Photograph of the Mustang Ranch site in Nevada.
Before the BLM could restore the Truckee River, the old brothel buildings at the Mustang Ranch site had to go. A contractor removed the buildings in 2007. (BLM)

History of the Mustang Ranch: 
From a Bothersome Brothel to a River Restored

By Mark Struble

Only in Nevada could the BLM turn a property containing a world-famous cathouse into a gem of river restoration!

The Mustang Ranch brothel started out as a set of four doublewide trailers set along the south bank of the Truckee River, 15 miles east of Reno.  Joe Conforte, who had owned several brothels in Nevada since 1955, took over the Mustang Ranch in 1967.  Conforte gained political influence in Storey County and persuaded officials to pass a brothel-licensing ordinance in 1971.  In 1976, Conforte converted his early brothel trailers into a permanent structure of 20,020 square feet with 60 bedrooms, a guard tower, swimming pool, lobby/bar area, and two saunas.  News of the brothel had spread worldwide and seemed to fit the anything-goes, open 24 hours a day image that brought people and their money to Nevada.

Forfeiture and Sale Following Tax Fraud

But not all was well at the Mustang.  Agents of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) arrived with padlocks after Conforte lost a tax fraud case in 1990.  Conforte fled the United States to self-imposed exile in Brazil.  The brothel was bought by a holding company (later found to be a front for Conforte) and stayed open.  In 1997, a $16 million tax lien was filed.  By 1999, the pink, neon-illuminated Mustang had been seized and sold by the IRS. 

Enter the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1999, which coveted not the brothel buildings, but the 340-acre property and riverbank they sat on.  The BLM proposed to the IRS that the Mustang property be developed as a wild horse and burro interpretive center, prompting overnight, nationwide media attention and jokes on late-night TV.  When this idea proved infeasible (too many horses and their manure too close to the river), the goal narrowed to restoring the river channel and connecting two BLM parcels adjacent to the ranch.  After months of innovative “outside-the-box” interagency negotiations, ownership of the Mustang Ranch property was officially transferred from the IRS to the BLM in February 2003. 

Before the BLM could restore the Truckee River, the old brothel buildings had to go.  The BLM became the first federal agency to list a former brothel on eBay.  Nearby bordello owner Lance Gilman purchased the old pink stucco buildings for $145,000 and moved them 5 miles to his adult resort and spa.  By March 2007, BLM’s dealings with the old brothel buildings were finally done.

Restoring the Truckee River Through the Old Mustang Ranch

While removal of the buildings was ongoing, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the BLM had completed a complex water rights transaction in September 2003 that transferred 461 acre-feet of water rights at Mustang Ranch from the United States government to the tribe.  The BLM was also participating in flood control planning with Washoe and Storey Counties and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study in 2002 ranked the Mustang Ranch site as a top priority for restoration on the lower river. 

The BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation, The Nature Conservancy, and Washoe and Storey Counties moved forward with a restoration project at the old Mustang Ranch site in the summer of 2009.  The old flood channel was to be rechanneled so that water would again slow down and drop its sediment load over the majority of the floodplain instead of ending up in Pyramid Lake.  Putting these “wiggles” back in the river helped restore native wetland and riparian plants and made the instream habitat function better for fish.

And any place where there is shade, water, and fish in Nevada, there is recreation!  Willows and cottonwood trees are now healing, and vegetation in the riparian zones is thriving.  Fishing, picnicking, and dispersed camping are coming back along a stretch of river that used to be a flood control ditch overseen by a pink house of prostitution.  After a 10-year odyssey from seized brothel to a recovering river, the public will now realize positive benefits for generations to come from BLM’s unique “outside-the-box” river restoration project.

Mark Struble retired in 2011 from BLM’s Carson City District where he had been the public affairs officer since 1999.  He started his career with the National Park Service, spent 10 years with the U.S. Forest Service, and worked for more than 20 years for the BLM in both Nevada and California.