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The Planet

New Wilderness for Nation's Fastest-Growing County

By Tom Valtin

Pinto Valley Wilderness, NevadaNevada conservationists welcomed the late-October passage in the U.S. House and Senate of a public-land bill for the nation's fastest-growing county. The bill designates nearly half a million acres of new wilderness in Clark County, Nevada, which includes the city of Las Vegas. President Bush is expected to sign the bill in November.

The wilderness component of the bill protects 440,000 acres of new wilderness on Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Forest Service lands, and it creates the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, protecting rare petroglyphs in the southern reaches of the Las Vegas Valley.

"I'm thrilled," said Toiyabe Chapter leader and longtime wilderness advocate Marge Sill, known to many as the Mother of Nevada Wilderness. "I've walked these areas and I know how magnificent they are."

Of the ten western states, Nevada ranks third from the bottom in designated wilderness. "Our wilderness is very subtle," Sill explained. "It's not as grand as the Rockies or the Sierra, but there's great biodiversity in these areas. A lot of Nevada's beauty has to do with the fact that so much of the state is empty."

Sill says it is gratifying that younger Nevadans are discovering the value of wilderness. "Getting young people on board is so important," she said. "Carrie Sandstedt, the Club's conservation director in Las Vegas, and Brian Beffort of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, did a tremendous job on this bill."

Hundreds of people wrote letters, lobbied, showed up at public events, and pressed for more and better protections. Sierra Club Regional Representative Barbara Boyle especially praised the efforts of Toiyabe Chapter leaders Sill, Roger Scholl, Ellen Pillard, and Jane Feldman.

Conservationists were dismayed that the bill did not include wilderness designation for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Gold Butte areas. "The exclusion of Gold Butte was particularly disappointing," said Sill. "The wildlife refuge is protected by its great size and inaccessibility, but Gold Butte is much more accessible. It was the opposition of off-road vehicle enthusiasts that kept it out of the bill."

Introduced by Senators Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R), and Representative Jim Gibbons (R), the legislation was the result of almost two years of negotiations involving interested stakeholders and the general public. The Las Vegas Sun described the bill's passage, just before the congressional recess, as "the legislative equivalent of a buzzer-beating shot."

Photo: Pinto Valley Wilderness, Nevada

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