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Saving ag open space can be done, some say

by Sharon Carter

It will take teamwork at all levels – local, state and federal – to preserve agricultural open space and wildlife and riparian environments from development pressure, and still accommodate and direct economic growth.

Here in the Carson Valley, at the state level in Carson City and in Washington, D.C., there are many who believe it can be done and done well.

One of the methods being developed, the Rural Lands Initiative, is a process which will allow the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to purchase conservation easements to preserve important natural areas in Nevada.

In Douglas County, which has a sizeable amount of critical river and agricultural area to protect, a steering committee made up of representatives of business, agricultural and environmental interests is sponsoring its first community-oriented workshop May 8 at Douglas High School.

The group hopes to help fine tune the process through which ranchers and farmers can sell the rights to build on or develop all or parts of their land to the BLM, yet still own and operate their agricultural businesses and pass the land and the operations on to their children and grandchildren.

n Here to help. Tom Baker, the rural field representative for U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., represents Sen. Bryan’s office on the committee. Baker, who will moderate the meeting, referred the R-C’s questions to his boss.

“It is my sense that in Douglas County there is a desire of the people to keep open space and preserve their rural atmosphere,” Bryan said in a telephone interview Thursday.

The workshop’s goal, he said, is to develop strategies to help the Valley community to that end, particularly, through developing tax strategies and planning land uses.

“The meeting will be a forum for an exchange of ideas about what the county wants and how it can be accomplished,” he said.

“I see the Carson Valley as one of the loveliest areas in the state. Because it is so nice, the area is growing and will see an awful amount of growth in the future.

“This concept involves a blended private-public partnership – the government will only work with willing sellers who want to keep their properties in open space or agriculture and still keep title to the land.”

Such agreements become conservation easements on the land owners’ deeds that ban future development on the properties. A ranch without development rights will always be agricultural open space, it cannot eventually become a strip mall or a residential subdivision.

Once the rights to develop are removed from a piece of property, the county would make sure the bargain was kept by checking for the deed restrictions when people apply for building permits.

Representing the Carson-Douglas-Lyon-Tahoe Board of Realtors, Toni Rooker, a real estate broker who runs the farm and ranch division at Century 21/Clark Properties in Minden, is also on the committee.

“I’m there to learn and not make judgments,” Rooker said Thursday. “I’ll gather information and make it available for our ranch clients and the board of Realtors.”

Rooker, who lives on what she terms a “40-acre hobby ranch,” embraces the rural lifestyle.

“I love the land and respect a lot of different opinions,” she said. “I also believe in property rights and the rights of ranchers to make their own decisions. Like anyone else, if they’re informed, they’ll make better decisions.

“This could give people another option and help keep the Valley beautiful.”

n Another tool. Another tool that would go hand-in-hand with the Rural Lands Initiative is the Northern Nevada Public Lands Bill which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and is supported by Bryan. The bill was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.

If the bi-partisan bill passes both houses of Congress and becomes law, the Carson District of the Bureau of Land Management will be able to auction off certain parcels of land in rapidly-developing areas like northern Douglas County – parcels which county officials have identified to the State Lands Office for growth.

The bill is patterned after the Oct. 19, 1998 Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act which released public lands in Clark and Lincoln counties to accommodate growth. A portion of the money earned from the land sales will go to the state of Nevada for education programs. Another portion goes to the Secretary of the Interior’s Office to be used to acquire environmentally sensitive lands within the state, particularly at Lake Tahoe. The rest must be used to pay program expenses and help finance capital improvements, conservation and wildlife refuges, parks and trails managed by the BLM in Nevada.

In the bill, some of the money earned from such sales could be used to pay farmers and ranchers not to develop their land in critical conservation areas along the Carson River.

n State Senate asks for Congressional support. Wednesday, the Nevada Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 10 (SJR10), which urges Congress to pass the currently pending Northern Nevada Public Lands Bill. The state senate has already approved it by a vote of 21-0.