“‘Growth begets growth’ may feel good on paper or in a soundbite, but it’s not smart policy or a sound, realistic strategy to prepare for the future. […] Perhaps we should all spend the next six weeks thinking long and hard about Nevada’s future, and how we can actually make it more sustainable going forward.”
I wrote that nearly 11 months ago, and I want us to revisit this today. Why’s that? Well, we’ve seen some recent developments that are rekindling the great debate over the gospel of “growth begets growth” development in Southern Nevada… And making us wonder what else it will take for us to finally question the veracity of this “growth” dogma.
Who’s behind this other public lands bill?
In August 2018, we took a closer look at Washoe County’s proposed public lands bill. Tucked in this proposed legislation was a demand that the federal government rescind heightened protection for some 400,000 acres of public land that are currently designated as Wilderness Study Areas (or WSA’s). While Washoe County’s proposal has gone nowhere since then, especially now that proponent Dean Heller (R) is no longer in Congress, another public lands proposal from another Nevada county has begun to make waves (again).
Since Clark County probably has more clout with the state’s mostly Democratic Congressional delegation (and since the sole Republican, Mark Amodei [R-Carson City], is also the sole member who doesn’t have constituents down south), Clark County’s proposed public lands bill may stand a better chance than Washoe County’s ill-fated plan. In addition, Clark County leaders seem to have put more effort into lobbying environmentalists to support their plan.
However like Washoe County’s plan, Clark County’s plan has hidden some curious items in the fine print. While the current draft designates 82,000 acres of newly protected wilderness land, it also proposes 296,690 acres of public land as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC’s). On the latter, the current draft suggests that Clark County can do “land swaps” that may result in up to 296,690 acres of public land being opened for future development.
Why should we care?
So why is this such a big deal? Let’s start with the official Nevada State Reptile: the desert tortoise. Desert tortoises are not just cute and cuddly, but they’re also critical for the survival of other local wildlife, such as gila monsters and ravens. Desert tortoises are currently a threatened species, as their natural habitats have been lessened or destroyed to make room for more development. From 1998 to 2010, over 44,000 acres of formerly public land (much of it also being desert tortoise habitat) were auctioned and sold to real estate developers so they could further expand Southern Nevada’s suburban sprawl.
This leads us back to what I wrote last December, when Jim Rhodes’ proposed Blue Diamond Hill development near Red Rock Canyon appeared to be on its last legs: “A larger metropolis requires larger and more sophisticated public infrastructure for long-term survival, and a metropolis built in a desert valley can only sprawl so far with limited land and water resources. [… I]s it truly wise for Southern Nevada leaders to continue to spin this tale of ‘infinite growth, because growth begets growth’ as we rush toward the natural barriers to such uncontrolled growth?”
While Rhodes’ company continues to insist its Blue Diamond Hill proposal is still on the table, the Clark County Commission continues to table it into a state of perpetual legislative purgatory. Yet while the Rhodes project near Red Rock seems to be going nowhere fast, there are other projects floating around that may drastically affect the future of Southern Nevada and our beloved growth.
Where’s the water?
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump not only has no interest in climate action, not only denies the science on climate change, but is also actively promoting the very fossil fuels that are worsening the climate crisis we’re in. That includes opening more federal public lands to fossil fuel extraction, and this drive to extract more fossil fuels is quickly heading our way.
Trump has already doubled the amount of federal public lands in Nevada to open for drilling, and he’s already placed anti-environment ideologues in charge of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). On November 12, the BLM is set to begin auctions for oil and gas leases affecting 574,075 acres of Nevada’s federal public lands, including 100,000+ acres in the East Mormon Mountains and Tule Desert.
When we spoke with UNLV hydrologist David Kreamer this past March, he explained how groundwater makes its way from Utah’s Beaver Dam Wash to the Virgin River, then to Lake Mead and the Colorado River. The water that feeds the Virgin, Muddy, and Colorado Rivers flows through this same basin where the Trump administration wants more oil and gas drilling. If Trump succeeds in opening these lands to drilling, we’re looking at real long-term damage to the water supply for both the Virgin Valley and the Las Vegas Valley.
So what’s our plan?
In recent weeks, local and national politicians have been speaking up more on the U.S. Department of Defense’s proposal to add 300,000 acres to the Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range, extending it into Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) announced his opposition last week, and 2020 presidential candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have also condemned this proposal to expand the bombing range into Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge is a critical piece to the larger puzzle of preserving the region’s biodiversity and promoting environmental sustainability, but it’s far from the only piece. So are the additional public lands that provide and protect our water, and so are the master plans and other laws that govern urban development.
For far too long, Nevada (and especially Clark County) has been driven by the dogma of “growth begets growth”, that all development is good development, that anything that comes with the promise of “Jobs!” must be welcomed with open arms. As we discussed last week, Gigafactories and NFL stadiums may feel “sexier” than investment in our public infrastructure, but infrastructure investment would likely deliver more long-term benefits for more of our residents.
As Clark County eyes more land for development, as the BLM and the fossil fuel industry eye more land for drilling, as the Pentagon eyes Desert National Wildlife Refuge for bombing, and as Congress potentially prepares to weigh in on some or all of this, we must ask ourselves this: How much more growth can we truly handle, and what are we doing to ensure that short-term “growth” doesn’t harm our long-term well-being?