Southern Nevada’s newest lands bill has amassed support from conservationists, fair housing advocates, and lawmakers across the state, but not all are confident that the bill protects lands amid substantial population growth in Clark County.
The bill, dubbed the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act, was introduced to the U.S. Senate in March of 2021 by Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Nevada Housing Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and numerous other stakeholders have endorsed the bill.
“It is vital that we preserve the incredible outdoor spaces that provide immense economic, cultural, and ecological value to Southern Nevada, while also allowing Las Vegas and its surrounding communities to diversify their economies and provide additional affordable housing to Nevada families,” said Senator Cortez Masto in a March 2021 press release.
Over 2 million acres of land will gain some form of enhanced protection. Included in this is a 51,000-acre expansion of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and full wilderness designations for sections of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Another 41,055 acres of land are designated to be held in trust by the United States for the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
The bill authorizes the sale of 42,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land for housing and business development. This is made possible by the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act which authorizes the sale of public lands in the Las Vegas Valley. The funds are allocated across the state for public use.
Environmental groups have been split in their support of the bill because it sells off land to private developers. Groups like Friends of Nevada Wilderness support the bill because of the enhanced protections given to places like the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
“We’ve been working for the last four years on keeping the military from taking more of that Refuge over and shutting the public out, so it was very exciting to see 1.3 million acres for the Refuge that will provide the highest protection possible and keep it open to the public,” said Shaaron Netherton, Executive Director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness in a previous Sierra Nevada Ally article.
Currently, there is a temporary pause on a plan to expand the Nellis Test and Training Range to an area of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge that is home to bighorn sheep. The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act would make this pause permanent.
Critics of the bill say that the 2 million acres of protection don’t counteract the effect of 42,000 new acres of developed land.
“More than one million of that two million acres of land is already protected with relatively high conservation values,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network.
Environmental advocates believe the areas protected are not as ecologically sensitive as the ones made available for development.
“There is a critique of wilderness called the ‘rocks and ice’ critique,” said Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director Patrick Donnelly. “If you look across the lower 48, the wilderness areas are overwhelmingly alpine, rocky, snow covered areas which are very scenic, but are not the biologically most important places.”
“That has carried on in Nevada,” Donnelly continued. “The pattern has been that we protect the mountaintops and sacrifice the valleys, but the valleys are where sage grouse and desert tortoise live. So paradoxically, you’re actually giving away the best stuff and protecting the least important stuff, biologically speaking.”
The bill would revoke the Ivanpah Area of Critical Environmental Concern, an area south of Las Vegas that was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 2014 by the BLM due to its importance as desert tortoise habitat. Instead, 42,974 acres would be designated as “Desert Tortoise Protective Corridor Special Management Area.” This would take the place of the protections enforced by the Ivanpah Area of Critical Environmental Concern designation, according to the bill.
While the effect on desert tortoise habitat is a concern, the driving worry for environmental advocates critical of the bill is the influx of carbon emissions from 42,000 more acres of developed land.
“What happens on those lands after the allocation is probably the most important part of this,” said Donnelly. “There would be subdivisions, shopping malls, parking lots, logistic centers, shipping centers, a whole new airport by Ivanpah. Every acre of land disposed of is going to have huge amounts of carbon emissions, theoretically in perpetuity.”
The bill does provide mechanisms to develop sustainability and climate initiatives in Clark County, as highlighted in Section 208. This is the bill’s only direct mention of climate.
Water usage is another concern
“There’s no groundwater available in those hydrographic basins or valleys that would encompass all this new developable land,” said Roerink. “It leaves one to wonder that the only option is importing Colorado River water to those regions south of the Las Vegas Valley.” As more people move to the state, Roerink continued, more severe supply and demand issues will come to bear.
Proponents of the bill have lauded it for creating opportunities for affordable housing, a pressing need in the state.
“Our greatest deficit is in serving our extremely low income in Nevada, and unfortunately we lead the country in this,” said Christine Hess, executive director, Nevada Housing Coalition.
Data from Nevada Hand shows the state is short approximately 84,000 homes for extremely low-income renters. Additionally, research from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Center for Business and Economic Research predicts over 1 million more people will live in Clark County by the year 2060. This would push the population from its current 2.32 million to nearly 3.38 million residents and illustrates the pressing demand for affordable housing.
The bill defines affordable housing as housing that serves individuals and families with household income levels less than 120% of the area’s median income. If developed, the housing would need to remain affordable in perpetuity.
Critics of the bill are wary that there is no legal guarantee any of the developments would go to affordable housing.
“Without proper guarantees that affordable housing will actually be built, it’s hard to regard these affordable housing provisions as sufficient for the transformation we need to achieve housing justice in Las Vegas,” wrote Dexter Lim, a climate activist for the Sunrise Movement Las Vegas Hub, in the Nevada Independent.
Affordable housing is enabled through the bill’s language, but no mandate requiring developers to build housing for low-income individuals exists.
“It doesn’t allocate this new land for affordable housing, it allocates the land to sell it off to developers,” said Donnelly. “This bill will not result in one house of affordable housing unless some other force intervenes to make it happen.”
The future of the bill is still uncertain as it waits in the U.S. Senate, but critics remain diligent.
“We need to be cautious,” said Roerink. “We have to be realistic that the aspirations to just continue business as usual as we have in Las Vegas since the mid-90s is foolish. The Clark County lands bill model is an outdated model.”
Claire Carlson writes about conservation and the environment for Sierra Nevada Ally and for various other publications. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in International Affairs and a master’s from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, where she focused on environmental writing. Support her work for the Sierra Nevada Ally.
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