By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
Clark County officials revealed a sweeping new public lands proposal last week. Aimed at freeing up development land near Las Vegas, it’s effects would also bleed over into rural areas of the county, especially to Moapa Valley.
The plan was presented to the public for the first time on Tuesday, June 5 at an open house event in the Flamingo Public Library branch in Las Vegas. That was to be the only such public presentation before a County Commission vote on the resolution set for a Tuesday, June 19 meeting.
The resolution seeks federal legislation that would take down a large chunk of federal land for development located adjacent to the metropolitan Las Vegas area. It includes 39,000 acres along the Interstate 15 corridor south of the Las Vegas valley. The targeted area stretches across the empty desert from Sloan to Jean and east of the highway. It would become disposal land that could be annexed by Henderson and eventually developed into residential neighborhoods.
In addition, the resolution would convey about 41,000 acres to the Moapa Band of Paiutes in order to “restore lands that were once part of the Reservation for economic development, housing, and conservation.” These lands would extend the reservation boundaries in every direction including an eastern swath along I-15 north, past the Byron exit; a parcel along the I-15 alignment south of the Travel Plaza; an extension to the northern boundary; and an even larger area annexed to the east.
The Costs in Conservation
To offset this newly developable land, the county proposal would set aside more than 370,000 acres of newly protected areas for the desert tortoise and other threatened and endangered species. These areas would include several new wilderness areas and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC)
A part of these proposed protection lands would be located in the far southwest corner of the state. But more than half of the proposed conservation lands are aimed for the outlying areas of northeastern Clark County. And most of that is immediately surrounding the Moapa Valley communities.
Nearly 10,000 acres, being referred to in the resolution as the Mesa Milkvetch ACEC, is located directly adjacent to the communities of Logandale and Overton in what was previously marked as BLM disposal land on the neighboring east bench. The county maps show no buffer between the ACEC and privately held parcels all along the east edge of the lower Moapa Valley communities.
In addition, more than 37,000 acres is being proposed as a new Muddy Mountains ACEC. This would be located in the large range immediately west of the Logandale Trails area.
A roughly 9,000 acre California Wash ACEC would also be designated in the open desert area just south of the Paiute Travel Plaza.
Marci Henson, director of the Clark County Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management, headed up the effort to draft the resolution. She explained that the trade-off arrangement of conservation lands for disposal lands had begun back in the 1990s with the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSCHP).
The plan was developed in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and in coordination with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It requires that each time land is released for development the county must provide a conservation strategy that “mitigates to the maximum event practicable.” This has been applied to mean that a sufficient amount of conservation land must be set aside in other areas to offset the impacts of new development in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for interpretation in just how much conservation land must be set aside, she added.
“It is really a hotly debated topic,” Henson said. “There is no final formula or equation set up in the endangered species act for it. So obviously there is a lot of judgement and gray area in there.”
Henson said that the county’s latest proposal is targeting a sweet spot ratio between conservation and development of 1:1 in actual acres.
With less than 40,000 acres up for development and 400,000 being proposed as conservation land, Henson acknowledges the proposal seems far from a 1:1 ratio, at least on the surface. But that is because the county is playing a game of catch-up. The original permit, issued in 2001 in compliance with the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SMPLMA), allowed the county about 145,000 acres of development. It had the mitigation element fixed into it. But the very next year, the county filed an amednment that expanded the disposal boundary. This tilted the scale far toward the development side.
And the conservation counterbalance to that amendment was never fully resolved.
“It has really been since about 2008 that we have been working on an amendment to set things in balance again,” Henson said. “This proposal provides what we need to set things right again. We are that far behind.”
Rurals Pay The Price
But local advocates say that this new resolution puts an unfair burden on Moapa Valley communities.
“In this proposal, the Moapa Valley is totally landlocked, that is all there is to it,” said Elise McAllister, Administrator of Partners in Conservation (PIC). “It cuts out a huge segment of traditional community use on the land that has always been there. Our way of life is affected dramatically and it is all in the name of development and growth in Las Vegas; with little or no recompense flowing to our small communities in return.”
PIC Chairman Lindsey Dalley said that the balancing act being used between development and conservation lands is a flawed model and needs to be reassessed.
“That whole acreage trading thing is obsolete, destructive; and it is not sustainable,” Dalley said. “It has reached the tipping point right here, if we haven’t already reached it long ago. It is killing off the outlying areas first. But eventually that cancer will spread. Rest assured, when there is no more belt tightening to be done, the next economic victim will be urban Las Vegas.”
Dalley said that the old model has done tremendous damage to rural communities and their economies. And despite that tremendous sacrifice, it has not shown to be effective in protecting the endangered species.
“They are still killing the tortoise left and right and it has nothing to do with all of these ACECs that were there to protect it,” Dalley said. “There are no numbers anywhere to show that any of this has improved the tortoise at all. There is a reality disconnect between these heavy-handed conservation actions and actually helping wildlife. Meanwhile our local economies are paying a heavy price for nothing.”
Dalley said that there should be a change to redefine the ACECs bringing them more in line with a traditional community use model. Rather than tightening down on traditional use, the communities should be engaged to help in the conservation goals, Dalley said. Then the community needs for public infrastructure and development could work in harmony with those goals, he said.
