How Nevada was despoiled

A leading historian throws a spotlight on the damage done to Nevada’s resources

Historian James Hulse’s current book has as much to do with Nevada’s future as with its history. He is now working on a book about relations between Las Vegas and neighboring communities.

Historian James Hulse’s current book has as much to do with Nevada’s future as with its history. He is now working on a book about relations between Las Vegas and neighboring communities.

Photo by Dennis Myers

“This is really exciting,” said Reno attorney Jim Smith. “He’s one of Nevada’s great historians, great authors, great thinkers.”

Smith was one of 80 people gathered in the meeting house at the Bartley Ranch Park. Their anticipation was over a white-haired, soft-spoken academic who is slightly hard of hearing, Jim Hulse. During the social before his appearance, he mingled in the crowd chatting with people. He did not seem to be the kind of person who generated the excitement felt by the people in attendance.

Hulse is a familiar figure to longtime Nevadans. Born in Pioche, his home county is the subject of one of his lesser-known books, Lincoln County, Nevada 1864-1909. In the 1950s he was a reporter for the Nevada State Journal, one of the forerunners to the Reno Gazette-Journal, at one point publishing an investigative report on huge sums of money lost by state government as a result of land sales under an archaic state law. He left journalism to study European history at Stanford University, which produced his first book, The Forming of the Communist International.

Back in Nevada, Hulse became a history professor at the University of Nevada and wrote the standard Nevada history textbooks used in Nevada classrooms for the past four decades—The Nevada Adventure, used from 1965 through six editions until 1998 and The Silver State since then.

His mild appearance belies the strong feelings he sometimes allows to emerge from his academic life. In 1986 his book Forty Years in the Wilderness contained harsh scrutiny of the state’s social and environmental policies and did not spare the casino industry, which outraged gambling lobbyists who muttered darkly about retaliating against the university system.

This year he did it again with his book Nevada’s Environmental Legacy/Progress or Plunder, whose missing question mark—“I don’t know where that title came from,” he said—did not undercut the resonance that many Nevadans have found in its pages. The book’s publication was the reason for Hulse’s appearance at the Sierra Club meeting at Bartley Ranch.

If knowing the background of public policy problems is useful, then Hulse’s book is very helpful to new residents in a state with the terrific population turnover of Nevada. Most new arrivals have no idea how many of the state’s problems came about.

“When I was a kid there were about 110,000 people in this state … or as we used to say, one square man for every square mile,” Hulse said.

<i>Nevada’s Environmental Legacy</i> by James Hulse is available at Sundance Bookstore, 1155 West Fourth St., No. 106.

On the same day that Hulse spoke at the meeting, the Los Angeles Times carried an article, “Nuclear scars: Tainted water runs beneath Nevada desert,” that dealt with two of the issues in Hulse’s new book—water and the despoilation of Nevada’s terrain (see “Nevada aquifer contaminated,” Upfront, at left). But coming from Hulse, such observations carry greater weight in the state, partly because they come from a native son, partly because brutal truths from such a mild looking fellow have more power, and partly because he says and writes things that other state leaders believe but are, for political reasons, reluctant to say.

As he began to speak to the group, his tone of voice did not convey the rage his words expressed, but it was felt by many in the naturally receptive audience.

Not surprisingly, because he is at heart a historian, he began by describing the way treatment of land evolved in Nevada. When the frontier reached Nevada, he said, the federal government was in the business of unloading land—to homesteaders, to mining, to railroads, to colleges—and the formalities were not always observed.

“When Nevada was created … when the mining business was just opening, it was assumed that the land, the water, were here for the taking. … So the purpose of the federal government was to give this land away as a means of populating and developing it. Land was there to be exploited. Now, if there were a few Indians on it, that was a problem, but they didn’t pay much attention to the existence of Indian reservations.”

That policy of giving land away, while it was made more formal over the decades, stayed in place through most of the 20th century, and it was accompanied by relative indifference to how that land was treated. Pollution and contamination ensued.

“So there were many stories in which land was a resource to be distributed, essentially free—until about 40 or so years ago when the federal government decided under the Federal Land [Policy] Management Act that the land ought to be distributed in a kind of a responsible manner and some of it was to be retained for long-term public purposes. That was a revolutionary concept which caused all sorts of consternation in Nevada, particularly among the cattlemen, miners and others who had been using it a great deal.”

The new law, enacted in 1976, was a product of the rising environmental movement and a report from the Federal Land Law Review Commission that recommended in 1970 “retaining [lands] in Federal ownership whose values must be preserved so that they may be used and enjoyed by all Americans.” As a result, Nevada and other states with large sections of federally managed land had difficulty obtaining land that once would have been easily transferred. That prompted the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by the 1979 Nevada Legislature—soon joined by other states—to sue to obtain state title to the federal lands within state borders. Friendlier federal policies under the Reagan administration defused the effort and as the implications of the Rebellion for development of public lands became clear, even Nevada leaders distanced themselves from it.

Hulse essentially said that neither the private sector or government has in the past been a trustworthy steward of the land. From industrial pollution to atomic despoliation, the land has suffered, and until the 1970s there was little constituency to support environmental protection. Since then home grown organizations like Citizen Alert have been created to speak for that constituency. But huge amounts of land and water had already been polluted or contaminated. (This mining state did not even pass a mining reclamation law until the 1990s.) The Los Angeles Times report published the day of Hulse’s speech said the equivalent of a 300-mile-long lake under Nevada is contaminated.

Hulse is candid that his new book does not propose remedies. His intent was to explain how Nevada got where it is and throw a light on ongoing policies that continue to allow exploitation and despoliation of its natural resources.

“Among the things I’ve neglected in my writings on Nevada have been what we’ve done to the land and air and water and the resources that we’ve taken for granted,” he said.

“We’ve neglected the environment. Those of us who grew up in the mining towns and otherwise have tended to take our land and water and air for granted. But somehow maybe, what?—30, 40 years ago?—many of us began to realize we were trustees of a place that’s pretty special but that’s in bad trouble.”