Wilderness, schmilderness

In Nevada, wilderness-wary locals derail lands bills that could help their communities

  • Robin Titus says outsiders are trying to dictate what happens in her community. GORDON GREGORY

  • A view looking northwest from the top of Bald Mountain, Nevada, an area that could be proposed for wilderness protection. CAMERON JOHNSON



In this tiny farm town, which lacks a stoplight or even a store, the gathering of more than 700 people on April 2 was unprecedented. And they weren't at the high school gym to watch the Bulldogs play Class A basketball; they were there to tell officials just what they thought about a proposal to turn their mountains into wilderness.

It was a peaceful if not entirely well-mannered crowd, with most wildly cheering those who railed against wilderness, and jeering the three lone proponents. Shouts of "go back to Santa Cruz" and "we're the public, stupid" peppered the warm evening.

Over and over, angry citizens came to the microphone to proclaim that no outsiders were going to tell them to keep their trucks and ORVs out of the hills they considered their heritage. Jim Sanford, former publisher of the local paper, summed up the mood: "I don't think this group here tonight is interested in compromise."

But without compromise, there would be no public-lands bills like the ones approved over the past six years for three other Nevada counties, bills that called for the sale of thousands of acres of federal land and -- in conjunction with a 1998 law generated billions of dollars for everything from school funding to park development. Pushed by Nevada Sens. Harry Reid, D, and John Ensign, R, the bills sought to eliminate the management headaches and local resentments that are rife in a fast-growing state where more than four of every five acres is federal property.

The bills also designated major new wilderness areas. In Congress, the rough political calculus for such bills is this: If locals get to benefit from the sale of land owned by all Americans, the broader public receives additional wilderness in return. That seemed fair enough to folks in Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties, where a total of 164,000 acres of federal land was identified for auction and about 1.7 million acres were added to the wilderness system. And the state's congressional delegation had every reason to expect success in other counties.

But in western Nevada this winter, that calculus was faulty. In quick succession, three counties -- Lyon, Mineral and Esmeralda -- rebuffed efforts to craft compromise bills for lands within their boundaries. Fear and misunderstanding fueled a revolt against what locals perceived as a land grab. And now that the state's anti-wilderness forces are energized, their efforts may derail what until recently seemed like a collaborative way to both meet local needs and protect wild lands.

The federal government owns more than 86 percent of Nevada, more than it owns in any other state. In some counties, the dearth of private property has limited growth, inflated property values and complicated land management. While counties with large federal holdings do get annual PILT funds (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) from the government, the payments are often a fraction of the taxes they'd receive if the land were privately owned. Esmeralda County, for example, gets only about $60,000 a year through PILT, even though 98 percent of it is federally owned.

The first attempt at redress was the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, which called for the sale of thousands of acres of BLM land near Las Vegas in Clark County. Thus far, about $2.7 billion has been generated from those lands sales, and some of that revenue has also been made available to other Nevada counties through public-lands bills.

The Clark, Lincoln and White Pine lands bills were designed with local input to meet local needs. For example, the White Pine County bill created 550,000 acres of wilderness and identified 45,000 acres of BLM land for auction. Funds from those land sales will go to the state education fund, local law enforcement and fire protection, and to the BLM. In addition, the bill transferred thousands of acres of BLM land to the county and state for commercial and park projects and funded a study of off-road vehicle trail expansion.

With such successes under their belts, in 2007 Sens. Reid and Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., set their sights on Lyon, Mineral and Esmeralda counties, again hoping to craft bills that combined wilderness designation with public-land sales and other locally beneficial provisions. Senate staffers began meeting with wilderness proponents, some ranchers and a few local leaders in the three counties. But most residents and many local officials were unaware of the process until early 2008, shortly before the bills were to be drafted. They felt blindsided by the news that such legislation was being considered for their areas and that they had only a few months to be involved.

"We just found out about this in February," says Mineral County Commissioner Richard Bryant, who says he and others were "dumbfounded" when they learned that almost 500,000 acres of federal land in the county were being considered for wilderness designation.

At a May 21 meeting, the commissioners lambasted Sen. Reid's staff for not involving the counties earlier in the process. The commissioners couldn't endorse any lands bill this year, they said; they needed time to determine what wilderness would mean for activities such as mining, geothermal development, grazing and recreation.

