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Left of Center

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Left of Center
Illustration by Christopher Smith

A new Nevada environmental coalition echoes Green New Deal values — and challenges the political establishment

Like many of the questions in the October 7 vice presidential candidate debate, the one put to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris about her and running-mate Joe Biden’s stance on the Green New Deal went largely unanswered. Moderator Susan Page, of USA Today, asked, “Vice President Biden said in last week’s debate that he does not support the Green New Deal, but if you look at the Biden-Harris campaign website, it describes the Green New Deal as a crucial framework. What exactly would be the stance of a Biden-Harris administration toward the Green New Deal?” In response, Democrat Harris repeated her previous assertion that Biden would not ban fracking and then spent the remainder of her time on his job-creation plans.

The response, calculated to appease Green New Deal opponents and the natural gas lobby (particularly in Pennsylvania, where Biden was born), was odd for a senator who’s supported climate justice action, though in-character for the former veep, who’s more oil and gas industry-friendly than environmentalists would like. The moment captured a broader tension between two modus operandi: the bold, idealistic approach of the Sunrise Movement, propagators of the Green New Deal, and the moderate, pragmatic approach of establishment Democrats. This tension seems to be manifesting itself locally, too.

Support comes from

In early 2020, a new consortium popped up on climate insiders’ radar: the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition (NEJC). This band of social justice and conservation nonprofits — the Center for Biological Diversity, Ecomadres, Great Basin Resource Watch, Indivisible Northern Nevada, Make It Work Nevada, Make the Road Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, Moms Clean Air Force Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, and Sunrise Vegas — came together to ensure that “equity, justice, and sustainability are brought into governmental decision-making in the face of climate change,” as their mission statement reads. The plan is to stick their noses in public policy processes that offer a chance to lessen the negative impacts of climate change on poor and marginalized communities, and people of color.

It’s hard, laudable work by most measures. But it could also be a thorn in the side of establishment liberals with climate deniers on their right and economic growth boosters breathing down their necks. No Democrat wants to be seen as anti-environment, but the NEJC’s staunch far-left stance makes some conservationists look conservative by comparison.

Here’s an example. The NEJC formed amid controversy over the Clark County lands bill, a complicated plan to increase the boundaries of the Las Vegas metro area by making some public lands available for private development. This seemingly never-ending process crystallized most recently in proposed federal legislation sent from the Clark County Commission to Nevada’s congressional delegation in mid-2018. Several constituencies — from off-roaders and hunters to hikers and scientists — hated that plan, mainly because it threatened cherished habitat, recreation areas, and wildlife, but also because it would have allowed development to circumvent longstanding environmental study and public review processes. Over the following year-and-a-half’s worth of discussions between lawmakers and interested parties, consensus among conservation groups broke down. Two of them, the Conservation Lands Foundation and Nevada Conservation League, wrote op-eds endorsing the plan, while two others wrote a critical response calling it “greenwashing.”

The latter two, the Center for Biological Diversity and PLAN, are members of the NEJC. In mid-January, the coalition published an official letter opposing Clark County’s public lands plan. They objected to what they described as urban sprawl, from increased carbon emissions and air pollution, to infrastructure inefficiency and heightened inequity between “those who would benefit from growth and those who would be left behind.” And they gave a list of nine specific recommendations for a more sustainable alternative, mirroring ideas included in the Green New Deal. Leading the list was the suggestion to forego federal legislation until a comprehensive planning process was completed at the county level — with community input. 

Two days later, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, the politician whom former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid endorsed as his replacement, proposed a compromise: The city’s boundary would be expanded, yes, but in exchange, hundreds of thousands of acres would be set aside for wilderness, additional Moapa Paiute territory, and sensitive habitat protection, among other things. “With Clark County’s population expected to grow to 2.85 million by 2035, this legislation will provide for sustainable and responsible growth in the Las Vegas Valley,” read an announcement of the legislative discussion draft. Many conservationists applauded.

But in February, the NEJC wrote a somewhat less enthusiastic response to Cortez Masto’s compromise. “We appreciate that you are trying to find a balance that accommodates Southern Nevada’s growing population while conserving the region’s unique and irreplaceable public lands, habitats and opportunities for recreation for future generations,” it said. But, it added, while the discussion draft increased the amount of public land preserved and rectified the land-sale process, it also promoted sprawl.

