There was a time when the great thing about living in Southern Nevada was its wide-open spaces, most of it on public land. One could travel in just about any direction and find someplace new and interesting to visit or someplace new and inviting to hunt.
Living in the growing city was made tolerable because you always could get away from the crowds by taking a drive into the desert on one of many roads that miners, ranchers and wandering explorers left behind long ago.
But that's no longer the case. With the Bureau of Land Management's no off-pavement travel closure surrounding the Las Vegas Valley for miles in every direction, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the east, the Sloan Canyon Conservation Area to the south, the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area to the west and the Desert Wildlife Refuge and Nellis Bombing Range to the north, Southern Nevadans have been hemmed in like cattle with political fences on all sides. Some days I feel like a calf with his head stuck between strands of barbed wire looking for somewhere else to be.
Now, with the help of U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, things could get worse. On Friday, Berkley introduced H.R. 1732, a piece of legislation that if passed would create the Gold Butte Conservation Area: more than 565 square miles of rules, regulations and travel closures. Included in the legislation is language that would create another 13 new wilderness areas totaling more than 220,300 acres. More than 91,000 acres of that wilderness would fall within the Lake Mead NRA, where public access to the lake's shoreline already significantly is limited to anyone who does not own a boat.
This is in addition to the 45 other Nevada wilderness areas created since 2002 by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Act and the Lincoln County and White Pine County land bills.
For those of us who enjoy hunting quail in Gold Butte's remote setting, this bill could have far-reaching affects. In regard to hunting, fishing and trapping, the bill initially reads, "Nothing in this title affects the jurisdiction of the State of Nevada with respect to fish and wildlife, including hunting, fishing and trapping in the conservation area." This might be enough to make most believe their hunting, fishing or trapping activities won't be curtailed if this bill is passed.
Then a few pages later comes the weasel clause: "The Secretary of Interior may designate, by regulation, areas in which, and establish periods during which, for reasons of public safety, administration, or compliance with applicable laws, no hunting, fishing, or trapping will be permitted in wilderness areas designated or expanded by this title."
This is the same kind of language that has enabled land managers to bypass the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and arbitrarily close public lands to public access. The bill goes on to say, "Except in cases of an emergency, the secretary shall make such designations in consultation with the appropriate agency of the State of Nevada." That "emergency clause" is the loophole that enabled the local BLM manager to close all nonpaved roads on the outskirts of Las Vegas to vehicle travel.
Berkley's bill also addresses the use of motorized vehicles. "... The use of motorized vehicles in the conservation area shall be allowed only on roads and trails designated for use of motor vehicles in the management plan ..." Given the local history of these management plans and their implementation -- the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan, for example -- this clause gives me a warm fuzzy all over. I wonder how long before the roads and trails all would be posted with no-motorized-vehicles signs.
I understand the Gold Butte area has experienced an increase in public use, especially with the open space just outside of Las Vegas off limits to all but the most ardent hikers. And I understand thoughtless visitors are degrading some of the area's cultural resources. And I understand ATVs and other motorized vehicles don't belong on every hill.
But do we have to jump to the wilderness and conservation area designations? Isn't there something in the middle that will allow continued use of the land by people of varied interests while protecting the most significant resources?
If people grow up not knowing the land, they will grow up not loving the land. If they do not love the land, they will not respect the land. If they do not respect the land, they eventually will turn their back on the land.
Doug Nielsen is an award-winning freelance writer and a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His "In the Outdoors" column is published Thursday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.