After 14 years of buying chunks of farmland around Churchill County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service is ready to start selling.
The first piece of property to go back into private hands is a 220-acre ranch southwest of the Fallon Naval Air Station. The service views it as a test case.
"This is new to us. We've bought land before, but we've never sold it," said USFWS real estate supervisor Richard Grimes.
The deal will be a simultaneous buy and sell of about 380 acres. Grimes said the sale is a boon for both parties and the beginning of a federal land sales campaign around the Lahontan Valley, where the service hopes to sell five or six parcels this year.
Rancher Gary Snow is paying $512,000 for 220 acres USFWS bought for its water, which it sends to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge - an important stopover for waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway's migration route. At the same time, the service will buy Snow's 160-acre ranch for $625,000 - also to send its water to the refuge.
Both are paying market values based on recent U.S. Department of Interior appraisals.
For Snow, the deal's selling point is the quality of land at stake, Grimes said. The land Snow is buying, in the heart of what was once called the Island Ranch, has the better soil, and he has already started irrigating a portion of it with a special-use permit granted by the USFWS.
"Among other goals, we hope to use our land sales to help encourage farming to continue on the most productive lands and improve Newlands Project efficiency," Grimes said. The deal's selling point for the USFWS is the water rights it will get with Snow's land.
The service's eventual goal is to purchase 75,000 acre-feet of water for the wetlands.
City and county officials have decried the lofty water purchase goal, saying land stripped of water will increase dust problems and prove detrimental to the local water table.
The city of Fallon used those arguments to challenge water transfers to the refuge, but lost the case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year.
The USFWS is not restricting the properties it is selling from being irrigated again and used for agriculture, as has been done with farmland bought and sold by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in the Swingle Bench area west of Fallon. But the water rights the service has transferred to the refuge will continue going to it.
USFWS hopes to sell everything it owns outside the refuge over the next several years, including 47 parcels comprising about 5,000 acres.
The sales will be spread out, Grimes said, to avoid flooding the real estate market.
"We're going to be deliberate. We are very sensitive to land values," he said.
After the six sales this year, the service plans to solicit public input on the program.
Local USFWS officials have been considering land sales for years, but an order to go ahead with the program was issued from the service's director just last month.
Other planned sales don't involve simultaneous buys, Grimes said, but he is willing to talk if the service would receive water or water rights.
"Mr. Snow came to us with a proposal that makes sense for both of us. I encourage anyone that's interested in making a similar proposal to stop by," said.
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