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August 31, 2014

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Public lands bills being held up by disagreements from delegates, BLM

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WASHINGTON -- Nevada lawmakers have anticipated that the chief challenge to getting many public lands bills through Congress this year is the willingness of a Republican-led House to pass legislation that balances federal land transfers with wilderness designations.

But disagreements on the home front and between presumed allies threaten to hold up progress on critical public lands bills.

Nevada delegates hinted that the week would start by unveiling a new set of Southern Nevada public lands bills, centered around an effort to designate Gold Butte as a national preservation area, but that's not how things happened.

“We all don’t agree on how we should handle Gold Butte,” Sen. Harry Reid said flatly.

Sen. Dean Heller tried to smooth things over.

“Once we get all the players to the table and all can understand what we’re trying to do…then I would assume that most of the delegation would support it,” he said. “That seems to be the rub at this point, just making sure that everybody that is involved in it is in agreement how to move forward.”

But Reid wasn’t in the mood for idle salve.

“This may be one issue where we won’t be able to agree,” he said.

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This past week, Nevada Reps. Steven Horsford and Mark Amodei also assumed they’d have a smooth go of presenting the Lyon County public lands bill for its first legislative hearing. The bill lifts the federal yoke from over 10,000 acres of public lands destined for copper mine development near Yerington and designates almost five times as much land elsewhere in Lyon County as the Wovoka Wilderness Area — named after a Native American spiritual leader.

But instead, they faced an unexpected bump in the road from the Bureau of Land Management, an agency they had assumed would be in Nevada’s corner.

In written testimony, BLM Deputy Assistant Secretary Neil Farquhar raised flags about “challenges” and “potentially dangerous situation(s)” arising from language in the measure pertaining to mining claims and cleanup.

But those items didn’t actually appear anywhere in the bill – leading both Horsford and Amodei to openly express frustration that the Yerington project was not even being judged on its merits.

“Would you describe for me today how you prepared for today’s meeting? Did you talk to anybody at the Nevada division of minerals about abandoned mines?” Amodei said to Farquhar, who didn’t have answers. “The bill has been out there for a long time, you’ve heard the testimony that this needs to move.”

The designation of the 48,000 acres on Bald Mountain that would be converted to the Wovoka Wilderness Area in Horsford’s bill is lengthy, going into detail about the types of development that might be allowed in the wilderness area, such as the certain water resources intended to enhance the wilderness objectives and provide for long-term grazing, use of vehicles and access of hunters and trappers.

In fact, some of those provisions caused a representative from the U.S. Forest Service who testified at the hearing to raise concerns that Horsford’s bill was too liberal when it came to its definitions of roads and hunting/fishing rights, and too restrictive in its definition of permissible water resource development projects.

But on questions of mining, the legislation is pretty explicit: There is no wiggle room for any new mining claims once the land is declared federal land, not for mineral, geothermal, or any other type of materials that might otherwise be sited patented and leased.

“I’ve only been here about 100 days but I’ve learned very quickly that the committee record is very important to congressional intent,” Horsford said. “You make reference to mining claims that also don’t exist – please make sure that information is accurate going forward.”

•••

Both the Yerington and the Gold Butte mishaps came along as unfortunate complications for the bills' backers. But some problems are easier to solve than others.

Resolving the differences of opinion surrounding land designation in southern Nevada could take far longer.

“There is not unanimity,” Reid said, suggesting that Southern Nevada lawmakers might “have to do individual bills or something” to address competing concerns.

But while tempers and frustrations flared at the BLM week, there do not appear to be lasting fears in the Nevada delegation that the Yerington legislation will be compromised.

During the Yerington hearing, Horsford managed to secure a promise from Farquhar that BLM would edit their interpretation of his bill within 10 days – enough time, most likely, not to interfere with the scheduling of a markup, the next sequential step in the process of turning a bill into a law.

That means for Yerington, the true hurdle is the original one: Getting the bill through the full committee, where full chairman Rep. Doc Hastings is not as amenable to wilderness designation as public lands subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, and through the full House, whether others may also be philosophically disinclined to support the legislation.

In apparent anticipation of this potential hurdle, Horsford came to the first Yerington hearing this week armed with statistics about the commercial and job-creating promise of the Yerington compromise and venture.

The project would create 3,000 to 4,000 indirect jobs, Horsford said, including 500 construction jobs and 800 to 900 mining jobs that would pay high wages for nearly 20 years, in a county that has had – as Yerington Mayor George Dini later pointed out – up to 15 percent unemployment in recent years.

“The city of Yerington will be able to draw in additional economic activity due to infrastructure investments, including power, roads, infrastructure and water,” Horsford said. “This is truly about economic development and job creation in rural Nevada’s Lyon County and it is no way a giveaway of federal resources.”

Dini added that the future of the copper mine project – which has already secured $200 million in financing and is hoping to attract $800 million more – depends on Congress first passing the enabling legislation, to ensure that the mining can go ahead.

“We are operating on a tight timeline,” he said. “If this legislation is not passed in a timely manner, the benefits to the community of a larger integrated mine are jeopardized.”

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