Nevada’s environmental movement is evolving — just not in time to have made an impact in the 2015 Legislature.
Two months into Nevada’s 78th legislative session, the public learned that a 3 percent cap on distributed generation — which limits the number of utility customers who can participate in the state’s net-metering program — could stymie the nascent rooftop solar industry, self-proclaimed creator of some 6,000 jobs. No bill had been introduced to raise the cap, and NV Energy made clear its intention to fight any provisional effort to that end. The environmental community, which had so cohesively and effectively fought for the shutdown of NV Energy’s coal-fired power generation plants in 2013, appeared to be caught off-guard.
Meanwhile, a bill pushing for a statewide increase in energy efficiency went nowhere. And Senate Joint Resolution 1, calling for 7 million acres of federal land in Nevada to be turned over to state and private development interests, was picking up steam.
Since the last legislative session, some high-profile organizations in Nevada’s conservation/environmental movement have undergone fundamental changes. In June 2013, the board of directors of Nevada Wilderness Project voted to dissolve the organization. A few months later, Scot Rutledge handed the reins of Nevada Conservation League to April Mastroluca, who resigned in June 2014 to direct the ALS Association Nevada Chapter. She hasn’t been replaced. That same month, Rob Mrowka retired as senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Nevada; although he has continued consulting for the organization on local issues, he returned home to upstate New York. He hasn’t been replaced. In February of this year, Lydia Ball passed the Clean Energy Project torch to Jennifer Taylor.
It’s tempting to draw a line from these transitions to the dearth of Earth-friendly action in the Legislature this spring, but, as with most concurrent historical phenomena, the relationship between the two is more complicated than cause-and-effect.
For one thing, having fewer high-profile conservation and environmental activists in Carson City might not have made much difference there this spring.
“In terms of the legislators, it’s not too different than how it’s been in the past,” says Kyle Davis, who lobbies on behalf of the Nevada Conservation League and a few other groups. “There aren’t as many bills this time around as there normally are that have an environmental or conservation impact. There are a couple pretty big ones, but that hasn’t really been the focus of the session.”
Davis is hinting at a political reality: With conservatives having taken over both the Assembly and Senate in the November elections, environmental issues took a back seat to the majority’s priorities — gun rights, prevailing-wage suppression, voter ID. Even if the environmental lobby had big plans, they probably would have been thwarted.
And the proposals to hand over federal lands have actually moved several groups to trek to Carson City in protest (full disclosure: one of them, Friends of Gold Butte, included my husband).
“I think the push-back against the privatization of public lands has shown that, in spite of the turnover in some organizations, whether it’s Las Vegas or Reno, the community as a whole is still loaded for bear,” says Bob Fulkerson, state director and cofounder of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Now, we just have to coalesce around some longer-term goals.”
Fulkerson points out that the state has several active issue- and place-specific groups, a few of which, such as Protectors of Tule Springs and the Lower Colorado River Water Trail Alliance, have scored major wins recently.
Efforts like these, which reach further than the state Legislature, have elicited considerable participation by the conservation/environmental community. Most recently, the Conservation Lands Foundation has led the push to garner support for U.S. Senator Harry Reid’s Basin and Range proposal, which would protect 800,000 acres of land in Lincoln and Nye counties from mining and development.
The CLF is represented in Nevada by David Bobzien, the former state assemblyman and current Reno City Council member-at-large who was involved with the Nevada Wilderness Project until it shut down. There are few national environmental heavyweights with boots on the ground locally that are as well-connected and -schooled in local issues as Bobzien. The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club are a couple of exceptions. Most, such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resource Defense Council, have regional offices that send representatives to Nevada to fight battles as they come up.
But this doesn’t mean they’re ineffective, says Lynn Davis, Nevada director of the National Parks Conservation Association, giving the example of the Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Management Plan for Southern Nevada, which is being developed for the next 20 years. A who’s-who of national conservation nonprofits dispatched teams to Nevada to study the plan and make public comments, Davis says.
“They’re not overlooking Nevada. They’re engaged here, particularly in energy-transmission issues and renewables, that sort of thing,” she says.
And some homegrown groups, such as Friends of Nevada Wilderness and Great Basin Resource Watch, are growing their staffs and memberships, gearing up for activism on issues in various regions of the state.
Nevertheless, Fulkerson acknowledges, “the environmental presence in Carson City has never been what it needs to be, in terms of the battles we have to wage against the polluters — mining, energy companies and the rest.”
He believes that, if they’re to succeed, groups with broadly related interests are going to have to collaborate more strategically: “If we’re only focused on saving one set of rocks or plants and don’t bring our shared, larger values into the fight, we’re not going to win the longer-term battle. … At Earth Day in Reno, there were booths where people were talking about intersections between various issues, such as the corporations that use our sky as free garbage dumps being the same ones trying to do away with collective bargaining and privatizing public land for their own use. There are huge opportunities in fighting climate change that are going to bring together these coalitions.”
Fulkerson adds that millennials, who grew up with easy access to vast stores of information, are good at connecting the dots and using social media to rally diverse crowds around common causes. Davis also believes the next generation of conservation and environmental activists holds great promise.
“I can tell you, from the NPCA’s standpoint, that people are lined up, resumés in hand,” she says, “environmentally passionate young people who want positions in conservation nonprofits. There is no shortage of recruits, and those who come across my desk humble and awe me.”
In April, the Nevada Sierra Club and Alliance for Climate Education sent six high school students from Liberty High School to the Nevada Legislature to testify in favor of the energy-efficiency bill. They failed to persuade the state’s leaders to commit to a 1 percent increase in efficiency, which, the nonprofits estimate, would have created 4,600 jobs and saved businesses $3.4 billion by 2020. Sierra Club spokeswoman Marta Stoepker hopes the experience energized, rather than demoralized, them.
“You know, the future of this movement is not just millennials,” she says, “but also people of color, anyone who’s been marginalized because of these issues. Traditionally, environmental groups have been known as old white men who like to hike. That’s not what we are anymore. … Being an environmentalist isn’t just about being out in the mountains; it’s about what’s going on in the communities right outside your door.”
And, she and others in the movement hope, in the capital.