Friends of Nevada Wilderness turns 25
For a quarter of a century, a homegrown political group has been pushing for wilderness areas in Nevada
It was an election year—if there’s such a thing as a non-election year anymore—but Nevadans were not looking at much change in their state’s political lineup in the 1984 election, least of all in Congress.
The state’s four congressmembers were unlikely to change, no matter what happened in state races or the presidential campaign between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan. The two U.S. senators, Republicans Chic Hecht and Paul Laxalt, were not up for reelection. And the two U.S. House members, Republican Barbara Vucanovich and Democrat Harry Reid, held safe seats.
So they actually got to talk about issues instead of campaigning. And one of the principal debates was over how much wilderness area the four congressmembers should legislate for the state.
Nevada came late to the issue. The U.S. Wilderness Act had been enacted by Congress two decades earlier and signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. It provided for a legal category of a wilderness area “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least 5,000 acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”
Nevada’s state leaders had studiously avoided the subject. One of the few times they had taken notice of it was to pass a resolution in the Nevada Legislature asking that the law go around Nevada.
But politics in the state were evolving. U.S. Supreme Court rulings had broken the hold of sparsely populated rural areas on state legislatures, including Nevada’s. The state was becoming ever more urban and grass-root organizing was coming on strong.
In 1974, Walt Disney, joined by Sierra Pacific Power (now NVEnergy), had announced plans to build a huge resort at Independence Lake north of Truckee, Calif. Western Nevadans and eastern Californians joined to battle the corporations and California Gov. Jerry Brown to successfully protect the lovely little lake. (Bumper sticker: “Don’t let Disney slip us a mickey.”)
State leaders who had long treated the atom as economic development were suddenly confronted in 1975 with something new—a Nevada anti-nuclear organization, Citizen Alert.
After plans for a 5,168-acre resort in the Galena Creek basin on the slopes of Mount Rose were announced in 1983, a Friends of Mount Rose group was formed. The resort was stopped.
Similar groups formed in Clark County.
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
It’s not often that lyric writing appears in legal statutes, but the 1964 Wilderness Act contains that graceful sentence. It may have been written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, who worked on the legislation that ordered the creation of wilderness areas in all states.
Nothing so clearly demonstrates the difference between conservation and environmentalism as the wilderness issue.
Conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt came to prominence during the Progressive Era, but they and their philosophies are little understood today. Most people assume that conservationism and environmentalism are the same thing.
But conservationists would have been taken aback at the notion of preserving nature in its pristine condition, as the Wilderness Act provides. They believed in conserving natural resources for use. Water, for example, needed to be protected so it could be used in desert reclamation (converting desert land into farm land through irrigation) or other uses related to growth. Thus, the gorgeous Hetch Hetchy Valley, a companion valley to Yosemite, could be turned into a reservoir by conservationists. Even lands set aside for national parks were imprinted with lodges and trails and so on.
The environmental movement that arose in the late 1960s had a different view: preservation of natural resources for their own sake. This was a notion that offended many conservationists, such as hunting and fishing folks who had been accustomed to conservation agencies serving as their own advocates. As groups like the National Wildlife Federation and agencies like the Nevada Wildlife Department evolved into environmental entities, conservationists objected. U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich of Nevada later put it, “As Nevadans, we certainly understood the emotional appeal of wild and scenic lands. But to most Westerners, these were working landscapes, vital to our livelihoods. We couldn’t afford to have them locked up and made off-limits.”
Nevada got its first wilderness area in 1964, when the Wilderness Act was enacted. It was Jarbidge Wilderness Area, initially 64,830 acres, now 113,167. It would be 20 years before Nevada turned its attention to adding to that small designation. When it happened, opponents called it the work of Easterners.
“In my opinion, the restrictions that come with a wilderness area designation were almost elitist because they would have prevented all but a tiny minority of the people from ever enjoying the public lands that are part of the Nevada lifestyle,” Vucanovich later wrote. “In fact, I believed much of the push for additional wilderness area designations in Nevada was coming from environmental activist organizations. … It was easy for congressmen and senators from the East to push for wilderness designations here because they had no concept of how Nevadans use the vast open spaces and federal lands.”
