Lincoln County officials have questions regarding the announcement last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior to propose land use controls on 17 million acres in rural Nevada and northeastern California. The intent of the controls is to avoid listing the sage grouse on the endangered species list.
An article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted, “Solar and wind energy development would be excluded or subject to added scrutiny across Northern Nevada, according to a new environmental impact report. Controls would be put in place for geothermal and oil and gas exploration over 15 million acres and restricted outright in 1.5 million acres of the most sensitive areas where the range birds flock.”
Lincoln County Commission chair Kevin Phillips said it was also his understanding the U.S. Congress had passed a law giving the BLM another 10 years to study the matter before doing anything.
“It’s nice to think we had serious input,” he said, “but it’s probably more the Congress that had the input.”
One of Phillip’s main concerns, as well as former County Commission chair Tommy Rowe, is “just what kind of land use controls?”
Phillips said what people in Nevada fear on the sage grouse question is that while the chicken-sized bird itself may not be listed as endangered, “the net result of environmental impact studies now being conducted and to be placed in the resource management plans of respective BLM districts, and later required management plans, might still impose non-entry and non-commercial development, mining, etc., in those areas the same as if the bird were put on the endangered species list.”
The RJ report stated, “Potential effects on mining and grazing are also expected in the best remaining areas for the grouse, whose population has dropped from the millions to about 200,000 to 500,000 across the West.”
Phillips said there still are some exclusionary zones listed in the resource plans for some northern Nevada counties. “It doesn’t affect us here in Lincoln County so much, because we are on the southern edge of the sage grouse habitat, but what affects one, affects all. So, I’m not sure what the end result of all this is going to be.”
If the U.S. Department of the Interior is willing to wait, it is not known what will be the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who are still considering listing sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species. Their decision is expected this September.
The Review-Journal article pointed out Congressman Mark Amodei, R-NV, whose Northern Nevada district is most affected by the sage grouse, inserted a provision in an appropriations bill last year denying the Interior Department funding to finalize an endangered species decision, but department lawyers found various ways to get around most of it.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the Obama administration’s “unprecedented collaboration” with states, local governments and stakeholders to balance habitat protection with the needs of rural communities. The land plans “are the best chance we have of keeping the bird off the endangered species list.”
Not only sage grouse but 350 other species rely on healthy sagebrush habitat, including elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.
Interior officials said most the land within the priority habitat have little potential for fossil energy, wind or solar development anyway.
The RJ report noted another 6.5 million acres in Nevada was tagged as “other habitat” where sage grouse are found but which the BLM said is not being subjected to land controls other than encouraging users to follow the best practices in their activities.
Fifty-five million acres in Nevada controlled by the BLM and the Forest Service were studied by the Interior Department before the 17 million acres were set aside for updated management plans.
A 60-day review period by Gov. Sandoval of Nevada and Jerry Brown of California, and a concurrent 30-day protest period, will be held before the Interior department will finalize the plans.
However, Amodei told the RJ he does not think that will be the end of it. “We’re going to see another ugly, counterproductive Congress-versus-the-executive branch fight on this.”