Las Vegas Sprawl Plan Would Undermine Wildlands, Recreation

Local officials in Las Vegas have are looking to expand the metropolitan area's urban sprawl much deeper into desert wildlands, encroaching on two National Conservation Areas and bolstering plans for an ill-conceived major airport south of the city that would send air traffic over the Mojave National Preserve.

The Nevada Independent reported that Clark County - home of Las Vegas - wants Congress to consider legislation that would hand over nearly 62 square miles of public lands to the County for future urban development.  The effect of continued urban sprawl would span across much more than just the 62 square miles of land bulldozed for more roads, housing, strip malls and warehouses.   For one, urban encroachment would reach the doorstep - or begin to surround - prized recreation areas.  Hiking in Sloan Canyon or parts of Red Rock Canyon will be less desirable if the sights and sounds of human develop begin to intrude on areas that currently offer a natural escape from these elements.  And any urban development has what is known as an "edge effect," undermining the natural and wild characteristics of surrounding open lands.  We can expect increased introduction of invasive plant species, less wildlife diversity, illegal dumping of trash, etc.

The map below is part of the draft Clark County proposal obtained by the Nevada Independent.  The areas in black are the public lands currently targeted for "disposal," or acquisition by the County. Areas in red were made available to the County in the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA).

The Google map below highlights the approximate locations of proposed sprawl from the Clark County document for easier navigation. Click on the red icons for more information.

This would be the second major loss of public lands to sprawl in the Las Vegas region since the last public lands "disposal" bill passed Congress in 1998, and would also occur around the same time that the Air Force is requesting to close down hundreds of square miles of public land north of Las Vegas.  As you can see in the map above, Clark County still has not even developed the parcels of land afforded to it by the 1998 SNPLMA (shown in red), yet it already plans to imperil more wildlands.

Sprawl Anchored by a New Airport

The largest chunk of public lands targeted by Clark County appears to be a vast swath of desert wildlands extending south of Las Vegas.   For at least two decades officials have expressed interest in extending urban sprawl closer to the stateline, anchored by a proposal for a second major airport to be built near Primm and called the Ivanpah Airport.  Local officials anticipate that McCarran Airport will eventually fail to accommodate the demand for air transportation to the metropolitan area, and assume that some travelers wont mind flying into an airport over 30 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip.

The County proposal uncovered by the Nevada Independent would make unspecified adjustments to public lands to "decrease potential conflicts with necessary infrastructure for a future supplemental airport," referring to the Ivanpah Airport proposal. Congress granted the County access to the land it needs for the proposed "Ivanpah Airport" site in 2000, but most of the open desert between the proposed airport location and Las Vegas belongs to the public - for now.

Building the Ivanpah Airport and opening up nearby lands to commercial developers are County goals that reinforce one another. The County can make a stronger case for a second airport if they can expand sprawl southward, and they can encourage more development on those southern lands if an airport is built that would appeal to commercial and industrial real estate developers.

A slide in the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee presentation from 2015 highlights plans for the "Ivanpah Airport" just north of Primm, Nevada. Envisioned as a second major airport for Las Vegas, but located over 30 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.

Wild Escapes in Sloan Canyon, Hidden Valley in Jeopardy
Building the Ivanpah Airport and opening up nearby lands to commercial developers would erode the natural qualities of popular recreation areas that currently serve as gateways to the outdoors.  Aircraft taking off or landing at the Ivanpah Airport would fly low over Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA) and even the nearby Mojave National Preserve in California.

This southern swath of land targeted by the County includes large tracts of land immediately west of the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA) and the North McCullough Wilderness Area.  The proposal would develop much of the Hidden Valley area at the southwestern edge of the Sloan Canyon NCA.  These intact desert wildlands are a perfect place for primitive recreation, and the location of a trailhead that hikers use to access the southern portion of Sloan Canyon.

The County proposal would also expand development along the eastern and northeastern border of the Sloan Canyon NCA, including near the Quo Vadis Trailhead and Railroad Pass.

Creeping Closer to Red Rock Canyon 

Las Vegas residents battling a proposed housing development on the doorstep of Red Rock Canyon NCA would have yet another headache to deal with.  The Clark County proposal includes plans for development on a significant swath of public land immediately north of Blue Diamond Road and west of South Fort Apache Road.  The proposal would also add development along the northeastern portion of the National Conservation Area, including near Kyle Canyon Road.

Adding insult to injury, Clark County also wants permission to further increase entrance fees to the 13-mile Red Rock Canyon scenic drive and divert some of the money to County coffers.  The County says it would go to offset emergency response costs.  Never mind that most of the Red Rock Canyon NCA visitors are Clark County residents that pay local taxes, and the rest are tourists who likely pay "room taxes" and other sales taxes.

Sprawl Ignores Sustainability Issues and Solutions

In addition to the significant loss of additional wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation space, more urban sprawl in the Las Vegas region would stress an already dwindling water supply and add to traffic woes.   More frequent and prolonged drought has taken a toll on Las Vegas' primary water supply - Lake Mead.  The water level at Lake Mead is so low that officials decided that they could not deliver the full amount of rationed water to Nevada and Arizona in 2018.  Las Vegas wants to tap the groundwater supplies of communities up north, building a pipeline that will cost billions of dollars.  But even if that ill-conceived pipeline is built, it would be yet another temporary fix to a long-term water scarcity problem.

Clark County's proposal to expand further into our desert wildlands appears to be ignoring smarter urban planning focused on "infill," or taking advantage of vacant or undeveloped lands within the existing boundaries of the metropolitan area, improving mass transit options and creating a more walkable city.  There are plenty of undeveloped parcels of land within Clark County's "beltway," and older developments could be improved with a focus on making neighborhoods more livable.  The answer should not always be to bulldoze more desert habitat and privatize our public lands.


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