As it had done with the county proposal, the coalition addressed the senator’s draft legislation in detail, thanking her for some sections and suggesting alternatives to others. With regard to the withdrawal of 40,000-plus acres of Bureau of Land Management land for potential development, the NEJC proposed rethinking the entire urban-planning enterprise altogether: “To date, there have been too few discussions about sustainable development in Las Vegas and how we can build a sustainable future. The biggest challenge is that solutions are required at every level, and neither the county nor the federal government have authority, capacity or jurisdiction to implement the solutions needed. But this cannot stop us all from trying. This requires multi-level cooperation. We appreciate your leadership on this.”

Coincidentally, two initiatives — one local and one statewide — were in the works that do just what the NEJC was asking for. The first, Transform Clark County, is the government’s effort to revise its threadbare 30-year-old master plan. Because it launched during a pandemic, the public forums have all been online, but the county has solicited input through surveys, videos, and webinars. Second is Governor Steve Sisolak’s Nevada Climate Initiative, another effort to engage the public in devising a statewide plan to tackle the climate crisis. Having gotten what it wanted — a community-based process for envisioning a more equitable, sustainable future — the NEJC leapt into action, actively promoting participation in both processes among its constituencies.

Between that and the congressional delegation’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 elections, the U.S Supreme Court nomination, and other matters, the Clark County lands bill seemed to have slid to the back burner.

Or had it? In early September, the NEJC sent another letter to Senator Cortez Masto asking her to hold off on her public lands legislation. “We understand that your office is also considering introducing a new version of the Clark County Lands Bill,” the letter said. “We appreciate the dialogues we have had with you and the rest of the delegation on this issue. However, we feel this is premature at this time.”

A few weeks later, during a KNPR radio segment about Transform Clark County, Dexter Lim of Sunrise Vegas said the county lands plan was the “elephant in the room” in discussions about urban sprawl and its tendency to heighten social injustice. “I’m not entirely sure why we would be going forward with sprawl when we haven’t completed the Transform Clark County process or the similarly attributed Nevada Climate Initiative process, where the state is trying to gather information from the people on where they want to see the state go in the future,” Lim said.

 Cortez Masto’s office declined to comment on the NEJC’s criticisms on the record, other than to say that it welcomed the coalition’s continued collaboration. At press time, the two sides were planning to meet to discuss the issue.

Perhaps there’s a history lesson about balancing growth and conservation in the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. In a recent conversation with the Sierra Club’s Elspeth DiMarzio about a film documenting Reid’s contributions to Nevada conservation (see excerpt, p. 12), 40-year environmental activism veteran John Hiatt touched on a controversy over SNPLMA, one of Reid’s signature achievements, that’s similar to the one over the current lands bill. While many involved parties saw it as a fair compromise between development and conservation, further left-leaning environmentalists have criticized it — especially in retrospect — as a mechanism that facilitated urban sprawl.

“Growth was going to happen either way,” Hiatt said, adding that SNPLMA, at least, was an improvement over the shady, lopsided land swaps that were being done previously.

This may be a best-case scenario for progress in the complicated public-planning arena, which usually only happens incrementally and after a long struggle. While it’s the role of elected officials such as Cortez Masto and Reid to shepherd compromise among diverse factions, it’s the role of groups like the NEJC to hold the space for an idealistic vision. More mainstream environmental groups find their place on the spectrum from center to far-left based not only on their missions, but also what they’re getting from the parties in power. That’s the nature of politics.

If a final federal Clark County lands management bill is coming soon (and I suspect it is — Transform Clark County is a two-year process, and a lands plan may not be able to wait that long), then the NEJC may have years, as the life cycle of legislation goes, to pull consensus in its direction. And by the time this is published, the biggest decision affecting the future of any U.S. climate justice policy, local or national, will be just days away, on November 3. If Donald Trump wins a second term as president, he’ll continue rolling back environmental protections by the dozen, as he’s promised supporters he would. But if Biden and other Democrats prevail, they’ll have a chance to follow groups like Sunrise and the NEJC further to the left. Will they take it? Maybe, one step at a time.

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