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The return of the county lands bill

By Bob Conrad

The Washoe County lands bill, known as the Truckee Meadows Public Land Management Act, is back. The bill was stalled for about two years after a number of public hearings and meetings about what the bill could look like.

But it’s only been since late 2019 that those discussions have been brought back to the public arena. A meeting last week hosted by the City of Reno, City of Sparks and Washoe County was held for those with vested interests in how the bill will play out.

Dave Solaro, assistant county manager.
Dave Solaro, assistant county manager.

“It really stalled locally,” said Assistant Washoe County Manager Dave Solaro. “I think we had gotten to that point where we could not get, locally, consensus around a conservation proposal. We looked at it and said, ‘maybe some time needs to occur here,’ and we’ll think about it a bit more and start back up when the time is appropriate.”

That time is now, he added. “Of course, every time we turn around people think we’re going too fast or we’re going too slow. As you can imagine, there are a lot of people that have interest in how these lands are designated at the federal level.”

Participants demand transparent process

The occasionally contentious meeting last week revealed just how many interests are weighing in on the bill. Concerns expressed by those in attendance included maintaining livestock grazing permits, trails access, impacts on wildlife, how much land would be transferred for development, mining interests and what will happen to land designated as wilderness.

One thing the groups appeared to agree upon was clear: They want an open, transparent process. That message to the local governments is not new. In 2016, when the lands bill was being discussed in public, some of the same groups attending last week’s meeting had the same concern.

Doug Busslemen with the Nevada Farm Bureau said at the time that Nevada farmers affected by the bill were concerned that the process was not transparent enough.

“Our main concern is wanting to make sure that what develops in the process is a public process,” he said at the time.

Shaaron Netherton, executive director of the Friends of the Nevada Wilderness, had similar thoughts nearly two years later, in 2018.

“[Washoe County] heard pretty loud and clear from the public that they were not really happy with the direction the county was going, or at least the explanation and information that the county has presented,” she said. “They’re not getting a very strong explanation from the county, and I think people are frustrated. I’d like to see a more inclusive process.”

Last week’s meeting attempted to bring inclusivity back to the process with a new timeline and website (landsbill.org) for the bill.

A massive undertaking

Public lands bills have been used by other Nevada counties to transfer federal land to local jurisdictions. Nevada’s land mass comprises more than 80 percent of public land managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

“Nevada is unique among other states in that there’s a lot of public lands, and sometimes it literally takes an act of Congress to make something happen,” Netherton said in a 2018 interview.

Lands bills, she added, take a comprehensive look at community needs and how those may balance with potentially available federal parcels.

The Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, for example, authorized the transfer of 25,000 acres of federal property to serve growth in Clark County. It passed in the late 1990s. Proceeds from those land sales are still benefiting projects.

“This act would ensure that land disposal activities are coordinated with the local government and consistent with local land use planning and management,” University of Nevada researchers wrote at the time. “It is recognized in the Act that the Las Vegas metropolitan area is the fastest growing urban area in the United States with a need for orderly development.”

Today’s Washoe County’s lands bill is already highlighting some uses for potentially available land. Parcels are proposed for a cemetery, expanded parks boundaries, a shooting range, wildlife habitat protection, trails, road connectors and a school site.

“It’s a way to wrap this up in one place … and has been used successfully in a number of counties,” Netherton added, also citing a need to preserve wilderness areas especially as growth continues at a rapid rate in Washoe County.

Both ranchers and wilderness advocates said such growth represents “death by a thousand cuts” for their interests.

Top of mind for urbanites is housing affordability and the availability of residences. Goals outlined by local governments for the lands bill emphasize these issues, as well as encouraging infill development and preserving open spaces.

A number of federal parcels around the Reno area have already been identified for these purposes.

What’s next

Any federal lands transferred for potential development will need to undergo federal review. It’s not a simple matter of giving a city acreage and watching a development pop-up.

“That land piece gets nominated by the local jurisdiction,” Solaro explained. “[Then] that land then goes to the Bureau of Land Management, and they do a full review of whether that land has characteristics they’re comfortable with being sold. Stakeholders can then say, ‘this makes sense’ or ‘it doesn’t make sense.’ If it doesn’t make sense, then that piece dies. It does not get sold.”

Solaro said the lands bill may never see the light of day. The three local governments have already passed resolutions in support of the process, and Solaro stressed that there will be full-blown public meetings for people to provide input before a bill gets to Congress.

Getting everybody to agree on what it should look like is unlikely, though.

“We are going to get to a point where, hopefully, we have enough consensus that the federal delegation says, ‘OK, if the local entities bring something to us, we’ll push it across the finish line,’” Solaro said. “We are certainly not going to be able to please everybody.”

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