Local Bureau of Land Management staff members are rushing to finish their updated land-use blueprint for Southern Nevada to meet a new deadline set by the Trump administration.
But at least one Clark County official expects the BLM to get sued over the accelerated planning process, which could stall federal land-use decisions in the region for years to come.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued an order in August aimed at streamlining federal reviews conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act. His directive limits environmental impact statements to no more that 300 pages in length and requires them to be completed within one year.
A follow-up directive from Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in April gave BLM planners in Las Vegas until April 27, 2019, to complete a revised Southern Nevada District Resource Management Plan that they weren’t expecting to finish until 2021.
Deadline propels county action
Clark County Air Quality Director Marci Henson cited the new deadline on Tuesday in urging the County Commission to quickly approve a resolution seeking federal legislation to address a host of public lands issues in Southern Nevada. The commissioners heeded her urgency and approved the resolution 6-0.
Key provisions of the resolution seek to open more than 44,000 acres of public land for new development south of Las Vegas and set aside more than 300,000 acres of new conservation land in the county.
Approval of the request for congressional action came despite strong opposition from off-roading groups and some conservationists.
Henson, who headed up the drafting of the resolution, said county officials “were anticipating having more time” to help shape the BLM’s management plan revision and suggest legislation to address any lingering land issues.
Now, she said, “time is of the essence.”
If the county fails to act, it could see land-use designations it doesn’t like made permanent in the rushed plan. Or it could see all action on federal land management bogged down in court.
Henson added that she expects someone to challenge the Interior Department’s new rules in court on the grounds that its deadlines and page-length restrictions are “arbitrary and capricious.”
Such a lawsuit could strand federal land-use planning in legal limbo and make it hard for the county to find the land it needs to grow, Henson said.
John Asselin, spokesman for the BLM in Las Vegas, confirmed the accelerated schedule for the management plan revision in an email Wednesday.
‘A positive opportunity’
As recently as January, local bureau officials said they expected to release a draft of the plan in 2019 and the final version in 2020, with implementation to follow in 2021. Asselin said the draft plan will now be published late this summer, and the final version in February.
“The BLM sees this expedited process as a positive opportunity to complete a plan that is in much need of revision,” Asselin said.
The Southern Nevada District Resource Management Plan serves as a sort of blueprint that guides specific land-use decisions for 3.1 million acres of federal land in Clark and Nye counties.
The sweeping document hasn’t been significantly updated since 1998, when the region was home to 1 million fewer residents than it is today.
The BLM started revising the plan in 2008, leading to the publication of a 2,200-page first draft in 2014. The document drew thousands of critical comments and some outright hostility, prompting the bureau’s state director to shelve the process for more than a year.
The effort began again last fall and led to a series of public meetings in January. At the time, BLM officials said they planned to simply revise and expand the 2014 draft rather than start from scratch, but now they will have to find a way to slash 2,200 pages down to 300.
Asselin said he couldn’t speculate on whether the bureau will be sued over of the new planning directive.
More trouble ahead?
There’s another aspect of the Bureau of Land Management’s ongoing land-use plan revision that could get the agency sued, according to one local conservation advocate.
Jaina Moan, executive director of Friends of Gold Butte, said the bureau may have violated federal environmental regulations early this year when it held a series of public meetings on the plan revision but excluded Gold Butte National Monument from the conversation.
The BLM originally said it would develop a management plan for the 2-year-old monument as part of the larger regionwide plan update. Then, just before the public meetings, bureau officials abruptly put the Gold Butte planning process on hold pending a possible boundary reduction by the Trump administration. They picked the planning process back up several weeks later, after the meetings had been held.
To date, no action has been taken by the White House to reduce the size of the Obama-era land designation.
“When they removed it from consideration at the public meetings, I think they discouraged comment,” Moan said. “I don’t know what to say (to the BLM) other than, ‘You skipped your public scoping process for Gold Butte.'”
John Asselin, spokesman for the BLM in Nevada, said the public will have a chance to comment on the Gold Butte management plan when its released with larger Southern Nevada plan late this summer. “We don’t foresee any problems in the process,” he said in an email.
Moan stressed that her group has no immediate plans to sue over the issue, but other groups might.
“They’re vulnerable, let’s just say that,” Moan said of the BLM. “I wish they weren’t.”