Too much time to think driving through the desert |

Too much time to think driving through the desert

Barry Smith

I drove to Gerlach last Sunday to have lunch. After lunch, I turned around and drove back, because I didn’t want to fall off the edge of the earth.

My wife and I needed to get out, and Gerlach was about as far out as we could get on a Sunday afternoon. We went via Silver Springs, Fernley and Nixon, which means the most civilization we saw was Fernley.

The drive was a quick – if five hours can be quick – reminder of the vastness of Nevada. Mile after mile rolled by without encountering another vehicle. It was worth remarking to one another when we spotted a cow alongside the road.

Certainly, this didn’t qualify as a wilderness experience – steaming down the asphalt in a warm car with the radio blaring. But I could see wilderness from there. I could appreciate there was wilderness all around.

It got me thinking of Sen. Richard Bryan’s proposal to designate parts of the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon as a National Conservation Area.

The main issue of contention, so far, is whether designation as a National Conservation Area is going to preclude most of us from enjoying the Black Rock Desert area because most of us never stray very far from our vehicles.

I’ve heard the refrain several times that “99.9 percent of the public won’t be able to get to the Black Rock Desert if they close it to vehicles.”

Can’t argue with that. But that isn’t what Bryan has proposed, so maybe we should frame the argument in the context it has been presented.

First, here’s the language in Bryan’s bill as it concerns off-highway vehicle use: “Except where needed for administrative purposes or to respond to an emergency, use of motorized vehicles in the conservation area shall be permitted only on roads and trails and in other areas designated for use of motorized vehicles as part of the management plan.”

To my reading, that takes care of the 99.9 percent of the people who aren’t planning to hike out of sight of their SUVs, because those same people aren’t going to drive their SUVs off the existing roads and trails.

The question remains, however, what roads, trails and other areas will be designated by the management plan. Well, there is no management plan yet. That’s what Bryan is trying to get by establishing a National Conservation Area.

In fact, Bryan’s proposal is blank in many of the specifics of exactly which lands would be affected. It has merely begun the discussion of what should be covered, how it should be managed and how it can be used.

My prediction is that if this bill does become law, it won’t contain all the wilderness that pro-wilderness folks want, and it won’t let off-road enthusiasts drive wherever they want, either.

It would resolve a number of management problems for the Black Rock Desert, and it would help protect the area so that it remains the kind of wild place it has always been.

This isn’t a Jarbidge Road issue, but I fear the reaction to Bryan’s proposal stems more from an anti-federal attitude than it does from a consideration of the potential benefits of National Conservation Area designation.

How could it be otherwise? With few specifics on the table, the opposition basically is “We don’t trust the federal government to put together a management plan that makes everybody happy.” Well, I doubt if the Bureau of Land Management has any such magic up its sleeve, either.

But without the federal government’s protection over the last century, some of the most beautiful places in America wouldn’t exist for us to enjoy today. We can argue with how they’re managed – from exploitive use by major corporations to the pristine-wilderness approach – because we all have our favorite ways to use them. But we shouldn’t reject out of hand the idea that a National Conservation Area could provide some important safeguards for the Black Rock Desert.

Personally, I think it’s worth the effort to try to hammer out the details of Bryan’s proposal. There’s a lot to gain or lose, no matter which side of the table you’re on.

Maybe, as I was driving back to Carson City from Gerlach, I had too much time to think about all this. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.