Court Documents Reveal:
By Tim Findley
|A seven-year campaign by a rich national conservation organization to acquire Fallon farmers' water rights turns out to have been covertly subsidized by the U.S. government.|
|Court documents reveal The Nature
Conservancy (TNC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
quietly signed an agreement in 1989 effectively making
the non-profit group an agent of the federal government
in its drive to obtain irrigation rights from farmers in
the Lahontan Valley's Newlands Project.
Because the Nature Conservancy organization presented itself to Nevada and Churchill County authorities as an independent party acting in good faith, it was granted that role during critical negotiations with the federal government. Now, local officials are charging that TNC operatives and federal agencies essentially conspired to subvert local authority.
"It amounts to a betrayal," said Nevada State Assembly Representative Marcia DeBraga said last week.
"It's really a tragedy that farmers and others went into those talks in good faith and with high hopes, never knowing that the deck was stacked against them," she said.
DeBraga said she will seek a state or federal investigation of the agreement between the Conservancy and the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.
The contractual arrangement hiring the Conservancy and its Nevada representative, Graham Chisholm, as virtual secret federal agents remained in effect as least through June of this year and cost U.S. taxpayers over $300,000, the documents revealed.
Steve Hobbs, Nature Conservancy's Nevada director, denied last week that there was anything secret or suspicious about the group's deal with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and portrayed it as merely an agreement to share environmental data on the region.
But DeBraga and others in the Lahontan Valley were unimpressed by Hobb's denials and said they were never informed of the Conservancy agreement with the feds until it was revealed by court documents last week.
The agreement, which Hobbs contended was never "a contract," was established even before passage of U.S. Senator Harry Reid's so-called "Negotiated Settlement Act," and was repeatedly renewed through June of 1996, each time giving the Conservancy organization more responsibility in the acquisition of water rights.
The 1993 version of the agreement specifically called on TNC to explore "the operational de-coupling of the lower Truckee and Carson river basins, and the off-project use of Newlands Project water rights."
DeBraga said an investigation should focus on not only the secret nature of the agreement, but its potential conflict of interest between a government agency and the non-profit group.
While there was little doubt among farmers in the Lahontan Valley, she said, that Nature Conservancy operative Graham Chisholm was at the time trying to acquire more water for an expanded wetlands region, Chisholm never revealed he was working under an agreement with federal authorities that paid part of his salary.
Chisholm, who this summer left or was removed from his position with the Nature Conservancy, entered the Lahontan Valley in 1990 and portrayed himself to local groups -- as well as elected county and irrigation officials -- as the sympathetic representative of a non-profit foundation seeking "partnership" with the valley in developing an environmental plan.
Part of Chisholm's duties, supposedly on behalf of the Conservancy, was to identify "willing sellers" of irrigation rights and offer to buy them out, either as a representative of the Conservancy, or as a broker for the Del Webb Corporation of Arizona which was involved in other federal agreements to swap farm land purchased by the corporation for more valuable BLM property near Las Vegas.
The Conservancy arrangement with Del Webb thus also potentially brought the huge real estate developer, with its immense financial resources, on board as a Department of Interior ally in the pursuit of the Fallon water rights.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife authorities admitted in 1994 that they lacked sufficient federal appropriations to carry out the full purchase of water necessary to expand the Fallon wetlands areas as mandated by Senator Reid's Public Law 101-618. Apparently the wildlife agency's agreement with Nature Conservancy was in large part based on the organization's independence of federal budget appropriations or Congressional will.
"We were not trying to hide what we were doing," Hobbs of the Conservancy argued. "Clearly the agreements do not commit The Nature Conservancy to any U.S. Fish and Wildlife positions."
But the federal agreement called on TNC to "cut through the controversies on Newlands project efficiencies, active water rights and transfer rates.." and "apply the integrated Below Lahontan Reservoir and Negotiated Settlement Models."
The "Below Lahontan Reservoir" model is later identified in the document as having been developed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) under another federal contract. The model is designed primarily to take away water for irrigation from farming in the Lahontan Valley and its Newlands Reclamation Project and direct it into a vast new wetlands area.
According to elected farmer representatives in the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District (TCID), the EDF "model" would virtually dry up farming in the Lahontan Valley.
"If the farmers had created their own model as a basis of settlement it would have been seen as an obvious conflict of interest," DeBraga said.
Hobbs claimed The Conservancy "publicly acknowledged" the "cooperative agreement with Fish and Wildlife on at least four separate occasions when The Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund released various studies.
The 1993 extension of the Conservancy pact with U.S. Fish and Wildlife cites the need of Fish and Wildlife to complete reports called for by Senator Reid's Public Law 101-618, which established environmental priorities on the twin river system.
Reid (D-NV) called it the "Negotiated Settlement" based on talks arranged and conducted by his staff in 1988 in which Lahontan Valley farmers were heavily outnumbered by representatives of Reno power company interests and environmentalists, including participants from the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, which was apparently already working on its federal contract to "model" the intended redirection of irrigation rights.
Farmers representing the irrigation district tried to make a case for preserving their legal rights to the water, but were overwhelmed by the combination of tribal, power company and environmentalist representatives allied against them.
Senator Reid, apparently infuriated by their
unwillingness to accept his terms, later falsely
accused the farmers of walking out on negotiations, and
proclaimed himself to be "the Devil in Churchill
the Hatch New Mexico Courier.
where an initial versions of this story first ran.
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