But Vucanovich didn’t realize how much the state was changing. Nevadans are born, but they’re also made (as Vucanovich was). Rapid population growth was changing public sentiment in the state on many issues. The state was becoming one of the nation’s most urban, with nearly everyone living in two metro areas, and urban voters are the biggest supporters of environmental protection. The days when politicians could win by championing rural issues like mining were coming to an end. One of them, James Santini, spent his four terms in the U.S. House tailoring an image as “Mr. Minerals,” essentially making himself unelectable when he tried to move up to the Senate. In 1975, the members of the Nevada Legislature voted to invite the federal government to put a dump for high level nuclear wastes in the state—a vote they soon regretted. In 1979, Gov. Robert List asked the feds to make Nevada the site of the MX missile system, and the reaction was so negative that he spent the next four years trying to explain.
As exploitation of Nevada land became less popular, protection of it became more so, and wilderness designation came back to life in the state.
When the issue began moving to the fore, the state’s congressional lineup still reflected the days when environmentalism was anathema. Laxalt, Hecht and Vucanovich were hostile to wilderness. Reid was its only supporter. (When Reid won approval of Nevada’s only national park, Vucanovich tried to hold it down to 137,000 acres, but he got 430,000 acres.)
Nevertheless, even Vucanovich recognized that wilderness was coming on strong, and she sponsored legislation to designate a small amount of land. Roger Scholl of FNW recalls that first bill as proposing about 150,000 acres of wilderness, while a competing Reid bill proposed about 500,000 acres.
Twenty-five years ago this year, Nevada supporters of wilderness decided to set up an organization to push for greater acreage.
“Well, we wanted a Nevada organization,” Marjorie Sill said recently. “The Sierra Club had been doing most of the work on trying to get wilderness here, but we felt that it was important to have an organization that was based in Nevada and that represented Nevada’s values.”
Friends of Nevada Wilderness (FNW) initially was supported with a donation by one member of a small inheritance. By the time that money ran out, the group had organized its fund-raising, though it always came hard.
“For a long time we were supported by some memberships, the Soroptomists gave us some money in Las Vegas, [former state senator] Jean Ford—who was our first executive director for a short time—raised some money,” Sill said. “Just very small contributions from people. Most of the money, actually, most of the services were provided by people.”
In the mid-1980s, Reid didn’t get very far. There was a GOP majority in the Senate, and Republicans were gaining in the House. But Reid outlasted his foes. In 1986, Laxalt announced his retirement from the Senate, and Reid beat Santini to replace him.
Meanwhile, FNW was doing missionary work in Nevada. The successful fight against the MX missile system in Nevada and Utah had taught some lessons to environmental activists. One of them was not to write off rural voters. FNW took that lesson to heart.
“Friends of Nevada Wilderness has tried to be really in touch with the rural feelings,” Sill said. “Very different, actually, than the Sierra Club or some of the other organizations that have been much more strident. Friends of Nevada Wilderness has worked very closely, for instance, on the White Pine County bill with the county commissioners there, with the ranchers, with the hunters, with all of the people.”
The Nevada Legislature came out in favor of Vucanovich’s bill. Hecht retired from the Senate to be replaced by Richard Bryan, Reid’s long-time political ally. And the visibility of FNW made it difficult for opponents to continue saying, “We represent Nevadans,” which gave Reid more political cover.
U.S. Rep. John Seiberling of Ohio, a Democrat who had helped bring wilderness designation back onto Congress’s radar screen and chair of a key House Interior subcommittee, scheduled a trip to Nevada to inspect some of the candidate sites. It was an elaborate week-long effort, with helicopters and horseback riding and sleeping in tents at magnificent locations like Arc Dome and Jarbidge.
“It was a trip through some of the most beautiful parts of Nevada, but it was probably too successful, from my point of view,” Vucanovich later wrote. “Partly as a result of what he saw on this trip, Congressman Seiberling, with Senator Reid’s support, successfully pushed through the Nevada Wilderness Act in 1989, despite my opposition. I felt the bill went too far in restricting land use and land access, and I unsuccessfully tried to get it modified. Once again, a Democrat majority made the difference, just as it did later in a subsequent proposal to create additional wilderness on Mount Rose in Washoe County.”
