Communities in Nevada have a history of advocating for comprehensive public lands protections that include provisions for conservation, recreation, and development. Congress has repeatedly responded with legislation to meet those desires, such as the 2002 designation of more than 450,000 acres of wilderness in Clark County, near Las Vegas. Now lawmakers have a chance to add to that legacy by acting on a proposal from area residents to safeguard more critical wildlife habitat along with rugged, scenic, and diverse landscapes.
Through their enthusiastic support, residents have helped drive the creation of numerous protected areas over the years, including Gold Butte National Monument, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and portions of the largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States: the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
But many more lands in Clark County merit protection, especially in the face of rapid population growth and efforts by local leaders to expand commercial and residential development—which, surprisingly, offers opportunities for increased land protection in the area.
Under a habitat conservation plan prescribed by the Endangered Species Act and completed in 2000, Clark County committed to maintain the viability of natural habitats for approximately 232 resident species, including several listed as threatened or endangered. The agreement requires that development in this wild and urban landscape be done in tandem with conservation. To that end, Clark County must prioritize long-term conservation and recovery of natural habitats and native species of plants and animals.
To help accomplish that, Clark County advocates have proposed designating new wilderness, including the Mount Stirling area, and expanding existing wilderness, such as the Muddy Mountains, South McCullough, Eldorado, and Ireteba Peaks areas. Since 1992, Mount Stirling has been a wilderness study area, which means the Bureau of Land Management will work to preserve its natural character until Congress decides whether to designate it as wilderness.
The nearly 70,000-acre Mount Stirling proposed wilderness encompasses a rugged landscape of canyons and ridges and, at higher elevations, dense forest with challenging routes for hikers and scenic vistas of the surrounding valleys. Some of this open space and wildlife habitat is threatened by new housing built to accommodate the burgeoning population of Pahrump and southern Nye County.
The proposal would also nearly double the size of the 48,154-acre Muddy Mountains Wilderness, a protected area of colorful Mojave Desert canyons about 16 miles northeast of Las Vegas. This addition would safeguard critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, along with prehistoric rock art, artifacts, agave roasting pits, and rock shelters. The area contains rare and sensitive plants such as Las Vegas buckwheat and Las Vegas bearpoppy and is a prime destination for nature study, bird-watching, horseback riding, hunting, and hiking.
In total, the proposal includes almost 400,000 acres of wilderness-quality land throughout the county, including more than 91,000 acres in six areas surrounding Gold Butte National Monument. These places were recommended for protection by the National Park Service (NPS) and were proposed for designation several times from 2002 to 2015. These NPS additions would provide primitive boat access to over 90 miles of Lake Mead and Colorado River shoreline and would safeguard desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoise habitat and the migration and transit corridors that help keep populations of those animals healthy.
In June, the Clark County Commission voted unanimously in support of the comprehensive public lands bill and sent the proposal to Nevada’s congressional delegation, although some stakeholders expressed concerns about access to recreation and adequate protections for wildlife habitat.
The Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act, which was passed in 2002, was one of the first comprehensive public lands bills to safeguard wild landscapes in the state. That initiative became a model for Western public lands legislation that followed. The Pew Charitable Trusts will continue to work with local stakeholders to seek several needed improvements in the new proposal as the process moves forward. We look forward to working with participants in this next phase to craft a bill that balances conservation, recreation, and development to protect the natural, cultural, and historic resources of Clark County.
John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program.