The Tule Tradeoff

tule.jpgLet’s hear it for the Las Vegas Valley Public Land and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act!

Although it’s got a long legislative road ahead, the bill, if passed, would protect 22,650 acres of precious plants and wildlife, both living and fossilized, in Tule Springs. (Yay!) It would add a 1,530-acre chunk to the Red Rock National Conservation Area (Yippee!), give land to Las Vegas and North Las Vegas for job-creation zones (Oh, yes!), and bestow 2,410 acres on the state’s higher education system for campus development. (Finally! Good news for UNLV!)

And … it would put a shooting range at the foot of Sunrise Mountain. (Um, what?) It would give land containing rare plant species to the county to build an airport that it already has land for. (Wait, that doesn’t sound right …) And, best of all, it would let NV Energy build huge power lines right across the new Tule Springs Monument. (Boo!)

Environmental advocates were expected to give three cheers for the bill introduced by Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller on June 27. And they complied. Justifiably. The bill’s hallmark section protects a large, valuable piece of the Earth’s ecology and history, Tule Springs.

But these advocates had only about 48 hours to study the lengthy bill before the dailies went to press. Come mid-July, they were a bit more circumspect. By then, they’d studied it in toto and noticed some stink-bombs hitching a ride on the wave of fresh air.

Rob Mrowka, ecologist and Nevada conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, is especially unhappy about the conveyance of 2,320 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to the county for development of the Ivanpah Valley Airport. Several thousand acres were already set aside for the project in 2000, he says. To make matters worse, the Ivanpah area is one of only five known habitats for a plant called the white margin penstemon, for which Mrowka’s group is seeking endangered status.

Another eyebrow-raiser is the designation of 80 acres at the foot of Sunrise Mountain as a shooting range for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. According to Mrowka, Clark County got 1,000-plus acres for a combined public-agency shooting area as part of a 2002 lands bill. Why not put the police range there?

The 80 acres is part of a 10,240-acre area called the Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area, or ISA. The proposed bill releases the entire area from the study, meant to determine whether it merited wilderness status. The rocky hillsides and roads crisscrossing Sunrise and Frenchman mountains (not to mention the rusting auto carcasses) apparently aren’t friendly to nature, solitude, primitive recreation and the other official characteristics of wilderness.

According to a BLM spokeswoman, the released land would be subject to the same uses permitted on any BLM land that doesn’t have wilderness status. So, for instance, off-road vehicles, which would have been forbidden in a wilderness area, may now be allowed, but private development—say, a gated community—would still be off-limits.

Fortunately for lovers of nearby Lava Butte/Rainbow Gardens, that more scenic area is protected from activities that could harm plants and animals, because it’s designated an area of critical environmental concern.

Mrowka doesn’t object to the release, noting that he agrees the ISA is not really wilderness. Some other eco-groups, including the Sierra Club, are expected to complain about the release, though.

There are, however, strong objections to the bill’s set-aside for Renewable Energy Transmission Facilities. It designates a strip of land for high-voltage power lines along the edge of the Tule Springs monument, cutting right through the Las Vegas Wash.

Lynn Davis, Nevada director for the National Parks Conservation Association, says this so-called “energy corridor” has never been proven necessary, and that there are other alternatives.

Just a week after the bill was introduced, a dozen environmental groups reached a settlement with the government agencies against which they’d filed a lawsuit claiming that many energy corridors established by a 2008 law were not properly assessed for environmental impact. Under the settlement, anyone looking to build transmission lines in the included areas will face rigorous scrutiny—that includes the potential builders of the Tule Springs lines.

“Because it was identified as a no-go [in the settlement],” Davis says, “it’s likely to scare off investment.”

And if that doesn’t scare them, maybe this will: The Obama administration now says it will review the Bush administration’s guidance for establishing the Western energy corridors and possibly revise some locations.

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