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Bullfrog, Nevada : Empty County to Croak Unless It Goes to Waste

September 02, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BULLFROG COUNTY, Nev. — Bob Revert drove his four-wheel-drive pickup off Highway 95 and headed east for 14 miles in a cloud of dust across open desert, over an unmarked dirt trail full of rocks and chuckholes, to reach America's newest county.

Revert had taken the easiest ground route to Bullfrog County, the only county in the United States without people. It is, instead, a county populated by rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, lizards, coyotes, lynx cats and a variety of other wildlife thriving in the sun-drenched desert dotted with sagebrush and creosote bushes.

Not Much There

It has no roads, no buildings, no hotels, motels or even a tree to sleep under. No churches, cemeteries, schools. It's the only county in Nevada without slot machines, crap tables or gambling of any kind. No signs tell you when you are entering or leaving Bullfrog County.

There isn't one inch of private land in the 12-mile-long, 12-mile-wide county made up almost entirely of Yucca Mountain, a huge volcanic mesa rising starkly from the desert floor 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It all belongs to Uncle Sam. Half of the county is part of the Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site, one-fourth is Nellis Air Force Base's gunnery range and one-fourth is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Offspring of Nye County

Bullfrog County is a remote slice of desert wilderness carved out of Nye County by an act of the Nevada Legislature passed at 3 a.m. on June 18 during the final hours of the 1987 legislative session. A few days later Gov. Richard H. Bryan signed the bill making the bizarre county a political reality.

"Watch out for rattlesnakes," Revert, a Nye County commissioner, shouted to two newsmen as they left the pickup to stretch their legs on the lower slopes of Yucca Mountain.

As far as the three men knew, they were the only visitors that day anywhere in the county, one of the strangest political subdivisions ever created. The only sounds in the eerie quiet were occasional gusts of wind blowing tumbleweed down the mountain.

Bullfrog County, with a landscape like the surface of the moon, is a creation of the Nuclear Age--and Nevada politics.

State Assemblyman Paul May of Las Vegas, chairman of the Assembly Taxation

Committee, first got the idea when he was looking for additional revenue for the state. May realized that millions of federal dollars would pour into Nye County if Yucca Mountain were chosen as the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository. Yucca Mountain is a finalist with Deaf Smith County, Tex., and Hanford, Wash., for construction of the $2-billion facility.

Why, May asked, should Nye County receive all that money? Bullfrog County--named after an old gold mine and controlled by the state--was the result.

The Assembly voted, 32 to 9, for the county; the Senate did the same on a 14-7 vote. Since the Nevada Legislature has the right to form and dissolve counties, the people of Nye County--population 14,000-- had no opportunity to vote on the matter.

'Not a County Issue'

"This is a statewide issue, not a county issue," May said in an interview. May noted that he and "nearly all of Nevada's elected officials are dead set against having a nuclear dump in our state. But if it happens, it would seem tragic not to take the federal government for all the money possible."

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 provides that the federal government will allow itself to be taxed at the dump site as though it were a private corporation. "Nye County's tax rate is $1.62 per $100 assessed valuation," May explained. "In Bullfrog County the rate is the maximum, $5 per $100, more than three times that of Nye County. The . . . revenue from the federal government will be distributed throughout the state in a fair and equitable manner."

On Monday, Gov. Bryan announced the appointment of three Bullfrog County commissioners: Mike Melner, a Reno attorney; Dorothy Eisenberg of Las Vegas, past president of the League of Women Voters of Clark County, and David Powell, a Las Vegas real estate broker. Each will receive $1 a year. The governor said he will name other county officials, including a sheriff, later. Carson City, Nevada's capital, 270 miles to the north, has been designated Bullfrog's county seat.

"By creating Bullfrog County, a county without people," May said, "the federal government will be dealing directly with the state instead of Nye County on any matters pertaining to the nuclear waste dump. Bullfrog County will be administered by the governor's office. It will be state-run, state-oriented, state-controlled.

"If the new nuclear waste repository is not located in Bullfrog County, the legislative act creating it will be dissolved and the county returned back to Nye County."

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