Less than a month after he stalled efforts to create a new national monument in the fossil-rich hills north of Las Vegas, Rep. Rob Bishop took a short hike through Tule Springs and held bits of mammoth bone in his fingers.
“This is cool,” said the Republican congressman from Utah. “We’re going to have to work this out.”
Bishop visited the proposed monument site Monday as part of a whirlwind, three-hour tour that also offered him a quick look at other public land set to be transferred or otherwise impacted by the legislation.
He was accompanied on the tour by some high-powered advocates for the bill, including its sponsor, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, former Congressman turned lobbyist Jon Porter, and Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce President Kristin McMillan.
As they stood at the edge of a trench left over from an early-1960s scientific expedition known as the “Big Dig,” Horsford praised Bishop for his willingness to research the issue in person.
“Once you get out here and touch it and see it, you can see why we’re working so hard to transfer this land,” Horsford said.
The bill would create Nevada’s only national monument on 22,650 acres prized for its wealth of fossils from a vast cross-section of time, which allows researchers to study climate change and its impact on camels, horses, mammoths and other animals that died off about 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.
The measure also would grant 660 acres of federal land to Las Vegas and 645 acres to North Las Vegas to be auctioned off as “job creation zones.”
Other parts of the bill would add land to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, improve management of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, free up property for campus expansion by the Nevada System of Higher Education, and convey land to Clark County for an off-road vehicle recreation park at Nellis Dunes.
It is the most sweeping public lands legislation for Southern Nevada in a decade, and every member of Nevada’s delegation supports it — or at least they did.
The measure was headed for a Feb. 27 hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee when Bishop, a leader on the committee, sponsored a last-minute change that would direct profits from land auctions in the bill into the U.S. Treasury rather than allowing the money to remain in the state.
Nevadans said they feared the amendment, which likely would have passed the Republican-controlled committee, would chip away at the state’s lucrative conservation law, the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.
The 1998 law directs profits from federal land auctions in the valley to be spent on schools, parks, Lake Tahoe preservation and recreation projects in the state. Over the years the sale of more than 15,000 acres has generated more than $3 billion.
But Bishop has said keeping land receipts within the state now amounts to a violation of the 2010 House ban on earmarks. As a result, the bill as written could be killed on a “point of order” on the House floor or, more likely, never allowed to reach the floor at all.
Democrats suggested the move was consistent with previous efforts by Republicans to divert federal land sales profits into the Treasury to offset the deficit.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would withdraw support for the bill, effectively killing it, rather than allow it to pass with language that he said would “gut” the land management act.
Conservationists who took part in writing the measure said they also were irked by other proposed changes, including one that would require the National Park Service to perform a detailed suitability study before taking management of the Tule Springs national monument. They said the Bureau of Land Management already has spent 10 years and $6 million on studies.
As soon as the amendment was introduced on Feb. 26, Horsford quickly moved to postpone action on the bill in hopes of saving it.
During Monday’s tour, Bishop seemed to give supporters of the measure reason to hope.
After his brief walk through the chalky hills in blue jeans and loafers with no socks, he said he was impressed by what he saw. He said the site’s strongest selling point is its proximity to a large metropolitan area, but that also puts its ice age treasures at risk.
Bishop said he noticed quite a bit of trash strewn around the area, a sign that the BLM hasn’t done enough to protect the property. A “higher status” for the land could help preserve it, he said.
So how difficult will it be for Congress to “find a way forward” on the Tule Springs bill, as North Las Vegas Mayor Lee put it?
“Easy,” said Bishop, who flew to Las Vegas from Salt Lake City Monday morning just to take the tour. “I think some of my amendment can change too.”
And with that, he headed back to the airport to catch his return flight home.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Follow him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.