State and counties should continue federal land use litigation

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Gov. Brian Sandoval’s negotiations with the Interior Department’s Secretary Sally Jewell reached some compromises that provide some relief from the draconian land use plans the department promulgated after deciding the greater sage grouse did not need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act after all, but more needs to be done to protect Nevada business and recreation and safety.

For example, Sandoval boasted in a press release, “Secretary Jewell committed to resolve the issues impacting the water tank in Baker by early next year in a manner that maintains public health and safety. I am confident that following our direct conversation, the Secretary fully understands the importance of the water tank to the community of Baker. I stressed the significance of a prompt decision for the sake of the health and safety of the community and the Department of the Interior committed that a timeline and a path forward will be determined by next week.”

The residents of the tiny community of Baker at the entrance to Great Basin National Park had run into resistance from Bureau of Land Management officials when they applied for permission to replace a decades-old, 250,000-gallon leaking water storage tank located on a BLM right of way. There were fears that the leak might result in contamination of the water supply or put the community firefighting capability at risk for its approximately 100 users.

The town’s water board feared delays could jeopardize its state loan under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, without which they could not afford the replacement.

A BLM representative had told them an expensive and time-consuming environmental impact statement would be needed due to new grouse regulations.

The board said at the time, “It is imperative that we complete this project prior to the start of summer when water consumption increases dramatically and the official fire season starts.”

This past week a BLM spokesman told The Associated Press the agency has authorized the right-of-way. “Construction of the tank will begin next year following the greater sage-grouse breeding and nesting season and in a manner that maintains public health and safety,” the BLM agent said in a statement, meaning construction cannot begin until July, well past the time it is most urgently needed.

But Sandoval, who had opposed a state and county lawsuit to resolve the land use issues, blithely told the AP, “Some of these issues that are stuck in litigation — it could be years before we have some finality on some of these. This Baker water tank is ‘Exhibit A.’ We may be able to resolve this before there is even a decision,” apparently unaware of how his compromise compromises the health and safety of the community for many months.

But that is not all, in a letter to Sandoval, Elko County Commission Chairman Demar Dahl said the compromise still does too much damage to rural Nevada, especially his county which “bears the burden of the Nevada Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFA) because roughly 2 million acres of the 2.8 million acre SFA are located in northern Elko County. The land use prohibitions in the SFA for mineral exploration and mining, development of wind and solar energy projects, oil and gas exploration, and severe restrictions on grazing have put 25 percent of Elko County off limits to economic uses.”

Dahl went on the say the land use plans will jeopardize the China Mountain Wind Energy Project and cost the county $500 million. Also threatened are nascent mining projects in the Gravel Creek and Jarbidge areas. He said the Gravel Creek gold deposits are estimated to be worth $3 billion.

Dahl noted that Sandoval’s discussions with Jewell failed to address the greatest danger to sage gouse and their habitat, which is wildfire. “Elko County,” the commissioner wrote, “provided the agencies with credible scientific data that managed grazing is the most cost effective way to reduce wildfire risks. Yet our input was ignored.”

There is also a question of whether the agreement with Interior Department is binding on the Department of Agriculture, which is over the Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over surfaces areas.

Of course, there is the question of whether Jewell’s agreement is binding on future Interior secretaries, whereas a court ruling would be binding.

Dahl’s letter concludes that Elko and the other counties involved in the lawsuit have “no choice but to continue to fight for our rights in court.”

We urge the counties and the state attorney general to press on in court. — TM

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