Exploring the outdoors is about getting away from it all — from work, noise, stress, news, politics, the slow-drip psychic venom of social media. But it’s useful to remember that much of Nevada’s protected outdoors areas are the result of a lot of work, noise, stress, politics and, yes, sometimes even social media clamor. Consider one of Southern Nevada’s crown jewels, Red Rock National Conservation Area. Decades before the canyon received federal protection, Howard Hughes owned much of it, and once envisioned developing the area into an industrial megaplex for testing radar systems and guided missiles. (It’s said he even had a suitably bland, institutional-sounding name for it: Husite.) Luckily for us, his executives convinced him to scrap the idea. And in 1988, with an assist by the Nature Conservancy, the Howard Hughes Corporation and the BLM cinched a land-swap deal that saved key parcels from future development, adding momentum to Red Rock’s ultimate designation as a National Conservation Area in 1990. In more recent history is the 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument designated by President Obama in 2015 — again, not without clamor and not without controversy — or the newly created national monument of Gold Butte near Mesquite. And, of course, we can’t forget the current fight to protect Red Rock from developer Jim Rhodes’ plan to turn nearby Blue Diamond Hill into a 5,000-home exurb island. They all go to show that preservation and conservation are creative acts. It takes a lot of diplomacy, compromise and conflict to officially leave something alone.
Heidi Kyser’s story opens another chapter in this larger story about our stewardship of the outdoors. In “By air and by land” (p. 61), she looks north to the 1.6 million-acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge which, incredibly, overlaps an Air Force weapons-testing range. The Air Force wants to increase its footprint for the sake of safety and employing new technology, but conservationists and wildlife biologists have concerns about the impact on the sheep, cougars, foxes, mule deer, Desert Tortoises and other animals who, you know, live there. The solutions to the conflict are anything but clear, but (here’s me, totally brightsiding) it’s heartening to know that Nevada conservationists continue to be strong voice for public lands.
But you don’t have to trek outside the valley for an encounter with the wild. In “The animals next door” (p. 53), you’ll meet six Southern Nevada denizens you might be surprised to learn live here, from the beavers busily gnawing away at the Clark County Wetlands Park to the elusive cougars in the Spring Mountains to the terrifying (speaking from experience here re: the first time I saw one, which was perched near my front door beneath the porch light, pooled in lurid, writhing, Bela Lugosi shadow, and I barely had the key in the door when I met the creature at eye level and made a hybrid squeal-yelping sound while simultaneously leaping backwards several feet) palo verde beetle. Sure, Las Vegas is an improbable terraformed oasis, an air-conditioned bubble attached to an artificial lake, but if you just open your eyes, you’ll find lots of wonder, beauty and strangeness to inspire you. Or make you squeal-yelp.