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Bad to the bones
Story by Heidi Kyser
A Utah congressman’s changes to the Tule Springs fossil-park bill might've unleashed a mammoth problem
By the time Congressman Rob Bishop’s amendments to the Tule Springs Bill came to light, around noon on Feb. 26, the D.C. rumor mill had given a few days’ heads-up to Congressmen Steven Horsford and Mark Amodei, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee and the bill’s many other proponents. They knew it wouldn’t be good news; they just didn’t know the extent to which Bishop, at the Feb. 27 meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, would undermine their effort to create a national monument on 22,650 acres of fossil-rich land northwest of Las Vegas.
But the most important person listening and planning how to react was Sen. Harry Reid — and not just because he sponsored a twin bill in the Senate. Reid’s swiftly released statement revealed that there was much more to the proposed amendments than an apparent party-line effort to keep the land out of National Park Service hands. They also contained a small but potentially lethal arrow aimed at the heart of the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, one of Reid’s crowning achievements.
As of this writing, the Las Vegas Valley Public Land and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act hangs in limbo. At stake are not just sacred lands and dire-wolf bones, but also big ideas like compromise, conservation and state’s rights.
A bone to pick
If there’s a perfect bill, the proposed Tule Springs National Monument could be it. It started when retired schoolteacher Jill DeStefano and some of her Aliante neighbors attended a community meeting where they learned what was going on in their back yard, the Upper Las Vegas Wash. A 2004 BLM report, prepared as part of a plan to open the area to development, had identified sensitive resources and recommended further study for possible protection. Besides the thousands of Pleistocene-era fossils, the wash encompasses habitat for threatened plant and animal species, such as the bearpoppy and desert tortoise.
“I couldn’t believe there were all these Ice Age fossils popping out of the ground and anybody believed we should build on top of them rather than preserving them for future generations,” DeStefano says. “A group of five of us got together after the meeting and decided we should do something about it.”
That was 2006. Since then, DeStefano and her posse have diligently marked one milestone after another on the road to legislation. They collected signatures for petitions, building support. They got the National Park Service on board. They persuaded North Las Vegas, the City of Las Vegas, Clark County and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribal Council to pass a resolution urging Congress to make Tule Springs part of the National Park System. Horsford and Reid introduced their bills in 2013.
Thus, DeStefano was one of those anxiously awaiting Bishop’s amendments. And what she saw horrified her. The chair of the House Natural Resources Committee had scratched nearly 20 pages from the 57-page bill and added several of his own. The changes stripped out any language converting the land to National Park Service control and left it, instead, with the more development-friendly BLM.
“What shocked me,” DeStefano says, “was that in the subcommittee hearing, it was so obvious this was a bipartisan bill that even Bishop noted the entire community seemed to be on board with it. Then he suddenly decided that it needed to remain BLM land?” (The congressman didn’t respond to our requests for an interview.)
One change that puzzled observers was Bishop’s call for a “special resource study to evaluate the significance” of the area and its inclusion in the National Park System. UNLV geology professor Stephen Rowland, who for years has taken students to Tule Springs State Park for research digs, says both the BLM and Park Service have surveyed the area, which is why it’s already known to contain paleontological, environmental and cultural treasures.
“It’s not clear to me why the congressman feels that needs to be done,” he says. “There’s no guarantee that once the studies he calls for are done it would become a protected area of any kind. That’s what makes it seem like a roadblock.”
[Hear More: Who'll save Tule Springs? Hear a discussion on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Another way of looking at the Bishop amendments is as a smokescreen for a poison pill. Hidden among the pages of revisions concerning National Parks status is this sentence at the end of Section 2:
The Monument shall no longer be subject to subsection(1) of Section 4 of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA) of 1998.
In essence, this would have meant that sales of land within the Monument couldn’t be used in Nevada to pay for interpretive trails and park benches, as well as conservation programs, at places just like the one envisioned for Tule Springs. Instead, committee members said, funds from any related land sales should go to the U.S. Treasury.
You may never have heard of SNPLMA (pronounced “snip-la-ma” by insiders), but you’ve benefited from it if you’ve been to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, Clark County Wetlands Park, Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center or just about any other project developed on public land since the Act was passed. It allows the state to recoup some money from the sale of federal land in Clark County and use it to develop infrastructure and protect environmentally sensitive areas. No other state is known to have such a deal, which has made it a target for federal attack once before, during the Bush administration.
Although then-Sen. Richard Bryan and –Rep. John Ensign introduced the bills related to the Act, Reid is credited with its passage. No sooner had Bishop’s amendments gone public than Reid’s press release denouncing the SNPLMA passage hit the wire. It contained the line, often repeated in news coverage, “A bad bill is worse than no bill at all.”
In other words, saving SNPLMA is more important than passing the Tule Springs Monument bill.
“The reality is, Republicans have a majority in the House,” explains Kristen Orthman, Reid’s national press secretary. “Because of that, the bill with the amendments was likely going to pass. Preventing that was crucial.”
The Nevada contingent in D.C. — in particular Horsford, the Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee — got Reid’s message loud and clear. The bill was pulled from the committee without a vote.
Then what? The bill’s proponents persuaded Bishop to visit Tule Springs, to see firsthand what was at stake. He made the trip on March 17 and ended it by telling the press, “This is cool. We’re going to have to work this out.”
Still, it’s unclear what will happen next.
“Basically, we will wait for it to be discussed,” says Lynn Davis, Nevada director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It will be between members of Congress and, presumably, it will go back before committee — hard to say when.”
Timing will be everything. Horsford is joining the Financial Services Committee, which means he’ll likely have to leave the Natural Resources Committee. And if the bill doesn’t hit the floor of both houses until after the 2014 elections, then the process will have to start all over again, with a new Congress.
Proponents hope they can squeeze it through that window — that Bishop will save his attack on SNPLMA for another day, for the sake of the greater good.
“I’m told it will come up again,” says an optimistic DeStefano. “He said it’s not dead. I hope he’s right.”
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