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Conservation bill could block Yucca rail route, but prospects shaky

Though its sponsors insist it wasn’t their intent, a Nevada lands bill pending in Congress could throw up another roadblock to a Yucca Mountain Project.

The legislation, introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., would restrict mining and energy exploration on more than 800,000 acres of federal land in two lonesome valleys straddling Lincoln and Nye counties.

The Senate minority leader has said he wants to withdraw the land in Garden and Coal valleys to protect “City,” noted artist Michael Heizer’s sprawling earth sculptor roughly the size of the National Mall. Supporters of the bill want a national monument dedicated to “City” and to the pristine basin-and-range landscape around it.

The designation would also block a future rail corridor for nuclear waste shipments to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, which Reid spokes­woman Kristen Orthman acknowledged Wednesday while saying Yucca Mountain is not why Reid introduced the bill or decided to target so much land for withdrawal. That’s just a welcome side effect, Orthman said.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who quietly introduced a House version of the bill last week, also said Yucca Mountain has nothing to do with it.

Motivations aside, the legislation faces an uphill battle in a GOP-led Congress already pushing back against such lands bills. Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., has vowed to fight the bill and a measure, also sponsored by Reid, to designate 350,000 acres at Gold Butte in north­eastern Clark County a conservation area. Both areas are in Hardy’s congressional district.

The two bills also are drawing opposition from local officials and some rural residents.

And the push for increased protection of Gold Butte is further complicated by the lingering dispute between federal authorities and Cliven Bundy, whose cattle roam the area in defiance of court orders and aborted government roundups.

Titus said she still hopes to work on the lands bills with Hardy, whom she described as “more open” to protecting Gold Butte than in the past.

On Wednesday, Titus and Reid hosted a “conversation about conservation” in Las Vegas for an audience of several hundred people.

The enthusiastic crowd packed the jury assembly room at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse to celebrate the new Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument at the Las Vegas Valley’s northern edge and call for the protection of Gold Butte and Garden and Coal valleys.

The preservation pep rally was for the benefit of Michael Connor, the deputy U.S. secretary of interior, who had just toured Tule Springs.

Gold Butte, less than 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is in particular need of preservation, Reid said by video link from Washington, where he is recovering from eye surgery.

“What a loss it would be if we didn’t protect it,” he said. “If we don’t do something, it will be gone in a matter of decades.”

Titus, in person, said the lands must be preserved “for us, for the whole country and for generations to come.”

Art lovers argue that Heizer’s masterwork warrants special protection and could become a World Heritage site one day. “City” has been described as one of the most ambitious pieces of art ever, a network of sculpted berms, plazas and geometric shapes a mile-and-a-half long and 900 feet wide inspired by ancient cities of South and Central America.

For a piece like that, “you need the scale of Nevada,” said Michael Govan, head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It is almost finished, and that’s why its protection is so paramount.”

Several dozen people spoke of what Gold Butte, Tule Springs and the lonely valleys of the southern Great Basin mean to them.

Just one person opposed the conservation measures. The man, who called himself “John Q. Public,” railed against the treatment of Bundy and criticized the government for trying to kick the public off public land.

The audience hissed and booed and shouted him down, receiving an obscene gesture in return.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter

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