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Desert Companion

Profile: Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director, Center for Biological Diversity

A meeting facilitator calls Patrick Donnelly to the podium for his comment on the Bureau of Land Management’s local resource management plan. Facing the half-empty Santa Fe Station ballroom with a giant three-minute timer ticking down on a projector screen above his head, Donnelly gets right to the point: “We have grave concerns about the way that the environmental review processes are playing out across the Department of the Interior under the corrupt and heavy-handed leadership of Secretary Ryan Zinke and industry cronies like (Deputy Secretary) David Bernhardt. The department has become a political tool, with haphazard slashing of bedrock environmental regulations in order to appease a small handful of radical, far-right Trump donors.”

Apparently, Donnelly didn’t get the memo that the Wilderness Society, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and other environmental nonprofits did about playing nice with the BLM. He also doesn’t seem to care that the bureau pulled discussion about the management of Gold Butte National Monument from the agenda, citing President Donald Trump’s decision — based on Zinke’s recommendation — to trim an as-yet unknown amount of acreage from the area designated by former President Barack Obama. “What is the status of Gold Butte? Is the lawlessness that pervades DOI and this administration going to result in the loss of part of our precious national monument?” Donnelly asked, during this comment, eliciting a gasp (and a couple of snickers) from the audience.

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Likewise, most of Southern Nevada’s conservation groups would rather talk about anything other than Cliven Bundy, the cowboy-hatted scofflaw who faced off with law enforcement on his Bunkerville melon farm in 2014 when the BLM tried to round up Bundy Ranch cows that had long been illegally grazing in, among other places, Gold Butte. Off the record, these groups’ leaders worry about connecting the inflammatory Bundy with the national monument. But not Donnelly. The week before Christmas, he and a handful of other Center for Biological Diversity staff held a protest on the steps of the courthouse where Bundy and his supporters were being tried for crimes related to the standoff.

After the judge dismissed the case due to prosecutorial misconduct, Donnelly was undeterred: “The Trump administration is coddling violent zealots and preventing the public from feeling safe to enjoy our new national monument,” he said in a press release urging the Interior Department to once again try getting the cattle off public land.

Where does Donnelly, who will celebrate a year on the job in March, get his chutzpah? From the Center for Biological Diversity’s 1.6 million members and their mandate for the organization: “We take an aggressive front-lines approach to defending the environment. If there are ways that the government or corporations are breaking the law, we will take them to court and sue them, and we win most of the time.”

But where does he get it? From his parents, both Episcopal ministers, maybe? He says he likes to use the religious-flavored “fervor” to describe his passion for speaking on behalf of the animals and plants that he defends.

“In the desert, everything is totally apparent, because it’s laid bare in front of you,” he says. “And yet, it’s also mysterious: How did these plants survive? How do these animals eke out a living? I’ve spent 15 years unlocking those secrets, and there’s a whole lifetime of them left to discover. I tell people that the Mojave Desert is the love of my life. ... If I didn’t have this job, and they weren’t paying me, I’d probably do it anyway.”

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