Senator passes bill protecting Black Rock Desert
WASHINGTON – A 120-mile stretch of the Gold Rush trail across Nevada, flanked by snow-capped mountains and sprawling desert playa, would get federal protection against development under a Senate bill passed Thursday.
The bill protecting about 1.2 million acres in northwest Nevada heads to the House, where approval is uncertain in the closing days of this congressional session.
”We’ve cleared a major hurdle, now the challenge is in the House,” said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., the bill’s sponsor who is retiring after the session.
”I think it’s fair to say the odds were long in getting it through this year. This is significant movement.”
To keep the landscape untarnished, the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area bill would protect about 800,000 acres administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Conservation areas offer protection a notch below national monuments and parks.
”Thousands of people moved along this trail and it’s essentially unchanged,” Bryan said. ”We have an opportunity to preseve and protect a piece of American heritage.”
The bill also would designate 11 wilderness areas, some of which overlap the conservation area, to protect an additional 400,000 acres. The wilderness areas have been studied for 20 years without allowing new roads or mining, but the legislation would make that status permanent.
The bill would prohibit most mining, geothermal activities and new roads across the land. Grazing, hunting and recreational activities could continue on existing roads and trails.
The conservation area roughly fills the ”V” formed by Jackson Mountains and Route 34 in the northwestern corner of the state. The designation would protect the portion of the Applegate-Lassen Trail from near Rye Patch Reservoir along Interstate 80 to Vya, Nev., near the California border.
”The quiet is so intense, it amazes you,” said Bart Koehler of The Wilderness Society. ”You can see and feel and hear the place as it was 150 years ago.”
Wagon ruts and axle-grease drawings survive from that period. But conservationists fear that without greater protection, new mining could chew up the landscape and off-road vehicles could obliterate the trail that emigrants took to seek their fortune.
”This historic trail is an American treasure,” said Brian O’Donnell of The Wilderness Society. ”Without conservation, dirt-bike trails will spider-web all over the place.”
President Clinton’s designation of national monuments sparked outcries in the West about federal land grabs. But senators and conservation advocates satisfied concerns to such a degree that the Senate passed the Black Rock bill unanimously.
Congress has made 628 wilderness designations covering 104 million acres since the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, but few in the past decade. Congress designated 72,000 acres of wilderness since 1994, according to The Wilderness Society.
By comparison, President Clinton has used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to protect 3.7 million acres since he took office in 1993 – the most by any president except Jimmy Carter.
Bryan’s legislation is the latest attempt to protect the land, which began with a 1962 National Park Service report calling the area ”one of the great sights of Western America.” Several efforts to create a historical landmark or conservation areas failed over the years.
Boosting tourism is another reason supporters cite for protecting the land. The area near Gerlach, Nev., already is famous as the location for the World Land Speed Record of 763 mph, which a British team reached in 1997.
Another highly publicized event that could continue is the annual Burning Man festival known for art, dancing, concerts and the traditional torching of a 50-foot-high wooden effigy of a man. The 15th annual event drew about 26,000 people last month.
Ranchers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts opposed the plan, worrying about losing access to the region.
All but one of Nevada’s 17 counties opposed the bill at a Senate hearing. A rancher representing the Nevada and California Cattlemen’s Associations agreed with trail preservation, but not with conservation for ”random, idealistic, science-fiction reasons.”
As the bill moves to the House, conservationists are looking for supporters to get it approved.
”We’ll find a horse to ride,” said Bart Koehler of The Wilderness Society.
The bill number is S2273.
On the Net:
The bill is at http://thomas.loc.gov
Black Rock Desert information is at ww.nv.blm.gov/Winnemucca/recreation
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