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Conservationists fight Ruby Mountains oil development

Conservationists are bashing the latest move to open more federal land in Nevada to oil exploration, this time in the Ruby Mountains of Elko County.

The U.S. Forest Service is studying whether to make 54,000 acres in the Rubies, about 370 miles north of Las Vegas, available for lease to oil and gas developers for the first time.

The proposal, still in its initial stages of consideration, has already drawn opposition from environmental advocates, American Indian tribes, hunters, anglers and state game managers who say it threatens to degrade an area some consider “the crown jewel of the Great Basin.”

Nevada has never been a significant oil producer, and the Ruby Mountains seems like the worst place in the world to try to change that, said Pam Harrington, Northern Nevada field coordinator for the nonprofit group Trout Unlimited.

“It’s one of the most recreation-rich areas for sure in Northern Nevada, if not in all of Nevada,” Harrington said. “It’s an iconic landscape to Nevada. There’s not much like it.”

The area undergoing an environmental assessment extends for about 75 miles along the western slope of the Ruby Mountains, from Lamoille Creek in the north to Sherman Creek in the south.

Developer expressed interest

Susan Elliott, minerals program manager for the forest service in Elko, said the land in question has never been drilled for oil or gas, but there has been some limited activity in the past near the town of Jiggs, about five miles outside the forest boundary.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management requested the evaluation of the forest land in early August, after a developer expressed interest in a lease there.

Harrington and others worry that fossil fuel exploration in the area will damage or disrupt the wintering ground for the state’s largest herd of mule deer and prime habitat for sage grouse and Nevada’s official state fish, the rare Lahontan cutthroat trout.

In its comments to the forest service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife expressed “great concern” about the proposal.

“The parcels in consideration for leasing encompass some of the richest fish and wildlife resources the State of Nevada has to offer,” wrote Elko-based supervising habitat biologist Caleb McAdoo on behalf of the state agency.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, attacked the idea in an Oct. 25 Twitter post, arguing that the state’s public lands “shouldn’t be sold off to highest bidder.”

Among the environmental groups opposing fossil fuel development in the Rubies is the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which regularly protests BLM oil and gas lease sales in Nevada and across the West. In September, the group sued the bureau over parcels it offered for lease in central Nevada.

Legal action threatened

This land could prompt more legal action from the center.

“We feel this particular oil and gas leasing proposal stands out above the rest in terms of its egregiousness and inappropriateness,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the group.

The first public comment period on the proposal is set to expire at midnight Thursday. Elliott said roughly 8,000 comments had been submitted so far.

The public will get a second chance to weigh in early next year, when the forest service completes its environmental assessment and issues a draft decision sometime in January.

A final decision is expected in February.

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

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