“Wild Nevada” may get 545,000 acres wilder this week
Moving eastward from Reno, across the stark expansiveness of Highway 50, “America’s Loneliest Road,” past a smattering of smoky filling stations, hollow remnants of failed business ventures, and the “Shoe Tree” dangling with worn soles, is White Pine County. It’s home to the town of Ely, as well as to Great Basin National Park, ancient bristlecone pine trees, large populations of elk and mule deer, alpine lakes and staggering mountain ranges one wouldn’t expect from Nevada. It’s crisp and, in parts, snowy this time of year. It’s also elk and deer season, which the occasional congregation of hunters and the animals themselves remind us of as we travel in late October toward the Schell Creek Mountain Range.
“We” are a group of eight people along for a three-day weekend with the Reno-based Nevada Wilderness Project, which, along with a coalition of groups, including Friends of Nevada Wilderness, have advocated since 1999 to have this land designated as an official wilderness area.
Now, as part of a vast omnibus wilderness lands bill introduced in August by Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., 13 new wilderness areas in White Pine County totaling 545,000 acres could be designated. On Nov. 16, the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests hears testimony on the bill.
The Schells, with 122,123 acres to be designated, is the largest proposed wilderness area in the bill. According to NWP outreach director Cameron Johnson, it’s also the stretch of land with the most widespread approval for protection. With that consensus came opportunities to talk about other potential areas.
“If you put the Schell Creeks anywhere in the eastern United States, it would be a National Park,” says Johnson.
It’s a large area with year-round fishing streams and the kind of habitat well suited to its large population of elk and mule deer. Then there’s the simple value of open space—without that understanding, the point is lost.
Roxanne Sterr, a Patagonia employee and wilderness supporter, expertly maneuvers her Isuzu Rodeo up the rocky, gravel road toward the snow-dusted mountains of the Schell Creeks and to the little cabin at its base loaned to us for the weekend.
“Welcome to Wilderness, Nev.,” she says between rock-stricken jolts as we buck up the road.
The branches of aspen trees newly denuded of their fall color are within centimeters of the cars’ doors. Many of the trunks are etched with graffiti that scars the white bark a puffy black—some of the marks are from Basque sheep herders in the early 1900s; others are proclamations of love or mere presence from more recent years. The flash of a startled deer prances into the periphery. We cross a series of dry creeks that likely run fast with the snow. A sliver of crescent moon hangs in the still-light sky as we arrive at the cabin.
The Kennecott Copper Mine built the cabin back in the first half of the 20th century. It’s been in at least eight families’ names since then and is used primarily as a hunting cabin—the telltale mounted antlers, deer heads and photographs of successful expeditions being testament. Part of our deal with the current owner for staying there is that we chop wood to keep it heated for upcoming seasons. So that Saturday, we head out into the forest, dragging fallen pine and mahogany with us to be chainsawed into logs and chopped into firewood.
The irony isn’t lost when, our chainsaw blaring, an orange-vested hunter drives past us on his all-terrain vehicle and up the road past the cabin. This entire scene would be prohibited if the wilderness lands bill goes through—no chainsaws, no motorized vehicles, and the hunter’s ride on his ATV would’ve stopped where the road meets the cabin—the road beyond it would be restricted to vehicles, even mountain bikes. (Though for every restriction, provisions can be made if a need—fighting a forest fire, for example—is demonstrated.)
This is worth it for wilderness advocates, and, it turns out, for many of the residents of White Pine County.
Johnson says people in Ely—where bumper stickers reading “No H2O for You, LV” are increasingly common sights—have told him that 10-15 years ago, they would’ve “run wilderness folks out of town.” One difference now is that as population pressures in the southern part of the state threaten resources in White Pine County (specifically water, with plans for a waterline from eastern Nevada to Vegas being explored seriously), more residents are seeing the benefits of permanent protection for wild areas and traditional ways of living. Reid, in a statement to President Bush, speculated that residents are also more familiar with how wilderness areas are managed, having had Mount Moriah and the Currant Mountain designated in 1989. Those areas will also be expanded in this bill.
With stars clamoring for space in the night sky, a wood pile stacked halfway above the cabin’s window and a fire crackling in the fireplace, the group prepares for dinner. These outdoor folks, a number of them past or current Patagonia employees, come to the wilderness prepared—we bake homemade calzones that heave with peppers and sausage in the cabin’s gas oven and sip the last of a bottle of Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon, some draining it into mugs of apple cider until sleep takes over.
On Sunday morning, the last day before we begin the six-hour drive back to Reno, our group sets out for the ridgeline. We meet one microclimate after another as we hike upward, making our own path, as there is no trail. We weave through a grove of aspens, treading on their dried leaves underfoot, and up to a golden meadow, where deer droppings but no deer are spotted. Meadow turns to sagebrush, its bittersweet smell infusing our noses. Sagebrush mingles with mesquite-like shrubs that prick our legs as we rub past. Scree shifts under our feet, and our shoes sink into scattered patches of snow as we reach the ridgeline in just over an hour.
It’s more than 11,000 feet up here, with about a 2,000-feet elevation gain from the cabin. We appreciate this fact in the view and feel it in our legs and tightened lungs. The wind whips around us, and we escape the harsh breeze by hunkering down in front of some large rocks. We take in the scene. Johnson, in his rather pilot-like voice, identifies what we’re seeing: the snow-capped Wheeler Peak rising within Great Basin National Park in the Snake Range, then panoramically, the Egan Range, White Pine Range and the Grant Range. Everything we see from here is proposed as official wilderness, and regardless of official formalities, it’s wild.
There are those who think conservation groups like NWP are selling out by not insisting that all of the 730,000 acres they originally proposed be in the bill. The Sierra Club, for instance, does not approve of the bill as it’s written. But while groups are still advocating for inclusion of the entire South Egan Range and the Blue Mass area within the Kern Mountains, Johnson says the political reality is such that they have to act now.
“Conservation is not the Bush administration’s top priority, and with a Republican majority, they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do,” said Johnson in October. But, he says, Sen. Ensign, a hard-line Republican, has pull within his party and is in favor of increasing wilderness areas in White Pine County. Waiting could be risky.
“We think these areas deserve protection on their own merit,” he says. “We think the time is now.”