Developers of a federal lands bill designed to protect Carson Valley agriculture are hoping to see the legislation passed early in the 113th U.S. Congress, which convenes Jan. 3.
Dominique Etchegoyhen, co-principal of Legacy Land and Water, said the last time congress passed a lands bill was in May 2009.
"There are a lot of public lands bills waiting to be introduced, and they usually go forward together," he said. "Our bill can go through individually, it will have its own hearing and committee, but it may be voted on all together. We don't know yet, and we want to be prepared for either scenario."
Dominique and father Jacques Etchegoyhen have been working on the Douglas County Conversation Bill for more than three years, and are currently contracted with the county for no more than $4,000 a month.
In a Dec. 19 interview in The Record-Courier building, they said the bill represents 15 years of collaboration between local, state and federal agencies.
"This has been a time-consuming process, but we've resolved a lot of issues," Dominique said. "We've worked through those issues and have achieved incredible balance for our local citizens but also for the national public and their resources."
Many issues have revolved around one provision in the bill to designate about 12,000 acres in the eastern Pine Nut Mountains as the Burbank Canyons Wilderness Area.
As proposed, existing roadways such as Red Canyon and Rickey Canyon roads would remain open and provide the northern and southern borders, respectively, to the wilderness area, where motorized travel would be prohibited.
"There would be a 50-foot buffer where you could pull off anywhere along the road and not be in wilderness," Dominique said.
In February, 160 signatures from Smith and Mason valleys residents opposing wilderness designation were presented to Douglas County commissioners. The board, however, approved the conceptual framework of the bill, including the wilderness provision.
"It limits the ability for further incursion," said Dominique. "It wouldn't allow the creation of new roads."
He said many off-road enthusiasts are still opposed to the wilderness designation, but that Douglas County has made a point of limiting the wilderness area within existing uses.
"It preserves the status quo," he said.
Beyond the wilderness debate, at the heart of the bill, is the continued conservation of Carson Valley agricultural land.
The bill addresses three federal parcels in the northern, commercialized zone of the Valley, totaling 62 acres, that may prove valuable. Two are Forest Service properties and one is BLM land.
The Etchegoyhens explained that an act of congress is necessary to sell public property, and that the bill would redirect proceeds from the aforementioned parcels into conservation easements in the Valley. They gave a ballpark value of $10 million for the parcels, with the caveat that market conditions fluctuate and new appraisals would be needed.
"The one 28-acre parcel could mean several family ranches under conservation easements," Dominique said.
Furthermore, the Etchegoyhens argued, commercial development of new receiving area would mean more development rights being transferred from existing ranches.
"We have many more folks interested in conservation easements than we'll probably ever find money for," said Jacques. "Fewer than 30 folks own the vast majority of acreage in Douglas County, and two-thirds of them are very interested in participating."
Other features of the bill include leasing BLM land to the county for flood management and infrastructure, transferring culturally significant lands to the Washoe Tribe, and improving management of existing recreational parcels.
The bill would also address vacant federal land along the west slope of the Pine Nuts.
"There are thousands of acres designated for disposal," said Jacques. "We want the proceeds from those sales to be used for conservation in Douglas County. Right now, that money would go back to the treasury."
Both men said the lands bill is intended to build on the Douglas County Master Plan.
"Sixty-four percent of the land in Douglas County is federal land that is outside the master plan and that no one can get their arms around," Jacques said. "This tries to address that."
They said previous conservation efforts in Carson Valley have led to the preservation of 15,000 acres.
"That is about one-third of the irrigated acreage of the Valley," Jacques said. " 'Heartening' is the right word for that, I suppose. We're trying to build on those 15,000 acres."
The father-and-son team still knows that obstacles lie ahead, such as "the political realities of getting something through the House and Senate."
"In essence, we have near-unanimous support, and we want to keep it that way," Jacques said. "The goal posts are in sight."