LAS VEGAS - The discovery of two rare plant species threatens to postpone a Southern Nevada land auction in February and block plans to build thousands of homes in a swath of desert just north of Las Vegas, officials said.
The Las Vegas City Council learned Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to conserve up to 12.5 square miles where a federal botanist reported finding Las Vegas buckwheat and Las Vegas bearpoppy during an August survey.
Las Vegas bearpoppy is protected under state law as critically endangered. Las Vegas buckwheat is being proposed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, now a private lawyer retained by the council, said the discovery could effectively impose a moratorium on development - shutting off an important municipal revenue stream.
It also could block development in new parts of North Las Vegas, which might challenge the government's protection of the land, Bryan said.
The area, located north of the Las Vegas Beltway and east of U.S. Highway 95, generally runs along an ancient riverbed. Rather than tens of thousands of homes, the government says it could have hiking and horse trails.
Officials said they feared delaying federal auctions would drive up Las Vegas area home prices.
"Without any land releases, the median price of a home is going to escalate," Councilman Michael Mack said. "The word 'moratorium' will really send fear into our community."
Bryan and another lawyer said about 5,000 acres was at stake, and the city could challenge federal protection.
The city counts on tens of millions of dollars in government auction revenues to develop parks and trails and make other improvements.
However, BLM officials said the area in question includes about 8,000 acres, and no municipality had a good chance of successfully challenging protection.
The auctions, authorized by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998, have reaped about $1.3 billion by selling federal land on the fringes of fast-growing Las Vegas.
A fight over protection of the federally protected desert tortoise stalled construction from 1989 to 1991. Development resumed after an agreement allowed transfer of the tortoises to homes of adopters or to a sanctuary.