The Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002
In spring of 2001, senators Harry Reid and John Ensign announced their intention to begin working toward an omnibus public lands bill for Clark County. For over a decade, Las Vegas had experienced the highest growth rates in the country. The result has been tremendous infrastructure, social, recreation and conservation challenges for southern Nevada.
As part of this process, NWP and a coalition of four other groups worked to accomplish two things: The first was to ensure that Wilderness protection figured prominently as part of any public lands plan. The second was to ensure that any vision for public lands in southern Nevada was based on biological, and not political, boundaries.
We started by extensively inventorying millions of acres of southern Nevada over a six-month period. This entailed putting employees and trained volunteers on the land to “ground-truth” maps. Our coalition then presented to the public a 4.1 million-acre Wilderness proposal that encompassed all qualified wildlands in the Nevada portion of the Mojave Desert.
Then we organized. We gave slide shows, tabled at events, talked to elected officials, homeowner associations, ranchers, tribal groups, developers, hiking groups… we even briefly entertained the idea of organizing Nevada’s 36 brothels in support of WILDerness! Senators Reid and Ensign wanted to pass a bill before the end of the 2002 session, so this generated a frenzy of activity to publicize information, work out conflicts and talk to everyone we possibly could about the merits of the proposal.
Leaders in the hunting, academic and business communities editorialized in Nevada’s papers, and over 100 businesses locally—and 80 scientists nationally—sent press releases supporting the Citizens' Wilderness Proposal for Southern Nevada's Mojave Desert. In March of 2002, our coalition hosted a Wilderness Forum with community leaders and more than 110 people attended. Fifty of them gave testimony on the importance of protecting Wilderness. This was the largest pro-Wilderness outpouring in Nevada in years.
Much of the resistance we encountered was based on misinformation about what one can and cannot do in Wilderness. Off-road vehicle racers insisted that protecting the land was unnecessary. Some hunters even claimed that Wilderness was bad for wildlife. Anti-federal Nevadans went so far as to claim that Nevada is a sovereign nation not subject to federal law! We met with everybody and learned that common ground wasn’t that hard to find after all. (Except, perhaps, with the folks who thought Nevada was a separate country. They were a tough crowd.)
On behalf of the coalition, John Wallin, NWP’s Director, testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wallin noted the positive working relationship among stakeholders fostered by senators Harry Reid and John Ensign. He testified, “We are most grateful to senators Reid and Ensign for their leadership, for the extensive and dedicated work of their excellent staff, and for the cooperation and straightforward good will of all the parties to this compromise. We must stress that this bill is a bottom-line compromise, not a Wilderness bill.”
On the night of October 17, 2002, Senator Reid ushered the bill to passage in the last act of the Senate before the November election. The day after the election, President Bush signed the Clark County Conservation of Public Lands and Natural Resources Act of 2002 into law. Among the many provisions in this omnibus bill were 452,000 acres of Wilderness added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Though the coalition failed in its effort to broaden Wilderness protection beyond the political boundaries of Clark County, the legislation effectively multiplied by a factor of 10 the amount of Wilderness in southern Nevada.