Nevada senator readies for battle over plan to protect desert

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Retiring Sen. Richard Bryan outlined his plan Wednesday to protect 600,000 acres of historic pioneer trails, rugged canyons and wildlife in northwest Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

But Bryan got a quick taste of the uphill battle he faces to pass the measure through Congress when a half-dozen ranchers and other opponents crashed his news conference to voice fears they'll lose access to the land.

The senator tried with no apparent success to assure them his proposal would not restrict hunting or fishing, that livestock grazing would continue where it is now and that off-road vehicles would be allowed in most areas where they don't threaten historic trails.

''This is a celebration of our history and our heritage,'' Bryan, D-Nev., said in proposing the National Conservation Area 120 miles northeast of Reno.

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.

Wagon ruts and emigrant inscriptions are evident along the 175 miles of trail in Nevada.

''With the American spirit, courage, determination and self-reliance, they traveled across the West and pulled the frontier behind them,'' said Chuck Dodd, a key backer who heads the Oregon-California Trails Association.

''We can take our grandchildren out there to teach them the great things that can be accomplished by ordinary people,'' he said.

Others see their access to the land threatened.

''We are universally opposed to this designation,'' said Larry Johnson of Reno, director of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and chairman of the Coalition for Nevada Wildlife, which includes Ducks Unlimited and the Waterfowl Coalition.

Larie Trippet of Incline Village, Nev., said he represented local land owners, business owners, hunters and off-road vehicle owners who oppose the measure under the banner of the Public Lands Access Network High Desert Coalition.

''The history of other NCAs is that those promises were made but past uses of the land were decreased or eliminated. We don't believe those promises will stick,'' Trippet said.

The Washoe County Commission also is opposed.

''More restrictions and centralized administration does not equal protection,'' Commission Chairman Jim Galloway said.

Bryan said he understands the concerns in a state in which the federal government owns nearly 90 percent of the land and ranchers are especially suspicious of federal management.

''It comes as no surprise. I've lived in Nevada for 60 years,'' Bryan said. He offered to meet privately with the critics but told them, ''I don't want to debate this right now.''

The former Nevada governor has made preserving the Black Rock Desert one of his top priorities in his final year in the U.S. Senate.

''Hope springs eternal. We hope to get this enacted this year,'' he said.

Flanked by a covered wagon, his daughter-in-law and 1-year-old grandson at Reno's Bartley Ranch park, Bryan said the designation would attract tourists at a time when Indian gambling in California is expected to take business from Reno casinos.

But more importantly, he said, there is no federal law prohibiting damage to the historic trail. His proposal envisions a trails interpretative center, most likely at Gerlach, Nev.

''This a precious opportunity. Do we grasp this moment or do we fail to seize it?''

The conservation area would be administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In addition, Bryan proposes consideration of permanent protection of 11 wilderness areas, even though the BLM decided in 1991 that five of those don't qualify.

''We've included all 11 because circumstances have changed in the intervening years,'' Bryan said.

He said under his plan the Burning Man counterculture festival would be allowed in the Black Rock Desert, which earned the support of the group's director, Larry Harvey.


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