LAS VEGAS—About 30 miles outside of one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing cities, Hidden Valley lies tucked next to the Sloan National Conservation Area.
Thousands of flat, federally owned acres filled with creosote bush provide a migratory pathway for desert bighorn sheep and habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and rare white-margined penstemon. Even from atop one of the nearby mountains, the sounds and sights of Las Vegas are nowhere to be found.
All of that could soon change, with Hidden Valley sold off and opened for development under a bill set to be reintroduced to Congress this year.
Growth around Las Vegas has long relied on one thing: public lands. The American West has long been defined by millions of acres of undeveloped land owned by the federal government and open to the public. Nowhere is that more true than Nevada, where public lands make up about 85 percent of the territory in the state.
But land like Hidden Valley owned by the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t always remained public. The BLM’s disposal of land to cities and developers within Clark County—home to Las Vegas and all but one of Nevada’s five other largest cities—has been crucial for the region’s rapid growth.
Beginning in 1980, Congress passed laws specifically allowing Nevada communities and developers to purchase public land from the federal government to build on. And as the nation struggles to provide more affordable housing, other Western states have begun eyeing Southern Nevada as a potential model for how to use public lands to expand urban areas.
For years, officials around Las Vegas have been pushing for Congress to pass the Clark County Lands Bill, allowing for tens of thousands more acres of public lands currently managed by the BLM to be sold at auction to cities and developers looking for space to expand.
But at every step of the bill’s journey, environmental groups ranging from the local Sierra Club chapter to the Center for Biological Diversity have voiced their opposition, saying it will sacrifice public lands for more suburban sprawl that will do nothing but line the pockets of developers.
The most recent attempt to enact legislation facilitating the sale of public lands came in 2021, when Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Public Lands, Forests, and Mining Subcommittee, introduced the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act.
The bill died last year in the Natural Resources Committee after Clark County dropped its support when the final legislation reduced the number of developable acres to just 25,000 and eliminated key pro-growth provisions sought by county officials.
But the Clark County Lands Bill is set to be reintroduced to Congress this year, and with the 2022 midterms returning the House to Republican control, environmentalists fear the days of stopping the bill might be gone.
More Land for Both Growth and Conservation
Supporters of the Clark County Lands Bill, including some conservation groups, say the legislation would conserve more land than would be developed to help facilitate growth in a state that has far more federal land than any other.
Opposition stems not from a desire to impede growth, according to the bill’s opponents, but from a desire for sustainable and ecologically smart growth in the desert Southwest as it confronts climate change. More growth means potentially more water consumption, more urban heat islands, more money spent on infrastructure and more people driving to work, putting more fossil fuels into the atmosphere and congesting traffic.
“The issues with the development in the lands bill is more about our climate and our kinds of patterns of development than it is about (saving) tortoises,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director, as he hiked up a trail in Hidden Valley. “If we keep bulldozing the desert to create new cities that suck down a bunch of fossil fuels as people drive to work, we won’t have any tortoises to save anyway.”
It’s not just tortoises that could suffer. The Center for Biological Diversity recently petitioned to have the white-margined penstemon protected under the endangered species act. Much of its habitat could be opened for development by the Clark County Lands Bill and other projects.
The bill would allow for development along I-15 from the outskirts of Las Vegas all the way to Jean, 30 miles away. That land would provide housing for workers at an airport planned to supplement Harry Reid International Airport, which is expected to reach its capacity by around 2030, and at commercial and industrial properties, said Clark County Commission Chairman James Gibson.
“We’re very much dependent upon a bill like this,” Gibson said.
The Clark County Lands Bill “is about keeping this economy alive,” he said. “Growth is something that we use to stimulate an economy that makes life here livable in a way that everybody’s got a better chance.”
But Chris Giunchigliani, a former Clark County commissioner and assemblywoman who initially voted for the resolution to draft what would become the lands bill, soon regretted it.
“Under the guise of economic development, they’re really encouraging sprawl,” she said in an interview.
State law caps local governments’ property tax rates, so for cities to draw more revenue, she said, they need to grow. Much of the bill, with all of its conservation requirements, is good, Giunchigliani said. But the aspects of the bill that promote growth should be separated, she said, so that the community could be given more opportunity to comment on what future development should look like.
Opponents say that the areas that would have been preserved under the bill were unlikely to have been developed in the first place, while the urban sprawl that opening other public lands to development will bring to Southern Nevada isn’t worth the consequences of more water consumption, traffic and sprawling heat islands.
Supporters, however, say that it’s up to local governments to manage growth and build their cities, not the federal government and that all the bill does is make more land available for possible development.
Some local conservation groups, like Friends of the Nevada Wilderness, don’t want to pass up the opportunity the bill presents to protect the Desert National Wildlife Refuge from the expansion of the Nellis Air Force Base. Shaaron Netherton, executive director of the group, has concerns regarding water usage and growth in Las Vegas, but said she looks at the legislation as more than just “the driver for growth.”
