WASHINGTON — A House leader said Thursday a suddenly controversial Southern Nevada public lands bill has merit, but also technical flaws that need to be fixed before it can advance.
Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Republicans are not opposed to the bill, which would create a national land monument at Tule Springs north of Las Vegas and make other changes to the public land map in the valley.
“I think this bill has a great deal of merit and we were willing to work our way through it,” said Hastings, R-Wash. “There are just some technical things we need to work on.”
As expected the committee pulled the bill off the agenda of its business meeting, at the request of Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., its sponsor. Conservationists and Nevada leaders protested after learning of a proposed amendment 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 Resources Committee leaders said keeping land receipts within the state now amounts to a violation of the 2010 House ban on earmarks. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the public lands subcommittee, said Wednesday the Horsford bill could be killed on a “point of order” if it reached the House floor as written. More likely, GOP leaders wouldn’t bring it to the floor at all, he said.
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.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said the bill would have been headed for disaster.
“I am glad that the bill has been postponed because I could never support legislation that undercuts the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act that has brought some $3 billion of investment directly to Southern Nevada over the last 16 years,” she said in a statement Thursday.
Horsford said he asked for his bill to be postponed in order to explore possible compromises. On Thursday he said the Natural Resources Committee should pass it without changes.
“Let Nevadans decide how to best utilize public lands through economic development and responsible conservation,” he said. “I will continue to work together with members of the committee so everyone understands what this bill is and what it is not.”
Democrats suggested the move was consistent with previous efforts by Republicans to divert federal land sales profits into the Treasury to offset the deficit. In sentiment dating earlier than the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, westerners lay a claim to federal land within their borders but Nevada is the only state with specific profit-sharing.
Conservationists who took part in writing the bill 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 BLM already has spent 10 years and $6 million on studies.
Hastings said reaction to the proposed amendment was overblown.
“Contrary to local reports on this, there is not opposition to this bill, there are just some technical things that need to be worked on,” he said. “We think the bill has merit, contrary to the local news reports in that regard.”
Rep. Peter Defazio of Oregon, the committee’s top Democrat, said Horsford spoke to him on the House floor about problems with where the bill appeared to be headed, “and apparently it was also opposed by his senior senator.”
The legislation would designate a Tule Springs Fossil Bed National Monument in the northern edge of the Las Vegas Valley, with the aim to preserve rich troves of prehistoric remnants and create a destination that might attract eco-tourists.
It also would grant 660 acres of federal land to Las Vegas, and 645 acres to North Las Vegas, for “job creation zones.” Under the proposed amendment profits from the auction of those lands to developers would divert to Uncle Sam rather than be put in the Nevada public land account.
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.
Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.