A new documentary about Harry Reid’s environmental work spotlights his relationship to outback Nevada
In late September the documentary The New West and the Politics of the Environment debuted locally on KCET. It’s a 90-minute look at the environmental accomplishments of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 after more than 30 years of public service. Longtime environmental activist John Hiatt, conservation chair for Red Rock Audubon, and relative newcomer Elspeth DiMarzio, of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, previewed the film for a roundtable discussion in our weekly newsletter, Fifth Street. The following is an additional excerpt of the original conversation, moderated by Desert Companion’s Heidi Kyser. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Heidi Kyser: I noted a heavy emphasis in the film on Reid’s indifference to backlash when he thought what he was doing what was right. Is that an accurate characterization, in your view?
John Hiatt: I think that Senator Reid was very smart and calculating about who was going to support him and who was not. And he recognized after his work on the (Great Basin National) Park bill that rural Nevada was not going to support him. And so, it was like, why worry about it? We might as well go ahead and do what we want to do, because the support to get him reelected is going to come from Clark County, basically.
Elspeth DiMarzio: From the work we did with Senator Reid on Reid Gardner (a coal-fired generating station), it always felt to me that he has a strong moral compass, so he really was fighting for what he thought was best for Nevada and Nevadans, whether that was wilderness protection or a national park or something else. I think the documentary got at this a little bit, but having lived through it, I saw that when the senator was making bold statements about the need to retire or not build any new coal plants in Nevada, that was not a popular opinion. Now, 10 years later, we can look back and say coal plants are shutting down because of economics, but there was a time that was a really strong position he was taking, especially with environmental justice communities like the Moapa Band of Paiutes, and it was because he thought that was the right thing to do.
Hiatt: He certainly had a strong moral compass, but he was also pragmatic about knowing what he could get away with, and knowing where things were going, quite frankly.
Kyser: Toward the end of the documentary, Ernie Schank from the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District says that Reid is not well-liked in rural Nevada. Was getting to Reid’s conservation goals worth the cost to people living in the rural areas who make their living farming, mining, and ranching?
Hiatt: It’s an interesting question. Things are changing in rural America whether we go to clean energy or not. If you look all over the country, you can see that rural areas have been depopulating for most of the 20th century and into the 21st, and there’s no evidence that the trend isn’t going to continue. … The challenge in rural Nevada and the rest of the country is how to make those areas economically attractive to young people, so they feel their activities will be sustainable and still valuable 10, 20 years into the future.
DiMarzio: I haven’t spent as much time in rural Nevada as John ... but it did feel to me that, Senator Reid being from Searchlight, he’s not unfamiliar with that rural lifestyle. … It’s close to a metropolitan area, but some of the work Senator Reid did in conjunction with the Moapa Band of Paiutes to help the transition from a coal-impacted community to a thriving clean-energy community — those are things that, in other states I work in, are still looked at as an example of how you can make that transition the right way. That goes back to the foresight John was talking about earlier.
Read the rest of Hiatt and DiMarzio’s conversation in the September 24 edition of Fifth Street, knpr.org/desert-companion/fifth-street