Ensign Office Uncertain as BLM Rolls On

  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

Las Vegas -- Still apparently uncertain of where it may lead them, spokesmen for U.S. Representative John Ensign (R-NV) said the congressman's Natural Resources Committee was to hear from the Bureau of Land Management Inspector General last week and follow that up in September with public testimony on questionable trades of federal property in Las Vegas for "environmentally sensitive" lands elsewhere.  
Top officials of the federal lands agency have already brushed aside implications of a draft audit report as a mere "bookkeeping error" that made it seem taxpayers lost at least $12 million on just a few swaps in recent years.
The BLM spokesman in Las Vegas said the final audit report of the Inspector General would support his office, and he hinted at an internal investigation to find out who "leaked" the misleading draft report.
In the meantime, exchanges of potentially lucrative Vegas acres for de-watered former farm land in northern Nevada were apparently going ahead, with the help of the Nature Conservancy, which is brokering several deals for Arizona and Las Vegas developer Del Webb Corporation.
Despite BLM denials of any mishandling of public trust, the hearings are regarded by some experts as having the potential for opening a full-blown Congressional investigation of such BLM bargain trading that appears to benefit gaming and development interests under the pretext of "saving" lesser-valued land for the good of the environment.
In the case of the Del Webb swaps, that's formerly irrigated farm land which the Conservancy in intends to dry up by turning the water rights over to wetlands restoration at the desert sink terminus of the Carson River. In return, the BLM hands out pieces of federal property near the Sky Harbor airport in Las Vegas that Del Webb wants for development.
Former BLM Chief Appraiser Charles Hancock has estimated that similar such deals over the past decade have shortchanged taxpayers by as much as $150 million in profits the government could have received by offering the Las Vegas land for competitive bidding.
So far, Hancock, who was in charge of appraisals on all federal land in Nevada up until his retirement in 1989, has not been invited to testify. In fact, Hancock has been ignored and told he has "no standing" in at least a dozen protests to federal land exchanges he has filed since leaving the bureaucracy.
"At least it would be nice to win one," he said hopefully last week after touring wasted farm land near the old town of Stillwater that the Nature Conservancy has already brokered for Del Webb.
If there is potential in the hearings for slowing down the dubious dealing on Lahontan Valley farmlands, however, it seemed to carry no urgency to The Nature Conservancy and its Fallon operative, Graham Chisholm, who recently took out display ads in the Fallon newspaper offering to buy water rights on the Carson from any "willing sellers" ready to part with them.
Chisholm and TNC are now presenting themselves as representatives of the state of Nevada in returning former community pasturelands to wetlands. No mention was made in the ad of TNC's past or present financial relationship with the Del Webb Corp.
But the "willing
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sellers" Chisholm seeks in the Lahontan Valley are fully aware that the only buyers available for their land or water are the Conservancy and its financial partners acting indirectly on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the BLM itself.
There were indications that even those free spenders might be getting more frugal as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation moved toward full takeover of the irrigation project, presenting representatives of farmers with terms for a new federal contract that they would find impossible to sign or to present for approval of the remaining irrigators.
The contract, rewritten in Washington, D.C. and ignoring proposals from a year of talks between the irrigation district and Nevada-based BOR bureaucrats, appeared to some Fallon farmers as the opening move in a long-held scheme of Federal Justice Department lawyer Fred Disheroon to simply seize the rights of resisting farmers.
Disheroon represents Interior Department interests on the irrigation project. In an American Bar Association publication on water issues late last year, he wrote that "alternative approaches" other than purchase need to be tried to loosen the hold of irrigation rights on water from the Newlands Project.
"[A]lternative approaches involve more stringent enforcement of all limiting provisions of western water law," Disheroon wrote. "This includes the loss of rights provisions (transfers) discussed here, but it also includes measures to reduce the amount of water used to transport water to the end user or to limit the amount used versus the amount needed to achieve the decreed purpose..."
In other words, if irrigators won't sell their water rights, Disheroon suggests there may be ways to simply take them.
When the proposed contract negotiated over the past year was sent to Washington in early July, it was understood that Disheroon was among the high Interior Department officials who rewrote it. Local researchers for the farmers have reported that both Disheroon and Pyramid Lake Tribal Attorney Robert Pelcyger are alumni of Yale University, though it could not be determined if they were classmates. In his law journal article, Disheroon frequently cites legal challenges made by Pelcyger on behalf of the tribe.
In any event, indications were that changes made in the contract negotiated by the irrigators came after letters sent to Washington by Pelcyger from his Colorado law office.
Chisholm's Nature Conservancy newspaper ad was seen by some as another direct swat in the face by the young environmentalist-land broker to the Churchill County Commission which had demanded that water right purchases be halted until the federal government produces a full Environmental Impact Statement on the implication of drying out agriculture in the region.


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