On Feb. 9, several developers paid a surprising $47.5 million, more than four times the projected price, for 13,000 acres of federal land just north of Las Vegas. The auction, the first to be held in Lincoln County, Nev., occurred the same week that the Bush administration proposed diverting 70 percent of the money from Clark County land sales to the federal treasury.

Bush signed the Lincoln County Lands Bill, modeled after the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, Nov. 30. Eighty-five percent of the proceeds will go to protect environmentally sensitive areas, archaeological sites and wildlife habitat within the county.

Some environmentalists were angry that the February auction even took place; Lincoln County's quest to sell public lands had been held up in court for years, as groups pressed for environmental studies. In March 2004, the Western Land Exchange Project won its lawsuit when a federal judge ruled that an environmental assessment had to be conducted prior to the land sale.

But the assessment never happened: Tucked in the language of the original bill was a clause saying that the land had to be sold within 75 days of the act's becoming law — and that trumped the court's decision.

"It's disappointing," says Chris Krupp, an attorney for the Western Land Exchange Project. "The court rules the agency didn't do an analysis, orders one and Congress ignores it. We're talking about a fragile desert site."