‘Vote down the ticket’

The Nevada Conservation League urges clean-air and -water backers to educate themselves on local political races

Grace Potorti works the Nevada Conservation League’s Reno office.

Grace Potorti works the Nevada Conservation League’s Reno office.

Photo By David Robert

Environmental folks felt they lost a champion for Nevada’s air, water and land when Nevada Assemblyman Jason Geddes, a Washoe County Republican, lost a primary this month. But the Nevada Conservation League, a relatively new political group, isn’t disheartened.

Five of the seven candidates the league’s political-action committee endorsed in Nevada primaries won their races.

Republican Joseph Heck of Henderson unseated longtime environmental foe Ann O’Connell in Senate District 5. Heck pledged to tackle problems plaguing urban Nevada, such as unmanaged growth, dirty air and traffic gridlock.

Among state senators, O’Connell had earned the lowest score on environmental issues tracked by the NCL. She voted against a bill that strengthened penalties for poaching and that revised license fees for hunting upland game birds in order to generate money to protect the birds’ habitat. She voted for a bill that would have allowed private companies to gain control of public water supplies in all of Nevada, except Clark County. She voted for a bill that restricted water for public lands, prohibiting the water access necessary for the federal government to adequately manage public land—most of the state—on the public’s behalf. The No-H2O bill passed and will likely see court challenges.

Win some. Lose some.

Not that the NCL is taking credit for the O’Connell upset.

“We’d like to think we have that power, but we don’t yet,” says Kaitlin Backlund, the NCL’s political director.

Now in its third year, the group is just starting to gather steam. It’s a bit different than other environmental groups in the Silver State. Citizen Alert, for example, is focused on keeping track of nuclear issues. Friends of Nevada Wilderness are interested in, well, wilderness.

The NCL holds elected officials accountable on conservation issues by being active in elections and legislative sessions.

“Our goals are pretty simple,” says NCL Executive Director Grace Potorti. “We’re hoping to educate the conservation voter on the impact of voting.”

That’s the education arm of the league. The league’s political-action arm injects cash into the campaigns of those who’ve demonstrated a commitment to protecting Nevada’s air, land and water. It infused around $8,000 into the primary election, and Potorti expects that it will give away another $8,000—maybe more—in the general election. An anonymous donor gave the group $15,000 in matching funds. Smaller $20 or $50 donations from environmentally conscious Nevadans arrive daily.

Some of the names on the group’s list of Distinguished Deeds for the 2003 Nevada Legislature may surprise.

Gardnerville Republican Lynn Hettrick, the leader of the bloc of Republican assemblyfolk (dubbed the “Mean 15") who dug in their heels on the legislative tax increase, was lauded for introducing legislation that allows the energy from small hydropower projects at private residences and ranches to be purchased back by power companies. He also co-sponsored a bill that encourages energy conservation programs in public buildings. But the group did not endorse Hettrick, marshalling its limited funds to just seven legislative races.

“Lynn Hettrick did good things,” Potorti says. The group would be remiss, she says, if it didn’t take note of that. “We have some strong champions.”

And some who aren’t so strong.

Assemblyman Don Gustavson (R-Sun Valley), for example, has one of the worst environmental track records in the state, according to NCL. He voted against the regulation of hazardous materials, against a hunting fee that would have funded wildlife habitat protection and against allowing rural communities to raise funds to cope with invasive and noxious weeds.

What does Gustavson support? Well, turning over Nevada’s public water to partnerships with private companies, for one. (Granted, Reno’s water supply was privately owned for most of its history, until three years ago.)

“He’s gotten so terrible on environmental issues,” Potorti says. “It’s like, excuse me, Mr. G., what are you thinking?”

The NCL endorses Gustavson’s challenger, Debbie Smith.

“We think she’ll be a good conservationist when she gets to Carson City.”

While the group calls itself bipartisan and its endorsements include both Republicans and Democrats, this stance is made easier by not handing out very many endorsements. Out of 42 Nevada Assembly races, it has endorsed in only five. Of 10 Senate races, it has endorsed in two.

Donated photos rest on the conference table in the tiny office suite that’s home to the Nevada Conservation League. One depicts a crisp close-up of ice hanging from the tips of a pine near Tahoe. Another shows a brilliant Walker Lake at sunset.

“Isn’t that one just beautiful?” Potorti says, adding that she’s tempted to bid on these photos, which were among many donated for an online auction that’s planned to run through the month of November.

The community’s been supportive with donations.

“Art pieces just keep coming in,” Potorti says.

The online auction will be featured, along with the group’s endorsements and its 2003 Conservation Scorecard, at www.nevadaconservationleague.org.

Grace Potorti’s name is recognizable in these circles. She spent the past two decades first as an activist for Citizen Alert and then as part of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, the group that spent 10 years fighting the open burning of ammunition at the Sierra Army Depot in Herlong, Calif. The group won that fight.

“That showed what could happen when everyday citizens, the environmental community and an Indian nation joined hands,” Potorti says. “We were awesome together. We were like, ‘Agghh!’ and they didn’t see us coming.”

In the environmental-activism community, she says, victories take a lot of time.

“You have to have patience,” Potorti says. “When they come, they are sweet.”

The 2005 legislative session is expected to include several important conservation issues, from the oversight of agencies such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to Nevada water law.

Maintaining water as a public resource is an issue that could come up again.

“The consumer is at risk of being gouged when water becomes an instrument of profit,” Backlund says.

Add to these the topics of unmanaged growth, traffic, pollution and other land issues.

That’s why it’s so important, Backlund says, that Nevada voters look past the heated presidential election and take time to study state and local races that will have an impact on their future.

“Vote down the ticket," she urges people. "Know who you’re voting for, from the U.S. Senate on down. Get educated."