Impact on Off-Roaders
Regional off-road enthusiasts expressed concern about the consequences that the plan would have on recreation and its economic benefits to the region. Local resident Blake Monk, who is involved in the Motorcycle Racing Association of Nevada (MRAN) said that the economic effects would be significant.
“There will be millions of dollars in revenues affected by this,” Monk said.
Monk pointed out that the huge Mint 400 event has been taking place in the area of the proposed disposal land; and there are virtually no other open areas alrge enough to hold it anymore.
In addition, MRAN and other groups often use the Muddy Mountains area to stage big racing events, Monk said. And in November, the group is planning a race to take place on the east bench of Moapa Valley, right where the new ACEC is proposed.
“Look, there are more than 120,000 OHVs sold every year in the state,” Monk said. “Closing off all of these areas: where are these people going to be able to use those vehicles? There won’t be anywhere left to go. Logandale Trails will be all that is left and that is already a huge crowded mess. What it will do is make Clark County citizens into outlaws, because people will go out and ride anyway. It will just be creating bigger problems.”
Las Vegas resident Jeff Jorgensen, who is president of the Vegas Valley 4 Wheelers organization, was alarmed at the speed with which the measure is being done.
“Our biggest concern is that it seems like it is being pushed through without much public process,” he said. “We have all only just heard about it this week and they are voting on it next week. Anytime you have a ‘get it done quick’ attitude with things like this, it is probably not a good idea.”
The Silver Lining
There is a significant benefit in the resolution for the Moapa Valley community. In one of the provisions the Moapa Valley Water District (MVWD) is specifically named to receive federal land for critical water infrastructure projects. This would alleviate the costly process of obtaining and maintaining permits on the district’s infrastructure which currently falls on BLM land.
MVWD General Manager Joe Davis explained that most of the district’s water tanks, well sites and pipelines lie on BLM land. The process for permitting those rights of way has become nearly impossible, Davis said.
“We have a well site called MX5; that we have just been trying to renew the permits on it; and it has been in the process for two years now,” Davis said. “We have been waiting ten years on a permit to access our water rights in the Meadow Valley wash. And we still don’t have it. It just shouldn’t take that long. But it does.”
The resolution proposes that lands like these be conveyed to the MVWD and be held under district ownership.
“That would put those lands under our control so we could bring projects to fruition in under a year,” Davis said. “It would save us tons of time and would be astronomically cheaper to our ratepayers.”
Davis credited Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, working in coordination with the staff of Senator Dean Heller, for getting the MVWD mentioned in the resolution.
“It was kind of remarkable really,” Davis said. “The other reference to utility providers are mentioned only generally in the language. But we were the only one that specifically were mentioned by name in the language. That is quite a big deal.”
“It really shows the involvement of Marilyn (Kirkpatrick) in this,” Davis said. “Every time we have had an issue, she has listened to us fully and then worked through it with us. She has been a huge advocate for the valley.”
The Big Trade-off
But the loss of the disposal land on the east bench of the lower valley is viewed as a huge trade-off for these limited beneifts. Many local business-owners and developers see it as a major blow to the community’s future options for economic development.
But county officials claim that losses could have been much worse in the realm of disposal land. Henson explained that the county had fought long and hard with BLM officials to retain disposal lands in northeastern Clark County.
“You might be aware that the latest version of the BLM Resource Management Plan was going to remove significant acreage from disposal in the northeast,” Henson said.
That would have included the east bench disposal lands as well as others in the Moapa and Glendale area.
“The county, and especially the Commissioner (Kirkpatrick), took a strong position with the BLM that we cannot stand for that,” Henson continued. “We need disposal lands available to support those communities and make sure there is a land base for economic development. So she went to bat for that.”
Of a total of 41,626 acres of disposal land previously designated in the Glendale/Moapa/Moapa Valley areas, a sum of 32,487 acres is retained in the proposed resolution.
Most of that is located in the Moapa/Glendale and Hidden Valley areas.
In the lower valley, the east bench disposal land is replaced by a smaller swath of land to the north of Logandale which stretches northwest of Bowman Reservoir. The parcel straddles State Highway 169 in its approach to I-15, and includes I-15 frontage from just north of Glendale to the top of the Mormon Mesa.
In acreage this is little more than half of the east bench disposal land being removed. But developers say that it is a far cry from being a meaningful replacement that land.
“I’d need a solid 500 contiguous acres to put together a deal that would pencil all of the expenses of bringing utilities to that area,” said regional developer Tony Ricco, who is also a former Logandale resident. “There is nothing like that much useable acreage there.”
Ricco said that the topography of that area is problematic. Instead of the easily workable land available on the east bench, this northern piece has steep grades governed by hillside ordinances. The only somewhat flat area is in the vicinity of the old abandoned cement plant which is currently in a federal superfund environmental hazard status; nearly impossible to work around, Ricco said.
“What is happening is that you are giving up land that is ideal for development and relatively close to infrastructure for land that will probably never be developed,” Ricco said. “I suspect that they knew that it would never be developed and so that is why they made the swap. In any case, it is not at all useful for real development and it would be a real killer to economic growth for Moapa Valley.