RENO - Sen. Harry Reid has signed on as a co-sponsor of Sen. Richard Bryan's proposal to protect the Black Rock Desert despite his earlier concerns it could restrict development of geothermal energy.
Environmentalists welcomed Reid's support, which could speed the proposal's progress.
Reid had told a Senate panel in April that while he was supportive of his fellow Nevada Democrat's protection plan, he was concerned about the amount of public land that could be made off limits to geothermal development.
He said at a conference on geothermal energy at the University of Nevada, Reno on Thursday that he had concluded protection of the Black Rock Desert would have minimal effect on such energy production.
''That is just a small spec of the potential in the state of Nevada,'' Reid said.
His formal support for Bryan's bill was announced earlier Thursday by a coalition of environmentalists who trumpeted the significance of the endorsement from the Senate's second-ranking Democrat.
''We are fortunate to have a wonderful champion like Senator Reid fighting for our state's great natural heritage,'' said Marge Sill of Friends of Nevada Wilderness and the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter.
Aides to Reid downplayed the development.
''It's not too big of a shift in his position on this,'' said Mark Schuermann, Reid's communications director.
''He drafted the original Black Rock protection measure about 10 years ago. It is something he has always supported. He has always told Senator Bryan he supports it,'' Schuermann said from Washington.
Why didn't Reid sign on earlier?
''He had to look at the legislation and talk to all the stakeholders before he made a decision about supporting it,'' Schuermann said.
Bryan's proposal introduced in the Senate in March would protect 600,000 acres of the desert and neighboring High Rock Canyon, and consider protection for up 1 million more acres of wilderness study areas.
''We welcome Senator Reid on board,'' Bryan spokesman Tom Foulkes said Thursday from Washington. ''Senator Bryan is still hopeful we can pass the bill this year.''
Home to golden eagles, wild horses, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, the vast desert and neighboring High Rock Canyon remain much the way they did when pioneers made their way across the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail to the California Gold Rush 150 years ago.
Conservation and historic trail preservationists are rallying around Bryan's bill while several hunting and off-road vehicle groups oppose it despite Bryan's assurances they would feel little impact.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., is among those who aren't convinced. He's worried it will restrict public access to the area and notes that every county in Nevada except Clark is on record opposing the measure.
Reid actually signed on as the bill's only co-sponsor June 15 but it wasn't publicized until Thursday when the statement was issued by the coalition of environmentalists, including the Nevada Wilderness Project, The Wilderness Society and the American Lands Alliance.
''We hope that the U.S. Senate will now listen to the people of Nevada and pass this historic and important piece of legislation without delay,'' said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.
Schuermann said Reid's support for the Bryan bill ''does not weaken his support for geothermal.''
''The two are not mutually exclusive. You can still advance geothermal energy prospects in Nevada and support protection of the Black Rock,'' he said.
''The legislation is a work in progress,'' he said.
Reid repeated warnings that there might not be enough time for the bill to pass Congress this year, the last in the Senate for the retiring Bryan.
''Any kind of legislation designating large portions of land ... is going to be difficult to get through a Republican Congress,'' Schuermann said.
But at least one key Republican senator indicated earlier that Reid's support would be significant in moving the bill.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that held the April hearing, told Reid:
''On Western land issues that you and Senator Bryan agree on - you can count on our support.''
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