Keep Washoe wild

Environmentalists work to protect five new Washoe County areas

Shevawn Von Tobel, left, and Shaaron Netherton, right, of Friends of Nevada Wilderness are working to designate five new wilderness areas in Washoe County in 2016.

Shevawn Von Tobel, left, and Shaaron Netherton, right, of Friends of Nevada Wilderness are working to designate five new wilderness areas in Washoe County in 2016.

PHOTO/Kelsey Fitzgerald

For more information on the Wild Washoe Wilderness Campaign, visit:
For more information on Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas, visit:

What lies to the northern end of Washoe County, beyond Pyramid Lake? A lot, if you’re into sagebrush, pronghorn, bumpy backcountry roads and big skies. For all who appreciate Nevada for its wildlife and wide-open spaces, Friends of Nevada Wilderness are working to protect five new wilderness areas in 2016 through their Wild Washoe Wilderness Campaign.

The proposed wilderness areas, which range in size from 23,600 to 235,000 acres, are located in northern Washoe County, west of the Black Rock Desert and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. These areas include top-quality sagebrush habitat, volcanic rocks, petroglyphs, important wildlife migration corridors and much more.

“This is sort of ground-zero for some of the best sage-grouse habitat out in northwest Nevada, so designating [the wilderness areas] will help with long-term protection for sage-grouse habitat, as well as incredible wilderness value,” said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.

To be eligible for federal protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964, a proposed wilderness area must consist of a parcel of at least 5,000 acres of undeveloped land with “outstanding opportunities” for solitude and primitive recreation, such as hiking or hunting. If protection is granted, use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, mechanical transport—including mountain bikes—and certain other activities will be prohibited.

All five parcels of proposed wilderness in Washoe County are federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Each were designated “wilderness study areas” during the late 1970s, meaning that they have been under consideration for protection under the Wilderness Act for close to 40 years, but an official designation has never been made.

“They’ve been hanging out in sort of a limbo status,” Netherton said. “It takes an act of Congress to either make them wilderness or to release them to uses other than wilderness.”

Because these lands are public, the public has a say in what happens; FNW has been holding meetings with stakeholders and adjusting boundaries of the proposed wilderness as needed to accommodate for the interests of road departments, ranchers, hunters and others who have chosen to voice their opinions. They are seeking additional public support and involvement, and encourage people to let their congressmen know if they’d like to see these areas protected.

“Showing that grassroots support is very important,” said Shevawn Von Tobel, communications and outreach manager for FNW.

Currently, Washoe County only has one wilderness area—the heavily used Mt. Rose Wilderness, located just outside of Reno. But Reno is growing, and the time to protect these additional spaces is now, says Netherton.

FNW, working in cooperation with Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, sportsman’s groups and other stakeholders, hope to see the wilderness designation move forward early in 2016 as part of a larger Washoe County Public Lands proposal. They’d like to see it finalized before the end of the year, when Sen. Reid, who has been a champion for public land legislation in Nevada, retires.