by Tim Findley
FALLON -- Graham Chisholm seems like a Scout's-honor, sincere young man when he describes the murky and slightly stinky pool of mutual interests between the Nature Conservancy and the Del Webb Corporation.
"This will be a place people can stop with their families to learn about the wetlands and know what they're going out to see," enthused the 35-year-old political operative for the Nature Conservancy. "The exciting thing is that we're trying to work with the folks in the valley who are interested in the area's history."
Chisholm, it seems, is always doing favors for the people of the Lahontan Valley with his good-deed approach to convince them to sell their land and water rights for the benefit of spreading public marsh in the struggling rural region of Churchill County and, incidentally, a sprawling housing development near the glitter capital of Las Vegas in Clark County.
Now the boyish wheeler-dealer has a center-piece to get excited about, with news that mega-developer Del E. Webb Corporation has purchased the 600-acre Weishaupt ranch on the edge of the marsh in return for a land swap with property owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on the rim of an airport north of Las Vegas.
There goes a piece of private property assessed by Churchill for taxes at over $100,000 and probably worth ten times that much. The northern Nevada County, already short on revenue from a land base dominated by federal control, will not only see nothing from the deal but will actually lose part of its tax base.
But the frantically growing region of Las Vegas and the Del Webb Corporation will make out like, well, you might say... like bandits.
And Graham, if things work out as he thinks they will, can present to the Nature Conservancy an expensive and nearly new 2,000-square-foot farm house to be used as a visitors center for the restored Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, intended to be twice its current size of 10,000 acres.
Verily, We Have Been Blessed by the Feds
The non-profit, tax-exempt Nature Conservancy, according to Chisholm, will put $1.5 million of its charitable received funds into converting the farm house, plus another $50,000 or $60,000 a year into operating it with a caretaker.
The farmland itself, hundreds of leveled acres that produces alfalfa and pastured land, will be returned to a natural state, with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reseeding it for native grasses and redirecting the irrigation canals to encourage marsh land -- in effect, what used to be called in less enlightened times, a swamp.
The former ranch will return no taxes, produce no crops and have, perhaps, one full-time employee. And it's only the beginning.
"The history of this valley and these wetlands are not separate," gushed the excited Chisholm. "This will bring them back together."
"This," that is, and whatever other farms and ranches the Nature Conservancy and Del Webb can lay their hands and cash on. Already at least three other properties are under option for purchase by Del Webb on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, and Chisholm, with his college-kid innocent approach, is lining up more deals all the time.
According to a BLM representative in Las Vegas, the 5,000 acres near Sky Harbor Airport that Del Webb has its eye on should be worth around $50 million, just to get a new Sun City development of the type Del Webb built in Arizona under way.
Not all of it may come out of what Chisholm claims are "dollar for dollar" swaps with Churchill County farmland, but even the federal government guesses that at least 30,000 acres are up for grabs in what used to be called "the Oasis of Nevada" near Fallon.
Enriching the Phoenix-headquartered developer by buying out the private property of Churchill County has the apparent blessing of the United States government and the active assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department which offers reassessments on the value of water-righted lands it wants to dry up in favor of creating a 25,000-acre marsh. As the Fish and Wildlife Department frequently points out, the bureaucrats are only doing what they were directed to do in 1990 legislation introduced by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who happens coincidentally to be a major beneficiary of Del Webb campaign contributions.
If the process was considered in reverse on, say, Florida swamps being sold by organized syndicates, it might be considered a racket.
But, in the naively well-meaning and federally intimidated reach of Nevada, it is, so far at least, not even a scandal.
"I'm amazed," said one local official who wanted his name kept out of it. "I'm just amazed that the Nature Conservancy would even publicly admit the arrangement."
Killing Them with Kindness
The official is surely not afraid of what that might imply to Graham Chisholm. Graham, after all, seldom if ever gets angry. It's only exasperation at their lack of understanding that he exhibits to reporters who only rarely question his motives.
"Yeah, and you guys think it's some one-world order, with black helicopters flying around and that stuff," he sneered at one such Courier reporter in an uncharacteristic moment of emotion.
Graham isn't really like that. When the Courier recently reported that cowboy-poet Georgie Sikking felt "forced" to sell-out to the Nature Conservancy and Del Webb, for example, Chisholm, gracious as ever, called the 75-year-old rancher to ask if she was sure she wanted the money they were offering.
Graham (and everybody in the valley now calls him by his first name) wouldn't knowingly intimidate anybody.
He doesn't have to: the United States government and its multi-layered levels of bureaucrats working to dismantle the Newlands Reclamation Projects does most of that work for him.
Under Senator Reid's law, the farmers are being told that their water rights and irrigation supplies are going to be dried up anyway to serve the needs of an endangered sucker fish at Pyramid Lake on the Truckee River and to restore the vast wetlands in the desert sink terminus of the Carson River.
If they don't sell now, when they have the chance, the bureaucrats tell them, it may be even more difficult for them after the Bureau of Reclamation forces a new contract on their irrigation district that would make the cost of water exceed any possible profits to the farm.
That's really why Georgie sold. Graham just happened to be there with his good deed offer of Del Webb money at the right time.
You can play with the good intentions all you like and Graham -- with his Doctorate in political science from U.C. Berkeley and his background as an aide to Senator Bob Kerry (D-NE) and his thesis on the "green" movement in Germany -- will gladly help you understand why what he calls "the asset base of the Newlands Project" must inevitably conform to what he knows to be the future.
"My role," he says, "is to find a way to integrate the different interests into some better solution. Otherwise, there's the lawyers."
Such favors as Graham and others like him in the Nature Conservancy are willing to do for areas like the Lahontan Valley often seem to include such understanding guidance away from a court of law.
Yet Graham has from time to time seemed also to be an adversary on the side of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and their attorney Robert Pelcyger to force the Federal Court ruling against the water rights promised to farmers by the Newlands Reclamation Project as early as 1902.
Killing Fallon With Kindness, Part II