Lyon County residents say they were similarly surprised. Most first heard about the bill in late January, after local ranchers announced that they had met with congressional staff and representatives of the Nevada Wilderness Project to discuss how wilderness designation might affect their ranching operations.

Marianne Leinassar, whose family has run sheep in the area since 1858, says the ranchers had assumed that the wilderness would cover about 88,000 acres in the Bald Mountain area -- renamed Wovoka by local wilderness proponents -- because it had been the focus of past discussions about possible wilderness.

But at a Jan. 25 meeting, the ranchers saw maps from the Nevada Wilderness Project indicating that up to about 690,000 acres were being considered for wilderness designation in Lyon and in neighboring Mineral County. "We were all taken aback," Leinassar recalls, as they realized the size of the potential wilderness. "This was huge."

The news that hundreds of thousands of acres might become wilderness and that a bill to that effect could be drafted by summer spread like dust in a fast spring wind. Many didn't know what wilderness designation meant, so anything seemed possible; there was talk of fences, even razor wire stretched across the landscape -- vast areas placed off limits, with mines closed, flight paths diverted, firefighting hobbled, and military training curtailed during wartime. Rumors of conspiracy and speculation about what Reid was really up to ran wild. "They were like a tornado generating their own storm," Steve Pellegrini, a retired teacher and wilderness advocate, says of his neighbors.

Within weeks of the Jan. 25 meeting, locals formed the Coalition for Public Access. By March, membership reached 1,000, then 1,500, most from Lyon County. Residents in Mineral County also started their own chapter. "This has united just about everybody in all of our surrounding communities who are normally ... on separate sides of the fence on water issues, on grazing issues, things like that," says Emery Thran, the group's chairman. "This affected a lot of people." Residents saw wilderness not as a way to protect the natural qualities of the land, he says, but as a federal assault on what they most value.

In a place where many families arrived in the area more than 100 years ago, those values often involve a personal sense of history. Dr. Robin Titus practices medicine out of a one-physician clinic set amid an ocean of alfalfa fields. From her small office window, she can see the mountains her great grandfather mined. Some of her ancestors are buried there. And though she is an avid outdoors-woman, the idea that "outside" interests might affect local use of the nearby mountains rankles her deeply. "Somebody from out of town is trying to do something that affects the way we live here," she says. "People will tend to fight over that."

But wilderness supporters say many locals simply misunderstood the status of the proposal, as well as what a wilderness designation would mean. The Nevada Wilderness Project had not finalized its plans when it presented its maps to ranchers at that January meeting, says Cameron Johnson, northern Nevada outreach director for the group. He says it had identified roughly 690,000 acres in Lyon and Mineral County as possible wilderness, but had yet to make specific recommendations about which areas were most suitable for designation. Contrary to rumor, he says, his organization would have recommended accommodating traditional uses, including all existing mines and grazing allotments.

Thran, however, says the problem wasn't a lack of understanding. He blames overreaching by wilderness proponents: If they had remained focused on the Bald Mountain/Wovoka area, he says, the outcome might have been different. "I don't know if it would have raised an eyebrow around here," he says, of a bill containing just the 88,000-acre Wovoka wilderness. "But now, they've pretty much angered our community. No negotiations now. I'm sorry." Titus agrees that local passions are so inflamed that reasoned discussions on the topic are nearly impossible. "People feel that if they give in at all, they'll lose it all," she says.

Local wilderness proponents still hope that at least the Wovoka area can receive protection through other legislation. Pellegrini and fellow advocate Art Shipley say that when they explain to other residents why the area is so special, many agree it deserves protection from off-roaders. But as soon as the word "wilderness" is mentioned, they say, people back away, thinking that practically the entire county is included. "I wish we didn't have that 690,000 acres hanging over us," Pellegrini says.

The western Nevada experience may well hang over other potential lands bills in the state, as newly-empowered anti-wilderness activists are determined to continue the fight.

Peter Liakopoulos, host of the Las Vegas talk show Rural Nevada Today, is promoting the creation of a coalition of 14 counties to fight public-lands bills. The BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-road advocacy group based in Pocatello, Idaho, is backing anti-wilderness efforts in Nevada and elsewhere, says Brian Hawthorne, the group's public-lands policy director. "I think what you're seeing is a change, a realization that you're trading wilderness for reasonableness," he says.

