Parties on the playa

The BLM’s dedication of the new Black Rock wilderness area was a celebration—or confiscation, depending on your point of view

Ranchers and hunters were among the protesters at the BLM’s wilderness dedication in the Black Rock Desert.

Ranchers and hunters were among the protesters at the BLM’s wilderness dedication in the Black Rock Desert.

Photo by Deidre Pike

For maps and detailed info about Nevada’s wilderness areas, check out

Conflict was in the air. Literally. A plane flew a few hundred feet above the dusty expanse of playa pulling a banner: “Traitor Dick & Dirty Harry.”

Too bad Sen. Harry Reid and former Sen. Richard Bryan weren’t there to see it, complained an army of ranchers, hunters and states’ rights gadflies dressed in blue T-shirts with the slogan: “Nevadans betrayed by Bryan & Reid.”

For these critics, the public dedication Saturday of the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area was a “celebration” of land confiscation by the federal government.

“Nevada is not a territory,” read one of two signs held by a young guy in a cowboy hat. The second sign read: “The sheriff is the only elected law inforcement [sic] official in the USA.”

At first sight, it seemed that more protesters than fans turned out for the Bureau of Land Management’s “A Celebration on the Desert.” A later count turned up wilderness supporters like the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Friends of the Black Rock and Burning Man staffers. No matter. Ranchers and environmentalists alike enjoyed the free muffins, bagels and fruit provided for the event. Popular, too, were bottles of water chilling in buckets of ice. By mid-morning, the playa was hot beyond comfort. And dry. And gritty from the dust clouds formed in the wakes of vehicles zipping across the flat expanse at high speeds.

The Black Rock Desert is part of more than 1.1 million acres of Nevada designated a wilderness or national conservation area by the U.S. Congress last year. Both wilderness and NCA designations are designed to provide an extra degree of protection, conservation and enhancement for land that qualifies as historic, scenic or significant in terms of wildlife or biological resources.

“Westerners are beginning to appreciate the relationship between wilderness and their own community health, be it quality of recreation, quality of water or the quality of their landscape’s ability to inspire wonder or stewardship,” said the text of a Friends of Nevada Wilderness booklet. “The preservation of natural ecosystems has become the first step in sustainable development.”

Ah, development.

That’s the problem, say those who’ve long fought against wilderness designations for land in Nevada. They want the choice to ranch that land, or mine it—cruise around all of it in all-terrain vehicles or turn it into a geothermal power plant. These folks banked on what they thought were promises from Nevada politicians to protect their land from the wilderness-crazed land guardians. So when the bill to create Nevada wilderness was shoved through Congress at breakneck speed—at the end of Sen. Bryan’s term—they felt thoroughly betrayed.

“No land confiscation without local representation,” read one hand-written sign. Another said: “Before stealing Nevada’s lands, Harry, try Reiding the Constitution.”

The protesters’ message was odd, said Charles Watson, co-founder of the National Public Lands Task Force.

” ‘The land belongs to Nevadans,’ “ he said, reading from one sign. “Of course, it belongs to Nevadans—and to Californians and all Americans.”

For Watson, the dedication was the culmination of decades of activism. The 66-year-old said he was still a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, when people started talking about conservation of the Black Rock Desert.

“For a long time, even environmentalists thought we were certifiably insane,” Watson said, chuckling. “They said this was a wasteland; there’s nothing out here. We proved ’em wrong.”

Banjo player and singer Chris Bayer kicked off the event with songs and tales of life on the emigrant trail. The Black Rock area contains some of the last untouched segments of the historic California emigrant trails, including wagon ruts, historic inscriptions and a landscape that—despite Burning Man and the vehicles buzzing around trying to break the world’s land-speed record—looks nearly the same as it did in pioneer times.

“These were some gritty songs,” Bayer said, strumming a few stray chords. “This was a pretty dusty place then, as it is now.”

Supporters and a few critics sat in the shade of a tent set up for protection from the elements. The protesters stood with large banners outside the tent, toasting in the sun. Bayer prepped the crowd for a song about dysentery.

“Do you know what the chief killer of people coming over the desert was?” he asked.

“The BLM!” someone shouted. Protesters laughed heartily.

The comment threw Bayer’s presentation off. He picked out another note or two, but he couldn’t get the song going. He’d forgotten the words. He looked up apologetically at the crowd.

“I’m just the banjo player,” he said.

Though remarks from Reid and Bryan were scheduled on the event’s program, they didn’t show. That frustrated the many who’d fretted over T-shirt designs, decorated a protest bus and planned for the airplane’s flight over the event.

Reid’s excuse—a meeting in Washington—was greeted with a dubious: “Yeah, right.”

Before reading the text of Reid’s prepared statement, Reid spokeswoman Mary Conelly paused to smile and wave at the protesters.

“I’m just saying hello to my family in the blue shirts there,” she explained. “Hi. See you on the Fourth!”

Bryan’s excuse for not showing up—he’s still recovering from a throat infection that had him hospitalized last week—was at least plausible. But two of the protesters said that they were still “thoroughly disgusted” with the politicians’ absences.

“They make laws about the wilderness that aren’t complete, and then leave everyone else to sort things out,” said Ron Saunders of Reno.

“When Bryan was governor, he said he was against all of this,” said Norm Budden of Carson City.

Both Saunders and Budden are avid sportsmen who fear the new designation will change their outdoor experience. Though hunting and fishing are allowed, with the usual regulations, in both wilderness and NCA areas, motor vehicles or any other mechanical transport, including mountain bikes, aren’t an option for wilderness areas. Saunders said he frequently hunts in the High Rock Canyon area. Though a road through High Rock Canyon will be open to motorized use, according to a BLM handout, it’s not enough access for Saunders.

“There’s a lot of good chukkar hunting up there,” Saunders said. “This cuts it off to me.” Activities allowed in NCAs and wilderness areas NCA: Still open for motor vehicles, aircraft, bikes, permitted grazing, wildlife management, existing mining operations including geothermal, special recreation permits (i.e. Burning Man), hunting and fishing in season with license, non-commercial rockhounding, rock climbing, metal detectors, chainsaws, tent camping and campfires, fire-fighting efforts, noxious weed control, hiking, horseback riding, nature study.

Wilderness areas: Still open for permitting grazing, wildlife management, existing mines, hunting and fishing in season with license, rockhounding, climbing, radios, campstoves, tent camping and campfires, fire-fighting efforts, noxious weed control, hiking, horseback riding, nature study. Special recreation permits are more restricted. No motor vehicles, aircraft or mountain bikes.