U.S. House passes public lands bill

Pershing County commissioners celebrated last week’s news that the Pershing County Economic Development and Conservation Act was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill must still be approved by the U.S. Senate before becoming law.

The news was timely as it came during a new economic development strategy that was presented to county officials. Allen Freemyer, a lobbyist for the corporate mining industry, sent the news.

“This is an email the district attorney just gave me a copy of,” Commissioner Rob McDougal announced. “This is from Allen Freemyer who’s been spearheading the economic development and conservation act process through Congress.”

Freemyer reported the bill had passed the night before on a voice vote in the House.

“This a huge milestone and now we head to the Senate,” he said. “I expect a hearing to be announced soon in the Senate committee.”

Congressman Mark Amodei called the first step in the bill’s passage a “win-win for Nevadans.” He reintroduced the legislation on Feb. 16, 2017, after it failed to be considered in 2016. Sen. Dean Heller reintroduced a similar bill in the Senate where the next vote is expected.

“This bill represents a decade of grassroots efforts driven by Pershing County officials, residents, ranchers, miners and conservationists to resolve the County’s land issues that are hamstringing opportunities for growth,” Amodei said. “As a result of this exhaustive public process, reforms included in this legislation will increase economic development while ensuring preservation of the County’s rural character through the disposal of appropriate public land.”

If the bill passes the Senate, public land could be sold at fair market value to mines, ranches or other business interests. A checkerboard of public and private land in the I-80 corridor could be “resolved” with land transfers or exchanges intended to attract new economic development.

Amodei also said there were rumors of concerns about the bill at the Department of Interior.

“There may be some confusion at the Department of the Interior regarding the merits of this legislation,” he said. “It would indeed be curious for Secretary Zinke to perhaps oppose a bill that is supported by the entire Nevada delegation, the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, all of the local mining companies and Pershing County itself.”

In his statement, Amodei suggested that “somebody ought to review language in the bill that allows the Secretary pretty extensive jurisdiction in identifying checkerboard exchange lands.”

McDougal said he shares Amodei’s concerns and is willing to testify again to defend the bill.

“It is important to remember that the Department’s BLM has a long history of bad administration of their obligations as to management of the people’s lands,” he said. “I continue to keep in mind the BLM is obligated to carry out the charge given through legislation by the Congress and the President. The Congress must insure their budget is sufficient to carry out those obligations.”

Pershing Gold Corporation Senior Vice President Debra Struhsacker seemed less concerned. The bill streamlines the sale or exchange of public land already selected for that and Secretary Zinke would still have “complete authority to reject a land sale or exchange proposal,” she said.

“We believe that once Secretary Zinke has an opportunity to learn about this bill, he will be very supportive,” Struhsacker said. “It resolves longstanding land management challenges in Pershing County that are difficult for the BLM, while creating substantial benefits for the county.”

If necessary, Amodei said he’ll to go to the White House to fight for the Pershing County bill.

“I look forward to visiting with the President and the Vice President to discuss the wisdom of the Secretary’s counsel on these matters, if that becomes necessary,” he said.

In a later phone call, Amodei reiterated his commitment to the bill in more colorful terms.

“I’m loaded for bear and if it turns out we have to go war on this, I ready to saddle Old Paint and ride,” he said. “I don’t know if this (rumor) is true or not but I’m erring on the side of caution to say if there’s some concern out there, somebody better start telling us what it is.”

Amodei pointed out that the Pershing County bill is similar to other public land legislation.

“Selling is an important word — nobody is giving it away,” he said. “There’s no new concept here. There’s no wild, look-the-other-way and somebody gets a sweetheart deal stuff. It’s very similar to the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. The county gets1 0 percent of the proceeds, schools get 5 percent and the federal land managers get the remaining proceeds to manage wilderness, sage hen and whatever.”

The bill limits sales to 150,000 acres of the 2.9 million acres of public land in Pershing County.

“That is a fraction of the federal estate in Pershing County. Nobody is changing the tax rolls or stealing land, they are selling a small part of it,” Amodei said. “If it turns out this is true, I find it incredibly curious that the Administration would oppose a bill which concentrates on economic development in an area of the state that Donald Trump carried in the presidential election.”