Wild about wilderness

Cameron Johnson

Photo By David Robert

Cameron Johnson slept on a different patch of dirt every night for six weeks doing inventory work for the nonprofit Nevada Wilderness Project before they asked him to be their outreach coordinator. Now the 24-year-old spends most of his time helping others protect wilderness in the fastest growing state in the nation.

What is the Nevada Wilderness Project?

It’s a [7-year-old] advocacy-based organization that seeks to create new wilderness areas throughout the state of Nevada. Our mission is to go out and protect the most rugged and imperiled lands as wilderness with the strongest federal designation possible for public use.

What areas are you focusing on?

Right now, our most intensive effort is in White Pine County in Eastern Nevada. … There’s bristlecone pine out there; some of the best elk in the West … It has peaks that top at well over 11,000 feet. It’s just rugged and still relatively untracked terrain. It’s wild country in its purest sense. … That’s an area where the congressional process [for wilderness designation] has begun.

Why should people care about wilderness?

The idea of wilderness is for land to be set aside where humans are only visitors, where natural processes still rule. When you think about that idea, it’s pretty amazing. … I think now is the time, especially in Nevada, to go out and do that.

Why ‘especially Nevada?’

Eighty-five percent of the land is public land, but only 4 percent of that is protected as wilderness. We think that’s a really unfair reflection on the quality of land in our state. Most people think of Nevada strictly as Reno, Las Vegas or a blank spot—the desert, suitable for our nuclear waste. But really, we have more mountain ranges than any other state outside of Alaska. The Great Basin Desert is the fourth most diverse ecosystem in the world. We have a lot going on here that doesn’t get the proper recognition. And our congressional delegation is committed to protecting wild places in the state. … That’s why the county-by-county process is so crucial.

What’s the county-by-county process?

Since Nevada has so much public land that’s federally managed, it means it takes an act of Congress to do anything with it. Our delegation has stumbled upon a formula of sorts where they’re releasing some land for development … but also saying, ‘Hey, if you’re going to release any land for sale, you need to conserve some, too.’ Wilderness [designation] guarantees the land ultimate protection and also maintains its natural, wild character.

What has the Nevada Wilderness Project accomplished?

We’ve protected 1.9 million acres of Nevada as wilderness. We’ve created 41 new wilderness areas, and 84 percent of all wilderness designated in the past six years has been in Nevada. … And it’s all been under an administration that’s not always seen as being conservation-minded.

How do you do it?

By three ways. First we go out and inventory the lands we want to protect; that’s how we come up with our proposal. … Then we begin the grassroots effort. That involves taking people out to see these areas so they can create personal relationships with the area. We’re action-minded, so we ask them to sit down then and there and write a letter to our delegation saying, “I’ve been out to this area, and I believe this should be wilderness.” We also do monthly volunteer meetings [at the Great Basin Brewery] … And third is we work closely with our congressional delegation. … Everybody, I believe, cares about something. But not everybody knows how to be involved. We provide the opportunity to be involved.