Photo by Christopher Smith

A snapshot of development on the edge of the Las Vegas Valley

Design Flaw

Desert Companion

Three people who’ve thought a lot about the most recent Clark County public lands bill weigh in on how we could do better


In March of this year U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act. More commonly known as the Clark County lands bill, it’s the culmination of many years of work, mainly by Clark County’s Department of Environment and Sustainability. If it were to pass, the bill would determine the future of development in Southern Nevada for decades.

The business and development sectors support the bill, saying it’s needed to accommodate regional population growth. The environmental community, however, is divided. Several groups say they support certain parts, such as the designation of 1.6 million acres of wilderness, while others oppose the underlying philosophy — swapping developable land for conservation areas — as an outdated concept that promotes urban sprawl.

To explain what’s in the bill and how it will affect the community, Desert Companion invited three experts with varying backgrounds: Bret Birdsong, a UNLV law professor and public lands scholar; Chris Giunchigliani, former Nevada assemblywoman and Clark County commissioner; and Phillip Zuwarus, a UNLV architecture professor who studies urban design and climate change. Desert Companion editors Andrew Kiraly and Heidi Kyser co-moderated the discussion, which you can watch an edited video version of below. A selection of the most salient points follows.


Bret Birdsong:  Let’s start with, “Why do we need lands bills?” The fundamental reason is that we live on tiny islands of privatized land that are surrounded by vast seas of public land, land owned by the United States government. And so, the fundamental driver behind these bills is to create more private land so that we can build our communities and continue our population and economic growth. … In Clark County, we’vegot close to 90 percent public lands, and we’ve developed most of it. And so, we’re concerned now about where the land for future development  is going to come (from). 

Chris Giunchigliani: I’ve been gone (from the County Commission) since 2019, and in 2018, if I recall, was a resolution that was adopted that we then kind of added to a framework for the senator (Cortez Masto) to start working on. That was years in the making in and of itself; internal fights between conservation and economic development were still part of that debate then. Did we really need to give a bunch of land away to developers? And if so, where, for what purpose? … Fast forward to now, that’s why you still have a split amongst many of the environmental and conservation groups. There are so many pieces that are liked within the bill, but that whole economic development, “Let’s give it to developers” part really is not necessary any longer.

BB: There’s always been this balance, politically, between making land available and designating land for conservation purposes in a permanent way, designating wilderness, expanding areas that we love, like Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, and also creating a funding source so that the money that has come from auctioning off these federal lands is then used for conservation purposes.

Phillip Zawarus:  I agree with Chris on the separation of the economic development side from the conservation. That’s a very challenging subject, because then you have to start to think about shifting from traditional zoning ordinances to what we refer to now, with future development, as smart growth. … When you look at it from a climate change perspective, and dealing with CO2 sequestration, we need to have less of this hard juxtaposition between conservation areas and developable land. There needs to be more of a coexistence between the two.

CG: Can you take the politics out of it? No, because everything’s political, no matter whether it’s from elected officials or just everyday neighbors fighting over something. But I’m still a firm believer in, let’s look at the policy and start from that. So, you at least dehumanize it as much as you can and look at numbers and science and what you learned. What failed? What worked? Have those conversations.  We don’t do a lot of that, whether it’s in the legislature or the local level.

BB: We’ve always used our public lands to promote the public national interest. We made them available for development when that was the policy. What’s the biggest crisis facing us right now? The climate crisis. We use public lands to promote renewable energy development. We use it for transmission because we need to transition our economy to more electric and less fossil fuel. We, from a national perspective, might think about: How do we make federal land available in order to help communities develop in a smart way, facing the biggest crises that we have right now like climate?

PZ: Right. We are in this climate crisis. We’ve actually done a great job of cutting down on CO2 emissions and changing regulations and policies to prevent CO2 from getting into the air. However, the other piece of that pie is that we aren’t really preserving our carbon sinks. So, what is it that’s going to actually sequester, take out the CO2 that’s already in the air? And those are through our natural and undisturbed lands. There’s this misconception with the Mojave Desert, and most desert ecosystems, that they’re barren lands that don’t really provide a lot of ecosystem services. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The soil itself does a lot in that CO2 sequestration process.

BB: Everywhere that we live around the Las Vegas Valley is also desert tortoise habitat. And desert tortoise are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as a threatened species. It’s a violation of the Endangered Species Act to harm those tortoises. We can’t go out there and hunt them, we can’t pick them up, we can’t harass them, and we can’t destroy their habitat — unless we get a permit for otherwise lawful activities, like living our lives or building homes for us. There’s a way to not violate the Endangered Species Act, but you have to prepare something called a habitat conservation plan. … Clark County says we’re running out of land available to be developed under the current approved (plan). So, we need more land, and we’re going to designate more protected land, so that that can get credit for mitigation under the (plan), too. … This bill still maintains the scientific integrity of the review of the Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which would be amended.