The Clark County Lands Bill is just the latest in what Andy Wiessner, a public lands consultant, calls “the Harry Reid special,” named after Nevada’s longtime Democratic Senator who helped usher in the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998 and subsequent legislation that opened up public lands in the region for development in the 2000s.
While public lands have been transferred to private owners for decades all across the West, the conveyances usually occur in simple land exchanges in which a private company gives land the public finds valuable to the federal government in exchange for land of equal dollar value suited for logging, mining, ranching or another industrial use, Wiessner said.
What happens in Nevada is more akin to a land conveyance, he said, where public lands are sold off for development and the proceeds go towards financing the acquisition of privately owned land. Such arrangements typically offer up some conservation measures to appease those who might oppose them, as the latest Clark County Lands Bill does by placing more than 2 million acres of public lands under protection. But the tracts being conserved are already public, he points out, getting an extra layer of protection.
Sen. Cortez Masto is preparing to reintroduce the Clark County Lands Bill in the current session of Congress. Her staff recently sent out a guide to local supporters detailing how bills promoting the disposal of public lands can build enough support to pass—criteria that the Clark County Lands Bill has largely satisfied.
Gibson, the Clark County Commission Chairman, said the bill will need to be reshaped slightly to address the concerns of different parties, but he did not say what the changes might look like. In the 1990s, he said, the county gave an acre for conservation to get an acre for development. Last year’s bill, he said, was more like giving up 50 acres of land to get one acre to develop.
A Tenant of the Federal Government
Simply put, Clark County officials say there isn’t enough privately owned land in the region to accommodate the population growth that’s projected over the coming decades.
A 2022 report from Applied Analysis put together for the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association found there are just 50,000 acres of land left for development in Clark County. “Southern Nevada has the potential to exhaust its ability to develop by 2032” under current growth projections, the report said.
The report also found that the unified development code for the county prevents higher-density developments near low-density developments, like many suburban, master-planned communities, which further limits growth. “Our builders can only build what we’re allowed to build,” said Amanda Moss, the senior director of government affairs at the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.
Beginning in the 1960s, cities in the U.S. began to “decompact,” said Steffen Lehmann, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Architecture who studies sustainable development. This led to zoning that separated housing, workplaces and recreation from each other, helping to drive to the urban sprawl of cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas and the car dependency of the people who live in them.
“The biggest sin of Sin City,” Lehmann said, “is to make people hopelessly car-dependent.”
To sustain its growth responsibly, he said, the city needs to limit developing suburbs and high-rise apartments to address its housing shortage, and instead build medium-density, mixed-use communities, and more public transportation. That means buildings three to eight stories high that feature affordable housing options on upper floors with restaurants and stores at street level.
The two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Lehmann said, come from transportation and electric power. To lower those, he said, you need to start recompacting cities by carefully increasing their density.
Having more mixed-use and walkable cities is what Cinthia Moore, the coordinator of the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition, wants too. She’s lived in Las Vegas for decades. “It’s changed dramatically,” she said, as the outskirts of the city have been pushed further and further out.
Her biggest worry with the Clark County Lands Bill is that her community will be left behind as money for growth will not go towards helping to fix the infrastructure in East Las Vegas but to new communities on the outskirts of the city.
Conserving Water to Grow
Every conversation around growth in the desert Southwest comes back to one thing: water.
Las Vegas has long been the model for water conservation in the region. Southern Nevada gets about 90 percent of its water from the dwindling Colorado River, but the state as a whole only gets around 300,000 acre feet of water a year from the river. California and Arizona, the two other Lower Basin states, receive 4.4 million acre feet and 2.8 million acre feet, respectively, though those numbers have dropped recently due to the ongoing drought.
To limit the demand on its meager supply, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies around 2.3 million residents in Southern Nevada, has offered rebates to remove grass at homes, prohibited turf in most new developments, improved infrastructure, sought other water supplies and now recycles nearly every gallon of water used indoors.
But despite that progress, the question of where the water will come from for future growth weighs heavily in considerations of initiatives like the Clark County Lands Bill.
The Colorado River is now in its 23rd year of drought—brought on by the impacts of climate change and decades of overallocation of the river’s water—and the seven states that rely on it are currently negotiating further cutbacks to save the system’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“There’s a reason why people are worried about having enough water for all the growth because they see it happening before their very eyes,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, an organization focused on freshwater issues in Nevada and Utah. “When you drive down in Vegas, every week you’re seeing something new pop up.”
Over the past two years, SNWA has seen big increases in the number of new water connections serving that growth, according to its 2023 Water Resources Plan. But the conservation efforts, Roerink and others point out, are just to accommodate the projected future growth of the region.
Roerink worries that the plan’s modeling of water in the Colorado River in coming decades isn’t conservative enough, given how quickly the flow has been declining.
The agency can update the plan every year and can project for even lower flows in the coming years if they need to, said Bronson Mack, a spokesperson for the SNWA.
With water crucial to any planned growth, the county required a pipeline—the Horizontal Lateral—to supply the valley’s southwest corner near Sloan and Jean, where much of the new development would be located.
