Desert Companion

The Long Tail


UNLV Basketball
AP Photo

It was the year Vegas embraced full, florid team spirit — and found the promise of civic identity in sports.

From politics to entertainment to the environment, events from 1989 still send ripples through Southern Nevada today

It was the year that protected the desert tortoise and enshrined it as an icon of wilderness conservation.

In July, after a contagion that killed more than 600 Desert Tortoises, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the animal as an endangered species. The following year, the Mojave Desert Tortoise population’s status was reduced to “threatened,” allowing Clark County to grant permits to develop their habitat in exchange for mitigation funding, used to create the 200-acre Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. The listing formed the basis of other widespread conservation efforts, too, including the purchase of grazing rights on land populated by tortoises to protect their habitat. One rancher who refused to pay grazing fees and would go on to create quite a stir over federal stewardship of public lands: Cliven Bundy. HK


It was the year Vegas embraced full, florid team spirit — and found the promise of civic identity in sports.

Okay, frothing fandom is easy when you have a winning team — and the 1989-1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were certainly that, with their famed “amoeba” defense masterfully developed by Tark. But, by all accounts, the season that led up to UNLV’s crushing victory over Duke for the 1990 NCAA trophy inspired a citywide Rebel fever whose underdog spirit accounted for more than just college basketball. It said: We’re a real city. We’re real people. Don’t write us off. See also: The mania that took hold in the inaugural 2017-2018 season of The Vegas Golden Knights. AK


It was the start of Richard Bryan’s Senate career, in which future #MeToo storylines lurked.

Richard BryanIn 1988, then-Gov. Richard Bryan (pictured center) successfully ran for U.S. Senate, replacing Chic Hecht. Bryan served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the initial stages of the investigation into Republican Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood — whose sexual harassment exploits detailed in his personal diary were a foreshadowing of the #MeToo movement. Bryan’s remark that Packwood may have violated the law (and the revelations in his subpoenaed diary) eventually led Packwood to resign from the Senate in 1995. SS


anti-nuclear movementIt was a year of vindication for the anti-nuclear movement. Reagan’s buildup of the nation’s nuke arsenal galvanized peace activists around the world — and at the Nevada Test Site. The crowds were scruffy, but the message was heard. During his term beginning in 1989, George H.W. Bush cut the nuclear arsenal by nearly half, and engaged a collapsing Soviet Union with a spirit of conciliation that looks masterful today. The Nevada Test Site ceased underground tests after September 1992. AK


It was the beginning of the long decline of our two daily newspapers.

When the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sun entered a joint operating agreement (JOA) in 1989, many thought it meant both papers now shared the same owner. Not true: a JOA is a complex mechanism by which Justice Department antitrust officials allow competing newspapers to merge business operations and split the revenue. This is done to save a failing paper and keep alive the ideal of different editorial voices serving a community. However, a lopsided 90-10 revenue split favoring the RJ ensured the Sun couldn’t scale up to a competitive size. Eventually, that proved too little for the standalone Sun to survive on, and in 2005 it became an insert in the RJ. Still, the Sun rallied its editorial resources to win a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Since then, though, plunging ad revenue for both papers has seen the Sun’s talent depleted, while the RJ suffered a traumatic change of ownership when Sheldon Adelson bought it in 2015. SD


Family-friendlyIt was the year the narrative of a new “family-friendly” Vegas was consecrated by the media.

In a May 30 front-page story, “Las Vegas Transformation: From Sin City to Family City,” The New York Times considered Vegas’ attempts to broaden its appeal: “There are title fights, golf tournaments, rodeos, the Wet ’n’ Wild aquatic park for children and new retirement complexes.” The Times got it wrong with its insistence on equating diversification with marketing to families. (Yet it’s just so compellingly man-bites-dog.) But it got it right in observing that Vegas’ constant reinvention is a necessary survival strategy: “So the question is how shrewd and quick Las Vegas will be in coming up with something new to draw a public that is likely to become jaded as gambling nationally becomes a forbidden fruit that is no longer forbidden.” See also: All the other reinventions we’ve tried since then. AK


It was the year the rural water pipeline plan was born.

In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District board promoted Pat Mulroy to general manager. She immediately began filing applications for rights to groundwater flowing from Baker, Nevada, south through the green valleys on the eastern side of the state — the foundation of the now-controversial plan to pipe water to Las Vegas. Mulroy would go on to facilitate the valley’s construction boom as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a coalition of municipal water districts, and as a mastermind of Colorado River politics. HK


Mike TysonIt was the year Mike Tyson went from boxing hero and pop culture figure to tabloid headline.

