RENO, Nev. (AP) - Worried about Nevada's soaring population, Sen. Richard Bryan on Wednesday proposed protecting at least 600,000 acres of historic trails, rugged canyons and dry lake beds in the Black Rock Desert.
Bryan, D-Nev., said he wants to create a National Conservation Area where bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope roam the lands that have changed little since pioneers made their way across the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail to the California Gold Rush 150 years ago.
''With Nevada's population booming and increasing numbers of visitors to the area, it is clear that we have to come up with a plan to properly protect this area for future generations,'' said Bryan, who retires at the end of the year.
''This effort is really a celebration of our Western heritage,'' he said in introducing the bill in the Senate on Wednesday.
The 600,000-acre conservation area would be about three-fourths the size of the state of Rhode Island.
In addition, Bryan is taking public comment as he considers how much wilderness should be established across an additional 1 million acres in 11 study areas in northwest Nevada under the Bureau of Land Management. Most motorized and commercial activity would be prohibited in a designated wilderness area.
Bryan, a former governor of Nevada who is stepping down after two terms in the Senate, was greeted at a news conference in Reno last week by a number of ranchers and other opponents of the proposal.
''People need to remember that this is only the first step in a long process and that everyone who wants to be heard on this issue will certainly have an opportunity to comment on this proposal,'' Bryan said Wednesday.
Within the conservation area, the bill would prohibit any new mining that adversely affects desert views and prohibit any destruction of the desert, which begins 120 miles north of Reno and stretches across northwest Nevada.
Last week, Bryan tried to assure his critics 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.
''My goal is to solve the problem of protecting the Black Rock Desert with a Nevada solution,'' Bryan said Wednesday.
''If my legislation precluded activities such as livestock grazing, hunting, off-road vehicle use and other permitted events such as the Burning Man Festival, I would not take the time to give this effort a second thought,'' he said.
''However, my bill to create a NCA would, in fact, legislatively protect all of these activities,'' he said.
Larie Trippet of Incline Village, Nev., head of the Public Lands Access Network High Desert Coalition, presented Bryan with hundreds of signatures on a petition opposing the measure last week.
The coalition fears the measure would limit access to the area.
Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited and the Waterfowl Coalition also oppose the bill, along with the Washoe County Commission.
''The opposition does not just come from a few ranchers,'' Washoe County Commission Chairman Jim Galloway said.
''All the county commissions in the state except Clark County (in Las Vegas) are against it,'' he said.
Galloway said he's optimistic Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., will make an effort to block Bryan's bill. Gibbons has concerns about the bill but hasn't decided whether to oppose it, his aides said earlier. He was on the House floor and not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.