Part of what's changing as well is that some local officials, under pressure by the Coalition for Public Access and others, now refuse to even talk about a lands bill because of the likely wilderness component. Lyon, Mineral and Esmeralda counties passed resolutions this winter opposing any new wilderness within their boundaries. Lyon County and Esmeralda County also passed resolutions rejecting any lands bill that designated new wilderness, effectively shutting off further consideration of any lands bill.

Mineral County commissioners put lands bill discussions in limbo earlier this spring, when they said they weren't ready to work with Senate staffers. Mineral County Commissioner Jerrie Tipton still says a carefully crafted lands bill is critical to her county's economic future, and she, for one, would consider some wilderness as part of the package. "(Federal land ownership) is part of the reason we're so damn poor," she says. But overcoming a tidal wave of opposition may be impossible at this time, she says: "A year ago, I would have said that we can work through it. Today, I don't know."

The only hope is to fully engage residents in the design of the lands bill, Tipton says. "These people (local citizens) have to be brought into it, or it's not going to work," she says. "They need to have a hand in the crafting of the vision, or we're all going to be tarred and feathered."

Without local residents and governments on board, there's little chance that Sens. Reid and Ensign and Rep. Heller will press forward on these bills. A modest lands bill for Carson City (which includes the former Ormsby County) is progressing without rancor -- in part because the county contains no chunks of federal land large enough to qualify for wilderness. Jon Summers, Sen. Reid's communication director, says, "We said from the beginning we're not going to force this down anyone's throat."

The author is a freelance writer in Northern California.
Jun 23, 2008 11:46 AM

i think wilderness proponents would have an easier time if they brought people on board before they started presenting and making proposals. Similar things are happening in New Mexico.


Jun 30, 2008 10:57 AM

Too bad this was handled badly.  We should know better by now.  You can't design something and "hope the locals will like it."  For years environmental organizations and concerned citizens have rightfully complained that land management agencies go off into their smoky room, develop a plan, then try to defend it in front of a bunch of people who weren't participants in the process.  This is no different. 

Now, unfortunately, the process is tainted, feelings are hurt, and the opposition is more unified and riled up than ever. This will be hard to undo.


Jun 30, 2008 11:04 AM

Wilderness designations will likely affect grazing and management of private lands in the area.

No wonder the locals are balky on this.

1.2 million acres of fresh wilderness designated in 3 counties is ALOT of dirt.

Jun 30, 2008 11:25 AM

Interesting that states like Nevada and Utah cling to the heritage that wild lands provide, yet generate so much opposition to wilderness.    Nevada is 3.21% designated wilderness, at 3,450,986 acres.   Utah is less than 1% designated wilderness at a palty 900,614 acres.  Compare these figures with California, which is 13.33% wilderness at 14,335,878 acres.   Yet the residents of  Nevada and Utah tend to view California as an effete state relative to their states.  The truth is, large population and all, California has many times more real wilderness than they do, and with designated protection, it is likely to stay that way.    Californians value large tracts of primitive land that require personal resourcefulness and significant personal physical fitness for entry.   Residents of some other states do not.  These values can be measured by how far a person can get from a road. Who is really effete?

Jun 30, 2008 11:29 AM

It would be wise for ORVers to start educating themselves about Peak Oil and the likelihood that they will not be able to afford this kind of "recreation" within the next decade.  The "sport" of tearing up the fragile lands of the West with ORVs (and driving out the wildlife) was a short-lived "bonus" of cheap oil for those who love machines more than animals, but cheap oil is now becoming a thing of the past.  If wilderness areas are not designated now, it is quite possible that the wildlife of Nevada will disappear by mid-21st century, along with fossil-fueled cars. All those rural residents better get used to driving horse-drawn buggies again, like my great-grandparents did in central Nevada.  However, as climate change and water shortages make ranching and farming in those arid lands more and more difficult, the privileges these anti-wilderness folks are protecting are also going to dry up and blow away.  In other words, the world is changing and the issues are a lot bigger than most people think.