In 1988, Mike Tyson was at his peak. He’d unified the three heavyweight belts. He’d knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds in what was then the largest-grossing boxing match in history. He was in millions of living rooms in Nintendo’s Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. 1989 was a turning point. His defeat of Frank Bruno at the Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 25 was an unspectacular TKO — and overshadowed by tabloid drama: He broke his hand in a street fight. He looked on as then-spouse Robin Givens detailed his abuse on 20/20 (and later hit him with a $125 million libel suit). He crashed his BMW into a tree. He later lost his heavyweight belt to Buster Douglas in a now-legendary 1990 upset in Tokyo. (The Mirage, the only casino to take bets on the outcome of the fight, had Douglas as a 42-to-1 underdog.) AK


Strip MusicIt was the year one of the architects of modern, regulated gaming died.

Nevada-born and bred, Charles Russell grew up in Lovelock, graduated from the university in Reno, and was a newspaperman and Republican state senator in Ely when he won Nevada’s lone congressional seat in 1946. In 1950, he challenged incumbent Democrat Vail Pittman for governor and won. During his two terms, Russell pushed through the creation of the Gaming Control Board after Hank Greenspun’s Sun published an exposé about Meyer Lansky’s hidden involvement in the Thunderbird Hotel. When casino executives lobbied, browbeat, and bribed lawmakers into trying to gut the board’s power, Russell vetoed the legislation, saving the regulatory body. Perhaps ironically, it’s that regulatory system that helps ensure our reputation as Sin City evokes freewheeling indulgence, not crime and corruption. MG


It was the year Strip music died as corporate Vegas eyed the bottom line.

On June 3, 1989, Musicians Local 369 went on strike against the Tropicana hotel-casino, the opening move in the union’s effort to prevent Strip showrooms from replacing live orchestras with taped music. The entertainment business was changing: Shows, once a loss-leader, were pressured by corporate owners to turn a profit, and recorded music was cheaper. As the strike spread to other properties, grew acrimonious, and garnered national headlines, some marquee performers declined to cross the picket lines. But the union couldn’t fight the future, and in January 1990 it agreed to a settlement that essentially granted the casinos almost total victory. Live music eventually made something of a comeback on the Strip, as Cirque du Soleil and others preferred responsive musicians (though in smaller numbers) to static recordings. SD


It was the year that protected key Nevada natural attractions as cultural and economic assets.

In January, Congress passed the Nevada Wilderness Protection Act, a bill creating 13 new wilderness areas to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service. They include now-popular areas such as Arc Dome, the Ruby Mountains, and Mount Charleston, which, along with Great Basin National Park that was established three years earlier, would become the bedrock of Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy. That sector currently generates more than $12 billion for the state, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. It’s also under threat by the Trump administration, which is pushing to open wilderness areas across the country to oil and gas exploration, logging, and other commercial activities. HK


It was the year we got a taste of the fine-dining scene to come.

Most historians credit Spago with kicking off the Las Vegas food revolution when it opened in December 1992. But the real story starts a few years earlier when Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse opened its doors on Paradise Road. It was the first upscale chain to take a gamble on Las Vegas, and within a year of its 1989 opening, the Louisiana-based meat emporium was the top-performing outlet for the brand. “No national chains thought anyone would leave a casino to eat somewhere else,” was how owner Marcel Taylor once put it. But they flocked to Ruth’s Chris, and by 1991, other operations like Palm and Morton’s were eyeing our market. Once they became raging successes, celebrity chefs took note, and things were never the same. JC


It was the year of Summerlin’s true start, and a new chapter in Vegas’ growth.

1989 bridged the announcement of the behemoth master-planned community in 1988 and the 1990 completion of the first Summerlin Parkway section connecting it to Las Vegas. Summerlin’s developers took Henderson’s master planning example of Green Valley and scaled it up: 80,000 homes housing 200,000 people on 22,500 acres, completed over 50 years. Howard Hughes Corporation has since added all the standard city amenities, from parks to hospitals to shopping complexes. More important, it set new conservation standards by swapping 5,000 acres of sensitive Red Rock Canyon land for 3,000 acres that were more appropriate for development. And it set the bar for future Southern Nevada developments with innovations such as an improvement-district fee for quick infrastructure construction, HOA boards focused on quality of life as much as building codes, desert-friendly landscaping, and private land donated for public transportation and recreation. HK

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that desert tortoise conservation efforts involved the federal purchase of grazing rights, and that Cliven Bundy refused to pay grazing fees.

Support comes from


If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

More Stories