The year 2014 might well be a tipping point for the economic well being of rural Nevada. There are several opportunities and hurdles on the horizon.

For one, the Nevada Land Management Task Force is studying the potential for transfer of certain federal public lands to the state of Nevada. The 17-member Task Force is supposed to report its findings and recommendations to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2014, in contemplation of Congress turning over control of certain lands before June 30, 2015.

Decisions just this past year by federal agencies have already negatively impacted economic development and jobs. Noble Energy had announced plans for oil and gas exploration on federal land in Elko County, but at the last minute the Bureau of Land Management withdrew a large swath of the approved exploration acreage because it was in the “viewshed” of the California trail — which is basically parallel to the railroad and the Interstate highway.

In 2012 the BLM was scheduled to lease 133,000 acres for oil and gas exploration, but at the last minute it cut the leased acreage in half, citing potential damage to sage grouse habitat.

Decisions like that are impeding growth. An energy economics professor at the University of Wyoming has published a study saying oil and gas production in Nevada has the potential to generate tax revenue of as much as $218 million and create as many as 22,000 new jobs.

But even if the Nevada Land Management Task Force drafts a persuasive report that leads to state or private control of what is now federal public land, those pesky sage grouse still pose a dire threat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already determined that sage grouse should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, which could result in restrictions on land use whether public or private. Because of higher priorities FWS delayed the listing, but it has a court-ordered deadline to list or withdraw the listing by September 2015.

Nevada has both state and federal efforts underway to avoid such a listing — which would devastate ranching, farming, mining, recreational use, construction of roads and power lines, oil and gas drilling and wind, solar and geothermal power generation, all of which create jobs.

The Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, created by the Nevada Legislature this past session, has been meeting for months, trying to devise ways to convince FWS that sage grouse and its habitat can be protected without resorting to listing.
The committee has an uphill political fight, as evidenced by a recent letter copied to the committee on behalf of a rancher from Smith, Nev.

The letter accuses the FWS of changing its findings for political purposes. Though the primary threat to one subset of sage grouse was listed as predators — more than 80 percent of the loss, according to one FWS scientist — the letter says this was changed because environmentalists oppose killing any species to save another.

Another front more recently opened is one by Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller, who released a discussion draft of what they call ‘Nevada Sagebrush Landscape Conservation and Economic Development Act of 2013.”

One problem with the initial draft though is that it would turn current Wilderness Study Areas and Inventoried Roadless Areas that overlap with sage grouse habitat into Wilderness Areas, shutting down almost all human use. Nevada already has 2 million acres of wilderness, and this has the potential to add more than 5.6 million acres.

We encourage attacking this issue from all fronts, but warn against giving away too much. — TM