WASHINGTON -- The House gave final approval Wednesday to a sweeping public lands bill that will transfer several Southern Nevada federal tracts to local control.
The measure will lead to the largest expansion of the wilderness system in 15 years, bestowing the highest level of federal protection on 2 million acres in nine states and launching one of the most ambitious river restoration efforts in the West.
The bill, the first major conservation measure set to be signed by President Barack Obama, would designate as wilderness almost as much land as was set aside during George W. Bush's entire presidency.
The House vote on the bill was 285-140.
Tactically constructed, with provisions targeting a majority of states, the bill drew 38 Republicans to join 247 Democrats.
Even so, conservative GOP critics lambasted the bill as a land grab put together with what one Republican lawmaker termed "every legislative trick in (the Democratic) playbook."
House Democratic leaders brought the measure to the floor in a way that blocked potential amendments.
"The passage of this bill is another disappointing display of heavy-handed Democratic tactics that rely on secret, backroom bill-writings that are then jammed through without any opportunity for alternatives," complained Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the senior Republican on the House resources panel.
The final package combined nearly 170 individual bills, some of them left over from last year. Overall, it sets aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness.
The bill also writes into law the National Landscape Conservation System, 27 million acres of scenery that was protected by an administrative order of President Bill Clinton in 2000.
The landscape system in Nevada includes 45 wilderness areas, 62 wilderness study areas and three conservation areas including Red Rock Canyon.
Southern Nevada federal land transfers in the bill will:
• Release 65 acres along the foothills of Sunrise Mountain to be incorporated into the Orchard Detention Basin Project, a storm water basin being engineered by Clark County.
• Convey 80 acres in Summerlin, of which 24.4 acres would be granted by the Bureau of Land Management to the Nevada Cancer Institute for a campus and treatment center.
The remainder of the property at Alta Drive and Hualapai Way will be sold to the city of Las Vegas, which plans to have 16 acres developed for medical offices. The city also envisions a park and water pumping station at the site.
• Grant 502 acres from the BLM to Henderson for development around the Henderson Executive Airport.
The bill also authorizes a nationwide study of sites that played a role in the Cold War for inclusion in the government's inventory of historically significant landmarks.
The Cold War study was advocated by Southern Nevadan Steve Ririe, who researched and documented the site atop Mount Charleston where a C-54 transport plane crashed in 1955 on a secret flight to Area 51, the classified installation along the dry Groom Lake bed 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
"For us it's been a 10-year effort, and we're very thrilled to see it will soon be on the president's desk. It's long overdue," said Ririe, chairman of the Silent Heroes of the Cold War Committee that helped craft the measure.
Provided that Obama signs the lands bill, the next step toward establishing Cold War historical sites will be for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to appoint a committee to study those sites.
"We hope to be a part of that committee because Nevada has very significant Cold War assets," Ririe said.
Another provision in the lands bill confers Wild and Scenic River status on a 25-mile section of the Amargosa River at the eastern edge of Death Valley National Park.
Supporters of the measure expect it to bring new protections to the only river that empties into Death Valley. They also hope for a boost in tourism to the sparsely populated area of California about 95 miles west of Las Vegas.
"It protects one of the prettiest places in the Mojave Desert, so everyone benefits," said Brian Brown, who owns a date farm near the river and belongs to a conservation group that pushed for the designation.
The Amargosa originates in the Oasis Valley north of Beatty, but the Wild and Scenic area does not include any portion of the mostly dry river in Nevada.
Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., voted for the lands bill. Berkley said it would "preserve Nevada treasures."
Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against the bill.
"Simply put, the bad in this bill outweighs the good," said Heller, who sponsored a major Carson City initiative within the measure.
Heller said the bill "gives the federal government greater authority to close access to public lands" within the National Landscape Conservation System. "This legislation should have focused solely on local projects."
Hastings warned that the bill would restrict potential development of energy resources on public lands, while other lawmakers focused on the addition of new lands to the national wilderness roll.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, called the bill's passage "a day of celebration for all who treasure and enjoy our natural and cultural heritage," and numerous environmental groups had been lobbying hard for its passage.
Review-Journal writers Henry Brean and Keith Rogers, McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760