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If there is a single reason to live in northeastern Nevada it is not the western charm of Elko or the lucrative jobs in the mining industry. It is the Ruby Mountains.Few places on Earth have the secluded appeal of this archetypal mountain range lying just 20 minutes from town. With its 10 peaks above 11,000 feet, dozens of lofty waterfalls and breathtaking alpine lakes, the Ruby Mountains have been called America’s “Little Yosemite” and “the Swiss Alps of Nevada.”

Along with the Jarbidge Mountains to the north, the Rubys offer vast wilderness areas and groomed trails for hiking; streams and lakes for trout fishing; big game hunting and wildlife viewing; and simply a place to cool off and get away from civilization.

It’s no surprise that a proposal to lease land in the Ruby Mountains for oil and gas drilling has galvanized resistance from a variety of interests.

A collection of conservation and sportsmen groups banded together to run a full-page ad in today’s Elko Daily Free Press declaring “The Ruby Mountains are Nevada’s Crown Jewel.”

I couldn’t agree more, whether the pun is intended or not.

Everyone I know in Elko County and the surrounding area appreciates the Ruby range for its sublime beauty and its value as a destination for outdoor pursuits including helicopter skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, camping and more. Now we are learning just how widespread that sentiment is among a host of visitors who have experienced the mountains for themselves.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other opponents have been vocal about opening the range to oil and gas leasing after an individual requested 54,000 acres of forest land be put up for lease.

The request itself is not out of line. In fact, it conforms with a 1986 management plan that designates portions of the range open to leasing. The U.S. Forest Service is completing an environmental assessment and will provide guidance to the Bureau of Land Management regarding leasing.

But the request runs counter to public opinion, as thousands of protesters have shown. And it defies common sense, according to Nevada Department of Minerals Administrator Rich Perry, a former Elko city councilman who was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval:

“I have no idea why this individual nominated these pieces of ground in the Rubies,” Perry told the Elko Daily. “I know of no targets for oil in the Rubies. It’s a metamorphic core complex. There’s no sedimentary rock that would contain oil.”

It’s a mystery to our newspaper, too, as we have been unable to track down the applicant to ask why.

The recreational values, however, are many, as today’s full-page ad announces. Putting their money behind this message are groups invested in Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, trout, chukar and the wilderness experience.

I wholeheartedly agree that the Ruby Mountains are Nevada’s crown jewel. Am I biased? Of course. I have lived here for more than 35 years and have grown to love the mountains more each time I visit them, which is frequently. Our homestead has a pristine view of the Rubys and I don’t want to see dozens of oil rigs any more than I want to see additional cellphone towers rise in front of them.

You might even call me a hypocrite, shouting “Not in my back yard!” Elko County and the rest of Nevada have millions of acres of public land where oil and gas drilling can be done without impact to recreational assets that are so highly valued by so many people.

Actually, a few fracking wells have already been drilled nearby in the Ruby Mountain foothills around Jiggs and Lamoille – and they have such a small footprint that no one has noticed. Crude oil prices tanked shortly after they were drilled, so they have not paid off. Oil is on its way back up, however, and operations that were less than marginal a few years ago could soon see more interest.

Elko Daily nature columnist Larry Hyslop explained how the process might play out:

“If the USFS decides some or all of these lands should be offered, then the BLM would decide whether to include these lands in their quarterly oil/gas leasing sales. The lands may or may not be leased during the lease sale. Also, an oil/gas company might lease the mineral rights to some of this land but never make a proposal to disturb the land.”

At any rate, if the land is opened to leasing there would be separate environmental reviews before any drilling could begin. Hyslop says there are blm plenty of factors to consider, including winter range for mule deer and priority sage grouse habitat.

The Forest Service took the rare step of extending public comment on this proposal. Residents and visitors have until April 23 to express their views.

Meanwhile, a Great Basin College and University of Colorado professor have teamed up to study the range with a grant from the National Science Foundation. They have been collecting rock samples in Secret Pass, Lamoille Canyon and Harrison Pass to unlock the history of the range, and they plan to compile interactive field guides complete with graphics that tell the Ruby Mountains’ “narrative.”

Thus, the Rubys will be getting national or international attention. That’s good news for the folks at the Center for Biological Diversity, who believe the display of unity shown by groups opposed to drilling will attract national press attention.

All of these factors point to the obvious: Keeping the Ruby Mountains pristine is important for Elko and northeastern Nevada’s future. While resources such as oil and gas – or even gold – have their limits, the value of the Ruby Mountains as a recreational and tourist destination is eternal.

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Jeffry Mullins is editor of the Elko Daily Free Press.

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