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April 23, 2014

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Scenic Pine Forest Range could be Nevada’s next designated wilderness

On approach from the desert, the Pine Forest Range looks much like any other arid stretch of tumbled mountains in northwestern Nevada.

It’s anything but.

Just north of the Black Rock Desert, Pine Forest offers a diverse landscape of rolling slopes of sagebrush, dense stands of aspen and otherworldly clusters of rock formations. Scenic lakes and reservoirs offer world-class trout fisheries.

From the ranchers who make their livelihood on grazing allotments to environmentalists intent on preserving a rugged landscape, anyone familiar with the place agrees it’s special.

“The water, the vegetation, the geological formations, the place is just incredible,” Reno resident Pat Bruce told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “It’s like another planet.”

It’s something else as well. Pine Forest, the focus of deliberations by local and regional interests concerned with its future, could become Nevada’s next new wilderness area. Legislation declaring it so died amid the political gridlock of the 112th Congress. A new proposal, backed by Nevada’s congressional delegation and Gov. Brian Sandoval, is pending before the 113th Congress.

Will it pass this time around?

“I suspect it will move this year, assuming that Congress functions at any level,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, who is sponsoring the legislation along with U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The range includes two wilderness study areas established by the government in 1980. They were among 110 such areas encompassing more than 5 million acres across Nevada that were targeted as potential wilderness areas.

Some have been declared official wilderness areas over the years. Perhaps the highest-profile example in Nevada occurred in 2000, when Congress designated about 1.5 million acres of the Black Rock Desert as conservation or wilderness areas.

The move was praised by many but also was highly controversial. Ranchers, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and other outdoor recreation groups opposed the designation, worried about losing access and complaining that local concerns went unheard by Washington. All but one of Nevada’s 17 counties, Clark, opposed the legislation.

Elected leaders at Humboldt County desired some resolution concerning the status of the Pine Forest Range and its two wilderness study areas but were wary of following the process used elsewhere, said Bill Deist, Humboldt County administrator.

The situation was ripe for a new approach, and in the fall of 2008, that’s what started to take shape. Enter Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization established to protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries.

Trout Unlimited was interested in helping address some broad issues affecting the landscape, including future status of wilderness study areas. Humboldt County and the Pine Forest Range emerged as a likely target, said Dave Glenn, intermountain director for the group’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. It was decided early on that resolving questions over the area’s future would require collaboration by all affected parties, including sportsmen, ranchers, environmentalists, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and others, Glenn said.

“We said, ‘let’s all get together and let’s see how we can all make this work,’” Glenn said. “We were very clear that our dog in this hunt is fish. That said, we understood there were a lot of other stakeholders. We wanted a process that was all-inclusive, with every single stakeholder involved.”

Tapped by Trout Unlimited to lead the process was Jim Jeffress, an Idaho resident and retired biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife who had spent more than 20 years working in the Winnemucca area.

With the effort sanctioned by the Humboldt County Commission, meetings among representatives of the various interests commenced in January 2010. Lists of issues and concerns were made. Field trips into the Pine Forest Range were conducted.

At first, some were wary over the process, said Shaaron Netherton of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, who represented a coalition of environmental groups in the discussions, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Nevada Wilderness Project.

Over time, trust evolved.

“It became really clear everyone had an incredible connection to that place, a real love for that place,” Netherton said. “Everybody got to the point where they knew where the other people were coming from, and that was really nice.”

There were points of controversy, but one by one, the group resolved them. One was the status of a rugged road extending south from a popular fishing and camping destination, Onion Valley Reservoir. Some felt the road should be closed. Others, including ranchers who use it to reach livestock, did not.

In the end, environmental representatives became convinced the best way moving forward was to keep the road open, Netherton said.

“We felt it would help support hunters, help support ranchers,” Netherton said. “We felt it just made sense to keep that road open. That kind of became our mantra through the whole thing — what makes sense.”

That decision, Humboldt County’s Deitz recalled, was a sort of milestone.

“That was the turning point. Everyone just fell in line then,” Deitz said.

It was agreed grazing allotments would continue in the wilderness. About 1,000 acres included in the original study areas were deemed inappropriate for wilderness designation for various reasons and should be removed, the group agreed.

Participants agreed areas near Onion Valley and Knott Creek reservoirs ideal for car camping should have the activity protected, so boundaries were adjusted. Where a road passed through sensitive meadows, it was agreed it should be moved to less-sensitive sagebrush bench land nearby.

Buck Johnson, owner of the Alder Creek Ranch, came up with an idea. He owned land on the east front of the Pine Forest Range that made sense to be made part of the wilderness. If he agreed to give it up, maybe the wilderness legislation could transfer other U.S. Bureau of Land Management land near his ranch west of the range to his ownership for alfalfa production.

Everyone thought that made sense, too. Now, an additional 1,500 acres could be added to the wilderness through land exchanges with Johnson and another local rancher.

On Oct. 18, 2010, the Humboldt County Commission voted 5-0 to support all of the group’s recommendations. Commissioners urged Nevada’s congressional delegation to pass a bill establishing the 26,000-acre Pine Forest Range Wilderness.

The unanimous action was possible, Humboldt County Commissioner Mike Bell said, because of the group’s successful efforts to resolve any and all controversies.

“They hammered it out at the ground level,” Bell said. “That’s how it worked. If you did it any other way, it’s just not going to happen.”

Jeffress, the former biologist who facilitated the consensus effort, still finds himself amazed that the plan lacks any controversy. In a state where some view wilderness as “one step down from communism,” everyone appears to agree that, as currently proposed, the Pine Forest Range Wilderness simply makes sense, Jeffress said.

“When we started this thing in a conservative county like this, where they don’t like change, everybody thought it would be controversial,” Jeffress said. “It hasn’t been. It’s just been common sense.”

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