Jun 30, 2008 11:35 AM

I read with interest Mr Gregory's collumn regarding the Widerness proposals for Western Nevada . This is a perfect example of forces far from the scene trying to make policy decisions without the involvement of the local populace , local residents are much more agreeable to at least considering proposals of this sort if they are involved in the process from the beginning , I certainly support Wilderness in theory , it is the way the policies are implemented that concerns me . This is similar to the astronomical increase in fees for camping and accessing lakes , forests , parks .... etc etc that was pushed through by the Clinton administration back in the 90s , fees that have yet to be rolled back even in the face of near unanimous local resentment and opposition . The fact is , it does not matter how good the intentions are .... if the process is perceived to be controlled remotely , and to be heavy handed and arbitrary , it will not be received well by those who are in closer proximity and dealing with the everyday consequences  . I believe that this has not been thought through very well , for instance how is my Parkinson's afflicted brother going to be able to access these areas ? Why aren't policies designed to garauntee the local community will be able to use these areas in the same ways they have for decades ? Why is there no accomodation for those who can't afford the fees , equipment etc to enjoy wilderness too ? Or for those who are either to old or in such poor health that they cannot access the back country as easily as more fortunate , younger , healthier and wealthier people ?  The good Senators & Representatives need to go back and listen to the residents , and draft some sort of compromise that is palatable to the locals or there will be justified resentment , perhaps even rebellion .

Jun 30, 2008 06:29 PM

in response to the posting from the person insisting that these Nevada Counties are more "effete" than California . I think you are setting up a straw man , and have totally missed the point  , it is not that locals are necessarily opposed to Wilderness , but are opposed to being locked out of the process . Proposals like this being ramrodded through without local input are the problem here , it is no different than an oil/gas or timber company doing the same thing . Also you obviously are fortunate enough to be healthy and wealthy enough to still be able to access wilderness no matter how remote  . Would you feel this way if you weren't so (personally) fortunate ? What if you were wheel chair bound ? Or old and no longer possessing such "significant physical fitness" ? Or what if you didn't have a vehicle that could get you to the edge of the wilderness? Could this be an example of why Californians (with this kind of arrogance) are held in general contempt by many of us in the interior west ..... its not a question of effettism , but rather an obtuse,  self righteous,  greener than thou attitude that prevents understanding people who think differently than , or who are less fortunate than you .  

Jul 01, 2008 02:51 PM

What price high desert wilderness?

Nevada’s deserts are arid; hot in summer and cold in winter.  They are large expanses of open land with little water and less shade.  This is no comparison to a wilderness area in the Sierras where more hospitable conditions can be found.

To designate a desert as a wilderness excludes nearly everyone from entering it.  Only those who can carry a pack or ride a horse have a chance to walk the land.  Think about an overnight backpacking trip into the desert.  Say an average person would need approximately 3 liters of water a day to meet their needs for drinking, food preparation, and personal hygiene.  A liter of water weighs approximately 2.2lbs.  That equals 6.6lbs a day that must be carried on one’s back.  An average loaded backpack weighs about 25 lbs.  For an overnight trip, a backpacker would need 6 liters of water weighing 13.2lbs plus their backpack weighing 25 lbs. for a total of about 38lbs.

Who can carry that amount of weight?  A person with disabilities?  Small children?  The elderly?  The average American?  Only those fit enough can do it, effectively excluding everyone else from accessing our public lands.

You can’t target practice in a wilderness; you can’t ride a bike; you can only use a wheelchair suitable for indoor use (what’s with that?); you can’t graze your cattle or livestock; you can’t drive your vehicle or motorcycle.  These restraints are only the beginning.  Others in the making are dogs on leashes; campfire and camping restrictions; no bottles or cans; no wagons, carts or any other things with wheels; no competitive events; total area closures for “restoration” and “wildlife”; weed free feed and livestock hitching and tying restrictions; length of stay restrictions; and whatever else they can come up with.

Under the guise of saving the land for future generations and for wildlife, the wilderness elitists have found a way to exclude nearly everyone from enjoying the public land the elitists chose to “protect”.  Protect from what?  From whom?  The answer is simple.  Protect it from us.

Put away the Americans with Disabilities Act; our rights for multiple use of public lands; and each of our individual unalienable rights.  Put away the freedom we, and everyone else who comes to Nevada, have always had to enjoy our state.  Go ahead.  Put the wilderness elitists in control.  Maybe eventually they’ll let us look at pictures of our public lands – for a price – that we can show to our children, and to our children’s children.

Jul 01, 2008 07:20 PM

As I reflect on this issue, I can't get past the fact that there are now 6.6 BILLION people on the planet. There is not enough water, resources nor fossil fuels to support our ever increasing needs (let alone our selfish wants).

Must we cover every square inch of the planet with our numbers and cultural trash?

Humans have a right to an existance, but not at the expense of other life forms. We are one of many and not the crown of evolution.  The reign of humans will pass. The question is, what will be left in our wake?

