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Read the fine print

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Dear HCN,
Poor Senator Harry Reid. He says if he were king, he’d have lots of wilderness, but he had to compromise in his recently passed Nevada "wilderness" bill (HCN, 3/3/03: The Wild Card). Fortunately, there were bright spots in the legislation for some of Harry’s friends, who got free or cheap land through numerous special provisions.

Matt Jenkins covered the human interest story of Nevada wilderness advocates’ ruminations, but the fine print of the deal bears more scrutiny. Reid’s bill included about 27,000 acres in outright gifts and discount sales of federal land to various entities, and both Howard Hughes Corporation and Del Webb got special deals folded into the bill.

Moreover, between the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act and the recent Reid bill, the BLM is authorized to sell (or simply give away to local governments) about 50,000 acres of federal land in the Las Vegas Valley. Of proceeds from land sold to developers, the BLM gives 15 percent to local government to subsidize the schools and infrastructure needed to match the Valley’s runaway growth. No one seems to seriously question whether we should be facilitating development in this desert landscape through the wholesale privatization of public land.

Maybe I’d feel a little better about pragmatic wilderness advocates giving the nod to federal-land disposal to feed unsustainable development in the Las Vegas Valley if what we got in return were real wilderness areas. But even the land we "save" has a gift or two for Harry’s friends, like a new highway and unknown miles of OHV trails, both slated to cut through the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area — whose petroglyphs Harry says are "in desperate need of protection." Oops ... and another nice chunk carved out for a Del Webb development.

Matt Jenkins says, "You can’t win big without some wheeling and dealing," but it looks as though you can’t win big with it, either.

Janine Blaeloch
Seattle, Washington

The writer is director of the Western Land Exchange Project.
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