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Ghost of a Bullfrog

August 23, 1987

Whatever Nevada may lack in resources and amenities, the Nevada Legislature manages to compensate for it in zany creativity. Take, for instance, the 1987 Legislature's creation of Bullfrog County out of 144 square miles of sheer desolation northwest of Las Vegas.

Not only does it have a crazy name, but isolated Bullfrog County is totally devoid of people. The population is absolute zero. Nor is the county named for any amphibious creatures found there; the terrain is more suited to rattlesnakes than bullfrogs. The name stems from Frank Harris' discovery in 1909 of gold-bearing quartz that had a green tint to it. The area became known as the Bullfrog Mining District.

The district's mines were abandoned long ago, and there was only one reason for the Nevada Legislature to convert this patch of desert into Nevada's 18th county: It contains Yucca Mountain, which has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of three potential sites for dumping the nation's high-level nuclear wastes. Officially, Nevada does not want the dump, but the federal government most likely will force the facility onto one of the three sites--in Nevada, Washington state or Texas. If the waste dump must go to Nevada, Nevada is prepared to make the most of it.

To soften the blow, the feds will compensate the local government with payments in lieu of potential local taxes. Until June 30, Yucca Mountain was part of giant Nye County, with a maximum property-tax rate of $1.62 for each $100 of assessed valuation. The Bullfrog County enabling legislation sets the maximum tax rate at $5 per $100. Since no one lives in Bullfrog County, or is likely ever to live there, the federal payments would revert to the state treasury for distribution to all Nevada counties and cities. The annual take could run $25 million, with talk of Congress offering bonuses of up to $100 million.

Bullfrog County is the brainchild of an unidentified associate of Paul May, a North Las Vegas assemblyman and realtor who sponsored the bill. May vowed, "If the federal government insists on putting the nuclear repository here, it is my intention that they pay--and pay every nickel we can get out of them." One Nye County critic called it pure greed on the part of the Las Vegas region, which would share in the receipts.

The Bullfrog mines were abandoned in the 1920s, but Assemblyman May and friends may hit even bigger paydirt in the 1980s.

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