The bill’s lack of a guarantee that the county could build that conduit was a principal reason county officials pulled their support. Two routes for the pipeline remain under consideration by the water authority that would require approval from the BLM to run underneath Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area.
Land Sales Support Conservation and Sprawl
Jeff Van Ee came to Las Vegas in the 1970s for the same reason many people do: To live somewhere close to national parks and surrounded by wide-open public lands. After growing up in Chicago, “the West was magical,” he said. “It was like a scene out of a Walt Disney special.”
After joining the local Sierra Club chapter, Van Ee learned the places that made the region so special were under threat. He came up with an idea: Auction some of the public lands that were ripe for development in the Las Vegas Valley to communities and developers and allow the BLM to spend the proceeds purchasing more environmentally sensitive tracts.
Around 1979 Nevada Rep. James Santini, brought Van Ee’s idea to Rep. Philip Burton, a California Democrat who was passionate about protecting Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada/California border, and was then the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
The Santini-Burton Act of 1980 was the first law passed by Congress allowing the BLM to auction off public lands within Clark County. The proceeds would go toward buying privately owned land around Lake Tahoe.
The Santini-Burton Act expired, but Clark County’s need for land didn’t. By the 1990s, it was one of the fastest-growing counties in the country and was working on the next Clark County Lands Bill, the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act.
Passed in 1998, it established a boundary within Clark County within which the BLM could auction off public lands, with 85 percent of the revenue going to the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, for conservation projects. Ten percent would go to the Southern Nevada Water Authority; and the State of Nevada General Education Fund would receive 5 percent.
Other bills passed since expanded the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act’s boundaries to open a total of 67,921 acres to urban development. As of last December, 27,648 acres remained available, according to the BLM, which has made over $3 billion from the land sales.
A special fund established when the bill was passed in 1998 ensures that money made off sales of federal lands in the state benefit Nevada exclusively, with Nevada politicians arguing the state, rather than the Interior Department, should have the final say in how the funds are spent.
Clark County itself has received $64 million through the public lands management act. The money has helped fund 129 conservation projects intended to offset impacts to species and habitats by the sale and development of land through the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, according to Jennifer Cooper, a spokesperson for the county.
The BLM has acquired more land with public lands act funds than it has sold, but it’s not what Van Ee envisioned. “It’s gone off track,” he said.
Although the special fund has received billions of dollars, they’re not being spent exclusively on environmentally sensitive lands, he said, but instead going towards things like improvements to visitor centers.
Worse, Van Ee said, is that the public lands act has led to development crawling all the way up to national conservation areas like Sloan Canyon and Red Rock Canyon.
With the new Clark County Lands Bill, Van Ee and others are concerned that the public has been left out of the conversation. Gone too is the idea of a buffer area between the urban sprawl of the cities and the national conservation areas.
Van Ee no longer visits the places that brought him to Nevada. There are too many homes and people crowding them.
“Sometimes, I wonder whether I regret ever putting this idea before Congressman Santini,” he said.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
Van Ee now worries about what comes next for public lands in Nevada and across the country.
In his first State of the State address in January, newly elected Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo, a Republican, called the release of federal lands within the state “a critical component to economic development and affordable housing.”
His remarks echoed a December resolution addressing affordable housing from the Western Governors Association, which asked Congress “to pass legislation facilitating the purchase of federal land by state or local governments at a reduced price for the purpose of increasing the supply of residential housing.”
‘There’s Nothing That Can Stop Us From Growing’
The first thing visitors to the Pabco Trailhead hear is the water running through the Las Vegas Wash.
It flows 15 miles through the Las Vegas Valley, channeling 200 million gallons of water a day back into Lake Mead. The wetlands of the wash provide habitat to almost 900 species like great blue herons and American coots. But it has also been vital to the region’s growth. Nearly every gallon of water used indoors by customers of the Southern Nevada Water Authority winds up running through the wash to the nation’s largest reservoir, where it is sent back out to communities scattered over hundreds of miles of southern Nevada desert—something any new development in Hidden Valley will also need to do.
Across the street from the trailhead, new communities are springing up, while Lake Mead lies just miles away and is about 75 percent empty.
In 1998, when Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act was passed, the public was fully involved in creating the plan to balance growth and conservation. It’s something Van Ee fears will be missing from the Clark County Lands Bill soon to be reintroduced in Congress.
Between 1977 and 1998, over 800,000 people moved to southern Nevada. “New frames of reference, new places to work, and new places to call home have reshaped our community vision as well as our landscape,” wrote the authors of a 1999 report from the Southern Nevada Strategic Planning Authority. The authority was created by the state legislature to address how the region would grow over the next 20 years and was made up of members of the public, like Van Ee.
“Where will the boundaries be twenty years from now?” the report asked. “Unfettered suburban sprawl is not an option.”
For decades now, Van Ee has wondered if anything could stop the region’s growth—air pollution, drought or perhaps the poor healthcare and education systems in the state.
But the approach from “the other side of the fence” has been clear, he said: “There’s nothing that can stop us from growing.”