CG: I don’t see why you need to give 120,000-plus acres for OHVs (off-highway vehicles). Why? There’s not even been an environmental impact done on that part of it. So why — who’s that expansion for? Does somebody think that that’s a great economic development piece? Well, for every $10 that you lose in habitat and cooling canopy and destroying that desert crust, as Phillip was speaking to, it’ll cost you five times as much (as you’d gain).

PZ: I think we’re just not good at designing our cities. It doesn’t get classified as or considered vacant lands, but look at how many surface parking lots we have. That is just an absolute waste of land that can be developed. We dedicate a lot of space to very wide roadways. So, that would save a tremendous amount of space, if you start to aggregate the city of Las Vegas. If we were smarter and went toward a densification model, we could easily start to accommodate those growing needs. It’s a matter of not looking for that low-hanging fruit of available land and being more prescriptive with what we do.

CG: You don’t need 840,000 more people here in the next 30 years (as the Center for Business and Economic Research projects, providing the basis for the legislation). We’d be crazy to promote that. Where’s the water? I mean, let’s be honest, where’s the water?

BB: The best ideas of smart growth will require a fair amount of retrofitting of the area that we’ve already developed. Smart Growth ideas are not rocket science. We know lots of great ideas: build transit corridors, build pocket parks, build urban tree canopy, make the benefits of nature available to all people in the city, not just to the wealthiest. … We don’t do a particularly great job of that here with what we’ve built over the years through sort of haphazard development rather than planning it. So, as a matter of national policy, perhaps we should be thinking: How do we make Las Vegas a climate leader?

CG: Excellent point. I mean, it could be as simple as putting rooftop solar on old apartment buildings and getting rid of the old air conditioner units, which cost poor citizens, the poorest of the poor, because that AC unit is antiquated. There are ways to improve people’s quality of life. Your social justice issues can be dealt with, with some of those types of retrofitting. Yeah, the opportunity’s there; it’s sometimes getting the will to do it.

PZ: Retrofitting is way more expensive than utilizing the available undeveloped land. You need to incentivize developers to want to do these infill projects or to retrofit. And so, I think that’s more of where the discussion has to go toward, is incentivizing that retrofitting process to offer tax credits, offer other types of incentives for developers to want to spend a little bit more time, spend a little more money in order to get some tradeoff in return, because that’s the only way you’re going to get developers to buy in.

BB: Everything is connected. You know, one time I was in a panel with the former mayor of North Las Vegas, I think was Michael Montandon.  And there was some discussion about narrow streets: Why don’t we have — Why do I live in a residential community developed in the 1960s, that has a 60-foot right of way? We don’t need a 60-foot right-of-way. It would slow down traffic if we had narrower streets, and if people were parking on streets. And he said, “Well, the problem is, is my fire department says that all of their trucks need 40 feet to turn around in order to provide for public safety.” Well, why don’t we buy smaller trucks? So, everything is connected.

PZ: Las Vegas is so big, we need to really focus and strategize which communities need assistance the most. … And there’s certainly a pattern that’s continuously coming up, especially as you look toward the east valley. It has the highest concentration of food deserts, it has the highest concentration of urban heat island, least rainfall and access to water resources, least or least-dense tree canopy, worst transportation system. Instead of trying to figure out a solution to all parts of the valley, develop a strategic plan for those needs of communities, and start to prioritize it that way. I think that’s when you’re going to really start to make a difference.

BB: In the life of this bill, I think what happens (next) is, it goes through the regular order of legislative development. There’ll be markups by committees. Eventually, there might be votes, or it gets reported out to the floor. What tends to happen with these localized public lands bills is, they’re going on in all places around the country. Eventually, there’s a bunch that are more-or-less right, and they get bundled together as an omnibus public lands bill, and put together for a vote. … And so, I think that there is time for larger conversation about what is the best way to do this.

CG: Your voice still matters. So, put a call into your congresswoman or senator and say, “Hey, we like this, this, and this, but take the time to do it right. Separate the legislation.” And volunteer to be on a working committee. Voice your concerns to your commissioners. Participate in Transform Clark County (master planning process). Weigh in on that land use stuff. … And then get involved in the organizations that reflect where your interests are … I love this place, and I want it to be the best that it can be. And I think we still have an opportunity, because we’re still a little bit small. I just think I’m forever hopeful.

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