I vote for wild places and I vote for wilderness.

Thank you for allowing me to share my opinion.

Sign me,

A Green Kropotkin-Man 




Jul 02, 2008 12:08 PM

What do you say to the disabled American Veteran?  “Thanks for your sacrifice.  But, you’ve obviously lost your significant physical fitness.  Therefore, you cannot enter this area of land you fought for.  It’s a wilderness only accessible by a few.   You should find peace in the fact no one will tread on Nevada’s rocks, dirt and Sagebrush.  Wild horses and burros will be able to overpopulate and displace other lesser wildlife.  Imagine the beauty in that, because you’ll never be able to see it.  But, if you buy a wilderness calendar, you’ll be able see pictures of what you're missing.  In the meantime, be comforted just knowing it’s there.”  Tell you what.  If you love wilderness, move to California.  In the meantime, don’t Californiacate Nevada.

Jul 07, 2008 11:31 AM

Unless we are prepared to pave the whole country, there will always be places disabled people will not have access to.  This is dictated by the laws of nature not by the Government.  Adjustments could have been made to the proposal but the more vocal people weren't even open to that.

As for the fees, there is an effort to end those.  Go to www.wildwilderness.org.  For those of you who are truly unhappy with being required to pay to enter YOUR lands please ask your Senators to support S. 2438 The Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007 introduced by Senators Max Baucus and Micheal Crapo.  Also, ask your U. S. Representative to sponsor a companion bill for this. 

Jul 07, 2008 05:54 PM

Another thought for Mr California Wilderness , the western states also "cling to" other parts of our heritage , including mining , ranching, fishing , hunting , skiing , mountain biking, mountaineering  and helping people less fortunate than us enjoy wild places too ..... why should others be excluded so that only the young , healthy and wealthy be allowed access ? Why does everyone else need to cater to your lifestyle , at the exclusion of their own desired activities ? 

Adam , from Aurora Colorado ......

Jul 08, 2008 10:43 AM

In my never to humble opinion, the debate related to wilderness for the physically challenged is bogus.  In real wilderness those unable to physically interact would die. There is no guarantee that just because a place exists all humans have to be allowed in, nor given special access to all parts of all places.  I speak as a physically challenged person who cannot go down the Grand Canyon, or hike the Appalachian Trail, & I do not begrudge my more physically able compatriots their ability to partake of these experiences- they will never be able to have what I DO experience in my other-abled way.  In general, we need to get past this belief that the world must be a level playing field for all, becuase it isn't, & no human intervention will make it so - nor should it.  The glory of existence is in our individual & varied lives.  By the way, if you really want someone to experience wilderness, you can make it so on a one-to-one basis, but that requires imagination , commitment, & collaboration between individuals rather than expecting the rest of society to solve a theorhetical problem. 

As far as the Nevada wilderness, the issue is the imposition of legislation without local participation, not whether or not the Nevada high desert is worthy of wilderness designation or Nevadans appreciate wilderness... The high desert has a hard stark beauty that is unique & much appreciated by those who live there, & we have no difficulty sharing it with others who might also appreciate it.  Welcome to the high desert!  (Bring your own water) ;-)

Jul 09, 2008 10:11 AM

Mr "never to humble opinion" makes a good point . No one expects to see a wheelchair bound person scaling Longs Peak , or descending the Grand Canyon to swim in the Colorado River , and it would be ridiculous to try to accomodate  a person who desired to do such  impractical things ..... Forget the straw man , no one with an ounce of common sense advocates a "level playing field" ..... but you must ask yourself , why so many restrictions ? Why are only wheelchairs suitable for "INDOOR USE"  allowed? The way that these wilderness rules are written , if new technology became available that was quiet , and did not pollute the air or water , it would still be banned ! Its a bunch of arbitrary nonsense , and has very little to do with protecting wilderness , and very much to do with denying access to all but a small elite group...... Basically , the point is to apply common sense equally on both sides .... and be a bit more open minded about future use of these areas , while still protecting their wildness . For instance am I supposed to believe that horses and pack animals have less impact than mountain bikes? It seems to me one would have to be pretty well off to afford horses and pack animals.  Who decides they are allowed , and bicycles are not ?  Why do the rules seem so arbitrary and petty ?  Why should we be politically correct when it makes no sense?

 Just some things to think about ...... Adam , Aurora Colorado