Bye, Tahoe—hello, strip mall

Imagine, my forest-loving friends, driving to your favorite trail in Tahoe and finding, instead of a public trail head, a barbed-wire fence and a “Trespassers will be shot” sign.

Or worse, a Super Wal-Mart.

Nevada’s vast expanses of open space are shrinking—and new proposed legislation would put more public land in private hands faster.

Sure, I’m exaggerating. I hope. But I’m worried. The House of Representatives approved a version of a budget reconciliation bill recently including bits of law that gives developers spasms of delight. The budgetary revision, backed by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and our own Jim Gibbons, R-Here, would allow public lands with mineral deposits or even “depleted” mineral deposits to be sold to fuel the fed’s economic engine.Hopefully, this bad idea will be routed by more clear-headed legislators by the time you read this. (The Senate passed a budget with no public land sell-away. Legislators were meeting this week to work out grisly details.) Even so, similar legislation will keep appearing as long as developers drool over prospects of cheap public land. (Concern is similarly widespread over a bill introduced on Oct. 28 that would open for development 412,000 acres of wilderness study areas in northern Nevada and California.)

What’s so bad about building hotels, ski resorts, condos, oil rigs and mini-malls on land with mining claims?

Consider this, outdoor lovers: The Lake Tahoe area, including Tahoe National Forest, features about 40,000 acres with active mining claims. There are 432 claims in California’s Mojave National Preserve and 286 claims in Death Valley.

That’s why critics like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., fear the House bill, which repeals a 1994 ban on mining patenting or the sell-off of public lands claimed for mining. Besides losing access to public space, the privatization of vast areas of the West could lead to an international “land grab” with acreage being snatched up for non-mining uses like real estate development and oil drilling.

Does thar be black gold in them thar Tahoe hills? Better hope not.

It’s no surprise that House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo is sponsoring this toxic sludge. Mucho macho Pombo comes from a multi-millionaire ranching and real estate developing family in California. You’ve heard his name. He’s pushing for a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act and leading the charge to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Pombo’s in love with ozone-destroying pesticides—and opposes any bans on them. He can’t figure out federal regulations on whaling—so bring on the harpoons. Yes, this is the lawmaker who called for selling 15 national parks.

Oh, that Pombo.

As a person who makes a significant part of his money from land development, Pombo’s also a living, breathing conflict of interest. Though he’s supposedly opposed to big government and taxes, he doesn’t mind siphoning millions for such pork as arguably unneeded freeways near his family’s holdings in Tracy, Calif. These freeways, incidentally, would likely increase the net worth of PomboCo. (More on Pombo in the East Bay Express’ Aug. 24 issue. It’s online.)

What surprises me is that Dick Pombo is locking lips with Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons. You’d think that Gibbons, who wants to be our next governor, would know how important public lands and open space are to Nevadans.

Nevadans like to hike, play in the woods, frolic in the desert. We think that public access to land boosts our standard of living, contributes to the mental health of Nevada residents and makes our state an enviable place.

I once wrote a futuristic story in which Lake Tahoe was surrounded by a tall cyclone fence to keep the peasants out and protect the holdings of the wealthy for upcoming moneyed generations.At the time, I thought I was writing fiction.