Committee’s tweaks to Yerington land-swap bill may doom it

Wed, Jan 29, 2014 (6:10 p.m.)

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Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., responds to a question during a town hall meeting at the Cora Coleman Senior Center in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

The people of Lyon County have been waiting for years for Congress to approve a public lands bill they need to build a copper mine that would bring 1,000 jobs to one of the most economically depressed parts of the state.

Chances seemed to be better than ever this congressional session, with the Nevada delegation fully united behind the bill, which approved the sale of 10,000 acres of federal land to the city of Yerington — and also created a wilderness area in the Wovoka Forest.

But the way the bill emerged from its latest test may jeopardize its chances of ever getting through the Senate, much less to the president’s desk to be signed into law.

The Yerington copper mine bill is now just one part of a Northern Nevada lands package Democrats say is so loaded with “poison pills” that the Senate — and especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — would never swallow it whole.

“There’s some really bizarre provisions in this,” said Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “It’s a sorta-wilderness proposal, more, of course, than the committee has done in the last three years, but it still has some outstanding problems.”

The House Natural Resources Committee was always the most challenging hurdle for the Yerington bill. To earn the full support of the Nevada delegation, local stakeholders agreed to pair the construction of a copper mine with the designation of a whole lot more federally protected wilderness land in the Wovoka Forest.

But ever since the Republicans took over the House, the Natural Resources Committee has been notably anti-wilderness creation. And before they would consider a wilderness bill, they insisted on some changes.

Over the weekend, the committee wrote language into the wilderness-creating sections of the bill that would, in effect, keep Congress from ever creating any more wilderness in the area in the future. That means no expansions, no new study areas, and — critically in Nevada — no option to sell privately held land within the wilderness, known as “inholdings,” to further the cause of conservation.

“Willing sellers who have inholdings are left with only two options: A donation or an exchange,” DeFazio said. “Why would we deprive private property rights in that way?”

The rule on inholdings could also undercut the foundational principle of Nevada’s most famous conservation legislation, the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.

SNPLMA, which Reid and then-Sen. John Ensign negotiated over 15 years ago, takes the proceeds from the sale of public, federal lands in Southern Nevada and uses them to fund conservation activities on protected land — oftentimes through purchases.

With the limiting language on inholdings — which was not present in Amodei or Horsford’s original bills — Wovoka and Pine Forest could not benefit from SNPLMA funds. And Reid is not expected to approve of legislation that could set a precedent that undercuts his crowning achievement in public lands legislation.

That tension has left Yerington/Wovoka bill author Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., in a tight spot.

Horsford did not approve of the last-minute changes Republican committee leaders made to his bill, which Amodei spokesman Brian Baluta described as “necessary … for a Republican Natural Resources Committee to move this much wilderness.”

Nor does Horsford like the fact that a carefully crafted bill, designed from the grass-roots level up, would sustain a flurry of changes over the weekend.

“We had unanimous local government support, and the tribes, and our environmental community, and the state legislature all backing the originally drafted measure,” Horsford said. “To make modifications haphazardly in the manner that this was doesn’t do what I wanted to do, which is to act on a measure based on consensus of our local stakeholders.”

But Horsford also promised those local stakeholders, in one of the most economically depressed sections of his district, that he would do everything possible to bring home 1,000 middle-class jobs. And so he is forcefully stumping for the merits of the bill as packaged — even though it’s not exactly what he wanted.

“The essence of the bill, the intent of the bill, the bottom line is, it allows us to do the land transfer to create the thousand jobs for a body that needs it,” he continued. “We all agreed that is was better to move it and to keep it moving than to let it blow up … we’re going to get it passed.”

Horsford may well be right about the bill passing the House. Though he lost the support of his fellow minority-side Democrats – only 5 committee Democrats voted to approve the legislation Tuesday – all the committee’s majority-side Republicans voted for the legislation. And congratulated themselves for it.

“It demonstrates that good things can happen when we work together, even in, and here I may have to pinch myself…even if you create wilderness in doing so,” Bishop said.

But if it passes, it may prove difficult to resolve the House’s product with what is pending in the Senate.

For months, it was clear that the Yerington bill wasn’t going to pass the House exactly the way Horsford drafted it, even if the Nevada delegation had pledged to help him out.

For starters, that delegation agreement never sat entirely well with Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. Amodei knew Yerington – before Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., the bill’s current sponsor, came to Congress, Amodei had written an earlier version of the copper mine bill with no wilderness component. And if the Yerington Copper Mine was to be paired with a forest, Amodei wanted it to be Pine Forest.

Since the spring, Amodei, working with historically anti-wilderness Republican committee chairmen, had warned that the Yerington/Wovoka bill would likely be packaged with other bills, including a bill to create wilderness in Pine Forest, as well as a few smaller bills to sell federal land to towns like Carlin and Fernley, to round it out.

“The strategy and vehicle has been discussed for months,” said Brian Baluta, a spokesman for Amodei – who could not be reached because he is at home in Nevada, recovering from emergency eye surgery for a torn retina. “The best way to move this forward was to compromise between what Sen. Reid wanted and what House Natural Resources wanted…this is the package that came out.”

But the Senate never worked along with that approach. In September, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee passed the Yerington/Wovoka legislation as a standalone bill. And neither Nevada senator would endorse the House’s packaged approach Tuesday.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., spoke encouragingly about Tuesday’s legislative developments on Yerington — but stopped short of endorsing the package deal.

“Senator Heller has been committed to this legislation since day one because he knows that these jobs are crucial to Lyon County,” Heller spokeswoman Chandler Smith said. “Today’s House Natural Resource Committee passage is an important step in the process.”

Reid’s office declined to speak on the record for this article. But the senator who self-described as a “wilderness guy” is not expected to sign off on a measure that will give Republicans their first legislative win with language limiting future creation of wilderness — even if he would be creating long-awaited parcels of wilderness in the Pine and Wovoka Forests in the process.

The seven-part Northern Nevada Land Conservation and Economic Development Act, as passed by the House Natural Resources Committee is called, includes the Pine Forest wilderness designation legislation, the Lyon County land conveyance and wilderness designation legislation, measures to convey federal land to the municipalities of Carlin, Fernley, the Naval Air Station in Fallon and sections of Storey County, and a measure that created a Motocross in Elko County and transferred trust land to the Western Shoshone Indian tribe.

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