before development spreads out. Moving forward, environmentalists and county officials are eager to continue discussions about the draft legislation and push their respective priorities.

“While (Cortez Masto’s) draft differs in some ways from the county's proposal, we understand that she's looking for feedback and we look forward to participating in the process,” Henson said.

Torres hopes that the draft legislation will facilitate a broader conversation about how the Southern Nevada community should grow and what it should look like in the years to come.

“Regardless of what happens, we have to have these conversations and make these plans,” Torres said.

Donnelly said his organization plans to continue engaging with the state’s congressional delegation on the proposal. But he would also like to see opportunities for the public to engage in those discussions. The county has not held public meetings or discussions on the lands bill since June 2018.

“This bill is going to determine our future in some ways, so the public needs to be fully engaged from the top to the bottom,” Donnelly said. “Environmental groups like mine, we shouldn’t be running the show. It should be the people.”

Cortez Masto welcomes feedback from members of the public as she finalizes the legislation before introducing it to Congress.