Nevada Wilderness Bill Balances Conservation and Development

The proposal would protect vital sage-grouse habitat and resolve 150-year-old land ownership issues

Nevada wilderness

The proposed Mount Limbo Wilderness is a popular destination for hiking, camping, hunting and horse-packing, and rock climbing. The area is on the route of the proposed National Desert Scenic Trail.

© Kurt Kuznicki/Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Rural Pershing County, Nevada, is in the northwest part of the Great Basin Desert, a magnificent landscape of pinyon-juniper forests, sagebrush valleys, rugged canyons, and dramatic mountains. Seventy-five percent of the county comprises public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For the past 10 years, mining interests, ranchers, sportsmen, local officials, and conservationists have been working with their representatives in Congress on a plan that would provide opportunities for economic development while protecting areas with significant ecological value.

This year, those efforts are paying off. The Pershing County Economic Development and Conservation Act, sponsored by Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV), passed the House of Representatives in January, and a Senate companion introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) and co-sponsored by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) was taken up by a Senate subcommittee in early February.

Nevada wilderness

Paleontologists discovered one of North America’s richest collections of ancient marine reptile fossils in the proposed Cain Mountain Wilderness 125 miles northeast of Reno.

© Kurt Kuznicki/Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Wilderness

Both bills include significant conservation gains—specifically, 136,000 acres of new wilderness. The proposed Grandfathers’ Wilderness would cover 35,339 acres, protecting a critical corridor for wildlife such as bighorn sheep and safeguarding stunning landscape. The area is also recognized as prime habitat for greater sage-grouse. The rugged and wild Tobin Crest extends 12 miles north to south through the area and exceptionally tall sagebrush grows across the region, giving the landscape a green tinge, with abundant wildflowers and other colorful high-alpine vegetation. Extensive outdoor recreational opportunities abound here, including hiking, camping, hunting, and horse-packing.

Nevada wilderness

The snow-covered Tobin Crest and China Mountain in the proposed Grandfathers’ Wilderness form an important corridor for wildlife traversing the Tobin Range. The area is also prime greater sage-grouse habitat.

© Kurt Kuznicki/Friends of Nevada Wilderness

The proposed 22,822-acre Selenite Peak Wilderness rises more than 7,000 feet over the north end of the Black Rock Desert, which is the site of the world renowned Burning Man gathering. This area is an outstanding recreational retreat with miles of hiking trails and expansive views of sprawling desert playas and tall granite peaks. Hunting is also popular here, primarily for upland game birds and pronghorn.

Checkerboard lands

The bill would also help address a longstanding land-management challenge in Pershing County: how to satisfy conservation and development needs in an area that has been parceled in a checkerboard pattern of federal and private lands. That pattern is a legacy of the 1860s, when the federal government granted railroad companies ownership of every other square mile of land, which they sold to pay for construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Pershing County bill would allow exchanges of public and private land within the area. The federal government could then swap developable public land along the Interstate 80 corridor for privately owned sections in other areas that would benefit wildlife or outdoor recreation. This might include greater sage-grouse habitat; part of an identified wildlife corridor or designated critical habitat; high-value areas for hunting, fishing, hiking, or other recreational activities; or places with significant cultural, historic, ecological, or scenic value.

Nevada wilderness

The proposed Cain Mountain Wilderness offers superb stargazing because its nighttime skies are relatively free of light pollution.

© Kurt Kuznicki/Friends of Nevada Wilderness

The collaboration by the Congressional delegation, local governments, and stakeholders means the Pershing County Economic Development and Conservation Act will permanently protect some of the state’s most remote and wild places, critical wildlife habitat, dramatic landscapes, geologic wonders, and magnificent outdoor recreation opportunities, while making eligible land along the I-80 corridor available for development.

John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program.

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