A bill quietly introduced in Congress would restrict mining and energy exploration over a sweeping area of rural Nevada, preserving scenic valleys and buffering a landmark piece of desert artwork.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last month introduced legislation to withdraw 805,100 acres of federal land in Garden Valley and Coal Valley straddling the Lincoln and Nye county lines – a desolate area covering about 1,250 square miles.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the restrictions wouldn’t affect current valid land uses such as grazing. But they would forbid the Bureau of Land Management from selling any land or granting permits for oil or mineral prospecting.
Activities for new geothermal, solar or wind energy development also would be restricted.
The bill would ensure the most significant feature in the area would be “City,” a large earthen sculpture. It is roughly the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and has taken its creator, artist Michael Heizer, more than 40 years to craft.
But conservationists said the withdrawal would have a broader effect, offering a level of protection to some of Nevada’s more stunning landscapes.
Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said the area provides habitat for mule deer and pronghorn antelope, and contains Native American rock shelters and ancient Shoshone and Paiute trails.
The withdrawal area includes the White River Narrows, an archaeological district of native rock art.
“When you think of unspoiled basin and range country, this is a place that best fits that description,” O’Donnell said. “These are two of the most scenic valleys in Nevada, two of the most undisturbed, least-roaded and least populated portions of the state and therefore the country.”
Reid did not respond to a request for comment on the bill. His spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman, said the Nevada Democrat “has long had conversations about how to protect the scenic, natural and cultural values in and around Garden Valley.”
Reid toured the area in 2007 and has had subsequent conversations with Heizer, whose monumental art project has used bulldozers, cranes and other heavy equipment to reshape a slice of desert into his vision.
“Now that the project is almost complete, this is something that has been discussed for a while, and it made sense to do it,” Orthman said.
Reid introduced the bill Sept. 16 and was the only listed sponsor.
Reid floated a similar proposal in 2010 that would have designated portions of Garden Valley and neighboring Coal Valley as a national conservation area to preserve the area around “City,” said Ed Higbee, chairman of the Lincoln County Commission.
The idea drew opposition from Lincoln County officials then, and might again.
“It is kind of neat stuff,” Higbee said of the “City” complex.
But he said it’s hard to swallow restricting development on more than 800,000 acres of a county that is already 98 percent under federal control.
“That’s a huge view-shed,” Higbee said of the proposed withdrawal. “We don’t want that to become a national conservation area.”
Heizer, who lives in Lincoln County and whose age is given as 69 or 70, specializes in monumental-scale sculptures and pieces of art built out of earthen materials. At the eastern edge of Mormon Mesa near Overton, he displaced 240,000 tons of rock to create “Double Negative” in 1969 and 1970.
It consists of two trenches 50 feet deep by 30 feet wide and spanning 1,500 feet.
Garden Valley has been eyed for several major projects in the years since Heizer started working on his sculpture.
The Department of Energy proposed building a rail line across Garden Valley to carry casks of nuclear waste to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Heizer joined Reid in publicly opposing the project.
In one of more than 200 technical protests against the Yucca project, the state of Nevada argued the “City” artwork was “a cultural resource of national and international significance” and should not be disturbed.
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