The 1989 bill pushed the amount of wilderness in Nevada up to 700,000 acres. Vucanovich’s unsuccessful amendment would have removed four of the 14 proposed wilderness areas from the bill—Table Mountain, Santa Rosa-Paradise Peak, Quinn Canyon and Currant Mountain. Besides those sites, land in or at Alta Toquima, Arc Dome, Boundary Peak, East Humboldts, Mt. Rose, Ruby Mountains, Mt. Charleston, Grant Range and Mt. Moriah were designated wilderness, and land was added to the Jarbidge Wilderness Area.
But even after that bill was enacted and signed by the president, environmental leaders and Reid himself felt it was just a start. For all the effort, Nevada had done less than most states. It was one of only two states in the intermountain West whose wilderness acreage was in six figures. Others were in seven figures, and in many of them there had been more bipartisan cooperation.
Reid set out on a county-by-county effort to add wilderness.
“That’s the way Reid has preferred to do it,” Sill said.
In 2000, it was Washoe’s turn. Community leaders, elected officials, and other parties were brought into the process. Some were not reconciled to the final bill—specifically, the inclusion of Black Rock/High Rock desert acreage. Protestors wore T-shirts reading “NEVADANS BETRAYED BY BRYAN AND REID.” But generally, the decision was accepted—and the new site got its own Friends of Black Rock/High Rock organization. With each county effort, there was always some opposition, but not the rancor once identified with these issues.
“In 2002, it was the Clark County bill, and well, Clark County being not a rural county, there were really no protests about the Clark County bill,” Sill said. “2004 was the Lincoln County bill, which was very unusual because Lincoln County is probably one of the most rural of rural counties, and it was surprising that they went along with the idea of having wilderness.”
White Pine was handled with relative equanimity. In fact, so far the only county that has produced the level of anger and antagonism that once accompanied these issues was Lyon County last year.
Sill says she thinks wilderness supporters dropped the ball on that one, neglecting to prepare the ground ahead of time. They were “trying to do something too quickly and without building up our base” in Lyon first. Efforts in earlier counties to include locals in the planning were not followed, and when maps of supposed sites for wilderness designation got out before the locals had been consulted, the situation blew up. Wilderness opponents were ready to exploit the anger. Sill said that each such problem contains lessons, and wilderness supporters learn from those lessons.
“I realize how you have to do things in Nevada. … We try to work with various groups of people to get them to realize that wilderness is part of Nevada’s heritage. … It’s a message that sort of goes over.”
At the same time, Reid has come under criticism from environmentalists for watering down the concept of wilderness too much. They say that some of his designations are not really wilderness at all. High Country News reported in 2006, “In the last four years, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has sponsored two bills that gave Nevada more than 1 million acres of new wilderness—along with utility corridors, motorized-vehicle trails, and public-land swaps and sales designed to accommodate urban growth.”
Activists became particularly concerned when other states followed Reid’s example. “Everything we’ve done here is modeled after Nevada,” said GOP U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, describing wilderness designation efforts there that included urban growth accommodation. Wilderness groups were deeply angered by the Utah “wilderness” efforts.
But Reid also made points with environmentalists in January when he held an unusual Sunday session of the Senate to outmaneuver a senator, Tom Coburn, who had been using the Senate’s arcane rules to stop business, including a major multi-state wilderness bill (an omnibus combination of 160 measures) that designated 2 million acres in nine states. The bill was approved.
“This package was crafted by Democrats and Republicans working together so that all Americans can enjoy more than 2 million acres of wilderness, more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers, thousands of miles of new national trails, and three new units of the National Park Service,” Reid said.
Friends of Nevada Wilderness has become successful enough that it has drawn competition—specifically, the creation in 1999 of another group, the Nevada Wilderness Project. But it’s an amiable rivalry.
“The two groups work very closely together,” Sill says. “We have a Nevada Wilderness Coalition, which includes both of those groups plus the Toiyabe chapter of the Sierra Club.”
Even when designation someday comes to an end, Friends of Nevada Wilderness will have a function. Wildernesses often need restoration. FNW is raising money for several restorations now.
So the wilderness designation process moves ahead. It is still accompanied by disagreement and anger and disputes between conservation and environmentalism, but its progress is steady. In 2005 there was news about Nevada’s first wilderness area, designated nearly a half century ago and for so many years the state’s only wilderness.
As part of an effort by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science and the Wildlife Conservation Society to find the places on Earth least touched by humankind, the Jarbidge Wilderness Area was named first on the list of United States sites. Now, that’s untrammeled.