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Fact-Check Friday: Why Did Washoe County Sign on to the Sage Grouse Lawsuit?

By Bob Conrad

adam-laxaltThe sage grouse saga evolved this week.

Attorney General Adam Laxalt sent a news release yesterday announcing the state’s intention to join in on a lawsuit that challenges the federal government’s land-use plan for sage grouse.

The federal government’s one-size-fits-all sage-grouse plan will greatly hinder Nevada’s growth and success, and have an adverse impact on Nevada’s economy, affecting ranchers, mining exploration, new energy source development, recreation and everyone who works in these industries,” he said. “While I appreciate and applaud all of the efforts that have been made to negotiate a favorable outcome for Nevada, and continue to hope that ongoing negotiations may result in a better plan for Nevada, my office, after careful legal analysis, has concluded that this suit is necessary to fully protect the interest of the state.”

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval quickly released a rebuff of Laxalt’s announcement.

By pursuing litigation now, the Attorney General is acting in his personal capacity and does not represent the State of Nevada, the Governor, or any state agencies,” said Sandoval’s spokesperson Mari St. Martin. “If the Greater Sage-grouse had been listed as an endangered species, the consequences of that listing would have been permanent and inflexible. It would have given exclusive control of the management of the bird as well as the habitat to the federal government.”

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval will speak at the Nevada Governor's Conference on Tourism, Oct. 27-29 at the Atlantis.Laxalt countered with not one but two follow-up statements to the press. The first:

The governor’s statement seeking to undermine this sage-grouse litigation is troubling. His statement that the attorney general is acting in his personal capacity is wrong. The state of Nevada has joined this lawsuit. Pursuant to Nevada Revised Statute 228.190, the attorney general is the only constitutional officer authorized by Nevada law ‘to intervene or to appear in’ litigation about public lands ‘in the name of the state.’ The Attorney General’s Office has done so. Moreover, because of the importance of this suit, numerous Nevada counties have stepped forward to fund it.

The second listed numerous quotes from politicians, companies and government jurisdictions supporting the lawsuit, which, they said, would have a negative impact on Nevada’s economy and public land uses.

Nine counties have signed on as supporters of the lawsuit, including Washoe County. The question is: Why?

Washoe County Communications Manager Nancy Leuenhagen confirmed that the Washoe County Board of County Commissioners unanimously supported the lawsuit and is a party to it.

“The Commissioners voted unanimously to support, as a party within the lawsuit, joining the lawsuit during their Oct. 13 meeting,” she said.

It turns out two parcels of land are at issue, an 80-acre parcel in the North Valleys and a 40-acre parcel in Sparks. The larger of the two was slated for a new school while the smaller parcel was slated to be a veterans’ cemetery.

BLM maps allegedly identify these parcels as sage-grouse habitat, but critics say that’s not the case.

“Those parcels are no longer available to (the county) for acquisition from the (Bureau of Land Management) because they have been deemed as having sage-grouse habitat; although, (Washoe County) staff and the GIS mapping that they’ve done says there’s no sage-grouse habitat on those particular parcels,” said Debra Struhsacker, executive director of the Nevada Resources Mineral Alliance. “With the removal of these lands from potential acquisition from the federal government, we’ve essentially become landlocked in these areas — especially in the North Valleys and in northern Washoe County.”

Commission Kitty Jung questioned the motion for the county to join in on the lawsuit.

“This is coming from (the Nevada Association of Counties) and coming from rural counties, and I just don’t see where staff has said, ‘oh my goodness, this is going to be a real big problem for us,'” she said. “This is coming from outside lobbyists — not identified by staff. This is a political issue. It’s being politicized.”

County staff said that there were problems with the BLM’s maps and the parcels.

Jung ended up supporting the lawsuit, saying she just needed more information.

Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said, “I’m terribly concerned with the way that the BLM wants to deal with this…. I don’t believe that they’re looking at the real issue, which is predation, as opposed to just setting aside millions of acres of land and saying, ‘well there is no issue….’ The 40-acre parcel that they’ve called habitat is coming off Pyramid Highway … there are no sage grouse there. I guarantee you there are no sage grouse there. If there are sage grouse there, I’ll buy (them) a home.”

Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman also supported the county joining the lawsuit.

“I want to thank Attorney General Laxalt for joining this litigation challenging the BLM and U.S. Forest Service Sage grouse Land Management Plan,” she said. “This Plan has already interfered with Washoe County’s ability to acquire an 80-acre parcel in the North Valleys needed for a new middle school, as well as a 40-acre parcel in Sparks identified for a veterans’ cemetery. BLM’s maps incorrectly show these parcels as sage-grouse habitat even though county maps clearly indicate they are not habitat and are suitable for acquisition and development.

“Future conflicts are inevitable because public lands surround Reno-Sparks suburban areas. The county must be able to acquire public lands to support future community development objectives.”

A request for comment about Laxalt’s additional statements was left with Governor Sandoval’s spokesperson on Thursday.