History buffs and environmentalists fought for 40 years to safeguard the stark desert landscape of northwestern Nevada and the emigrant trails that cross it. In December, they finally succeeded, winning legislative protection for 1.2 million acres of federal land 100 miles north of Reno.

But their celebration was short-lived. Less than a month after Congress approved the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, a new fight erupted over a proposal to build a power plant in the heart of the unspoiled region.

Rancher John Estill wants to construct a geothermal power plant that would produce energy by pumping hot water from deep beneath the earth's surface. Typical geothermal plants involve one or more multi-story buildings, surrounded by a tangle of pipes and cooling towers. Estill says his 120 acres near Double Hot Springs could produce as much as 300 megawatts of electricity - enough to supply a city of 300,000 houses. The electricity would be used to prevent energy shortages like the one now crippling California, he says.

In a Jan. 14 letter to California Gov. Gray Davis and Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, Estill offered to assign half the royalties to California if state officials assist in developing the geothermal energy.

The idea of a power plant at Double Hot Springs, with electrical transmission lines crossing the Black Rock Desert, appalls Chuck Dodd, a member of the Oregon-California Trails Association who spent a decade working for protections. Congress created the national conservation area (NCA) to preserve the vistas the pioneers saw when they traveled through the region to California between 1846 and the 1860s, he says.

"Congress said, 'Don't screw around with that place.' Anything that does would be disastrous," Dodd says.

"The NCA world"

The conservation area, at least 30 miles from a paved road, is stunningly spare, a remnant of the ancient Lake Lahontan, which extended from central Nevada north to the Oregon border and west into northeastern California. Remote, rugged and inaccessible much of the year, it features vast canyons, mountain crags and North America's biggest ephemeral desert lake, or playa. The landscape is largely unchanged since the days of the pioneers. The immigrants who crossed it on the Applegate-Lassen Trail left wagon ruts and historic inscriptions still visible today.

In December, Congress protected the last nationally significant segments of the California emigrant trails. It also established safeguards for the endangered desert dace, a fish that lives in the fragile desert springs, and other threatened species unique to the area. The legislation also preserves the area's views of austere peaks and sage-covered washes more than 50 miles away.

Around 120 miles of emigrant trails - from Rye Patch Reservoir through the Black Rock Desert, Fly and High Rock canyons - are within the national conservation area. In addition, Congress created 10 wilderness areas surrounding portions of the trail. The federal Bureau of Land Management manages the entire area.

The land Estill bought five years ago is along the emigrant trail near the southern boundary. The adjacent federal land is not wilderness but part of the 795,000 acres designated for more flexible conservation management. Because it is private property, Estill is not bound by any of the regulations restricting activities within the NCA, says Rich Hoops, a BLM official who specializes in geothermal issues.

"He is free to do what he wants on his private land," Hoops says.

Estill has not requested a drilling permit from the Nevada Division of Minerals. Although that would be the first step "in the real world," this is "the NCA world," he says. He is first pursuing BLM rights-of-way permits for power lines carrying the electricity he hopes to generate from the geothermal plant to a major transmission line 30 miles away.

BLM officials have just begun developing a new management plan for the NCA and have not yet adopted regulations for aboveground transmission lines, Hoops says. Under the current plan, however, aboveground transmission lines are prohibited.

Estill considers that an encroachment on his private property rights.

"If I can't get power out, that obviously diminishes my land as an owner. Most people agree that's a 'taking' of my private property rights," he says.

Help from the state

Estill is optimistic that Gale Norton, the newly appointed secretary of the Interior, will loosen the restrictions. Norton has said she will consider softening or eliminating protections for the national monuments designated by the Clinton administration. Estill hopes her review will include the Black Rock National Conservation Area.

"With all the power demands we face, it would be foolish not to utilize this resource," Estill says. "Geothermal energy is, after all, the only 100 percent green energy. You pump the hot water out, put cold water back, and it just keeps on running - self-sustaining forever."

His project has the support of the Nevada Division of Minerals, says John Snow, state geothermal programs manager. If test wells prove the resource is worth developing, state officials say they'll help Estill find a way to do it.

"What's unfortunate from a geothermal standpoint is that this renewable resource is on private property that is now landlocked by the NCA," Snow says. Nevada now generates about 200 megawatts of electricity from geothermal plants - less than 4 percent of the state's total electricity supply.

The environmentalists and history buffs who supported the federal legislation are not opposed to geo-thermal energy, says Marge Sill, a spokeswoman for the Reno-based Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We welcome it - just not in the middle of the Black Rock National Conservation Area," she says.

Sill and others have questioned why Estill, who opposed the legislation, did nothing to develop his geothermal resource prior to the NCA approval by Congress.

If Estill wins the permits he needs to start construction, he could have his Double Hot Springs geothermal power plant up and running within a year, he says. Though he has written to both state governors for help, he has not yet received a reply.

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, Calif.

You can contact ...

  • Jo Simpson, Bureau of Land Management, Office of Communications, Reno, Nev., 775/861-6586;
  • Marge Sill, Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, Reno, Nev., 775/322-2867;
  • John Estill, Estill Ranches, LLC, Likely, Calif., 530/233-4819.