Desert Companion

Earth angels

Get a chicken, grow some veggies, walk to work: These pragmatic Las Vegans show that it’s easy to start being green

Las Vegas may be Spanish for “the meadows,” but “green” is not a word generally applied to the southern tip of Nevada — unless you’re talking about extremely controlled environments like Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden or a manicured golf course.

But now that it denotes ecological responsibility instead of mere hue, “green” offers Las Vegas a fresh chance to claim it. Southern Nevada has solar energy to spare, for example, and conserving water has become the whole region’s pastime. Even so (and with apologies to Kermit), it’s not easy being green. It takes commitment in the desert. Even if you bother to replace your lawn with gravel, it’s still far too easy to go inside, crank up the air conditioning, nuke a frozen entree and ignore things like carbon footprints and climate change.

Unfortunately, such behavior is often encouraged in Las Vegas. Many homeowners associations have strict rules against solar panels and outdoor clotheslines. Rare is the neighborhood that smiles upon backyard chickens. Recycling practices in most areas are decades behind other cities. In general, Las Vegans find sticking with fossil fuels, public utilities and trucked-in food considerably more attractive than turning green.

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Any change begins with small but significant steps — the buildings blocks of new ways. Sure, these five Southern Nevadans live admirably green lifestyles. But more importantly, their everyday practices are well within reach of you and me.

Electric Ave: JonEngine of change: Jon Hallquist

Green claim to fame: Jon Hallquist can be spotted around town driving an aging blue Pontiac Fiero that attracts attention any time someone gets a glimpse under the hood or inside the trunk. All available space is filled with lead-acid batteries installed by members of the Las Vegas Electric Vehicle Association. As webmaster and vice president of the nonprofit club, Hallquist is a tireless promulgator of its mission: the widespread adoption of electricity-powered cars, trucks, motorcycles and any other conveyance that would otherwise burn fossil fuels. Hallquist is also connected with Grassroots Electric Vehicles, a company that sells kits and offers support for converting gas-powered vehicles to electric.

Clean, quiet, and oh-so-green: “We have to clean up the environment,” Hallquist says. While the easiest way to “go electric” is to buy a factory model like a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf, it’s far from the cheapest. Although there’s a large range in cost depending on battery type and performance goals, a typical do-it-yourself conversion might cost about $5,000. This might seem like a hefty outlay, but the payback is swift. Hallquist estimates that driving an electric car costs almost half what it takes to run the same vehicle on gasoline. In addition, he stresses, you aren’t contributing to the epidemic of cancer and respiratory diseases associated with the emissions from internal combustion engines.

Why does he do it? For Hallquist, this question is a no-brainer. While it might be less convenient to drive an electric vehicle because of range limitations or the scarcity of recharging stations, the benefits are too important to ignore. “We have to keep from going over the tipping point,” he says, referring to the air pollution and effects on climate change caused by internal combustion. He sees the challenge as a tug-of-war between the interests of big oil companies and conventional car manufacturers and the obvious and dire need to protect the planet.

How you can do it: If you’re interested in electric vehicles or in learning how to convert a conventional car to electric power, the Las Vegas Electric Vehicle Association offers a wealth of support, inspiration, camaraderie and know-how. The group’s website has lots of information as well as a calendar of meetings and events. Info:

Stalks and bonds: Marilyn YamamotoMarilyn Yamamoto

Green claim to fame: Owner of Cowboy Trail Farm in the northwest corner of the valley, Yamamoto uses her 20-plus years of gardening experience to test and develop innovative and sustainable methods for growing crops in the desert. She’s the founder of Organic Edibles, a nonprofit formed to feed the hungry and teach people how to grow their own food and become more self-sufficient.

Papayas in the desert: Yamamoto’s passion for experimentation has resulted in some startling successes. At Cowboy Trail Farm, bananas and papayas are in the ripening stage inside a hoop house equipped to simulate a tropical climate. In another, her first aquaponics crop is leafing out above ponds teeming with large-mouth bass. In this symbiotic system, the fish waste feeds the plants — and the fish are themselves a crop.

In addition to gardening classes, Yamamoto also teaches people about emergency preparedness and solar energy. Recently, a group of 50 gathered to learn how to bake cakes in ovens powered solely by reflected sunlight, and others have learned canning and preserving methods.

“More and more people are becoming interested in being green,” Yamamoto says. To expand her activities and growing potential, she has recently acquired more farmland in Sandy Valley and partnered with a ranch near Pioche.

Why does she do it? “I’m into eating healthy and being sustainable,” Yamamoto says. “Once you start — once you see things grow — you just can’t stop.” The beneficiaries of her dedication include not only the hundreds of people who gather at Cowboy Trail Farm to learn the secrets behind her green thumbs, but also the local charities that receive donations of fresh produce.

[HEAR MORE: Would you recycle more if it meant fewer trash pickups? Hear a discussion on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

How you can do it: Attend workshops at Cowboy Trail Farm, or buy produce from its farm stand at the Springs Preserve Farmers Market, or through the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Basket program. Or just get started growing, even if you have no yard. “That’s what containers were made for,” Yamamoto says. Info:

Here today, here tomorrow: Peter Frigeri

Green claim to fame: The owner of Gaia, a flower and gift shop that specializes in sustainably grown flowers and work by local artists, Frigeri is also co-founder of Great Basin Permaculture, a nonprofit organization whose members share the simple but challenging goal of living in harmony with nature.

The promise of permaculture: First coined in Australia back in the 1970s, permaculture is an ecological design system that draws inspiration from natural systems to develop efficient and sustainable models for agriculture, architecture and everyday life. Here in Las Vegas, permaculture offers a fresh way to assess and address all sorts of challenges from food supply to climate change. In addition to hosting monthly meetings, seminars and classes, Great Basin Permaculture is developing a demonstration garden.

“We have a corner in the back of the Vegas Roots Community Garden,” Frigeri says. “We’re experimenting with indigenous plants and grading methods.” Instead of the more traditional raised beds, the group is trying out sunken planting zones. By lowering the plants, they are more likely to benefit from any moisture runoff, and they will also be protected from wind. It’s this type of thinking that is at the core of permaculture philosophy.

Also at the heart of permaculture ethos is taking it home. In his own backyard, where Frigeri once envisioned a serene Zen garden with a winding path, he now houses a handful of chickens. Chickens are a great example of permaculture concepts at work. The owner provides them with shelter, food and water, and the chickens provide eggs, meat, manure, soil cultivation, weeding and pest control. Of course, they can also raise eyebrows among the neighbors. “Fortunately, they like the eggs,” Frigeri says, illustrating yet another permaculture tenet — sharing.

Why does he do it? “Our mission is to educate and engage people in conversation as we face the changes that are coming,” Frigeri says. “They’re happening now — climate change, population growth … ” He pauses. “I do it for my kids.”

How you can do it: Attend a Great Basin Permaculture meeting and learn more about this holistic approach to living a greener life. Info:

Cooler head prevails: John TsitourasJohn Tsitouras

Green claim to fame: Drawing on his decades of experience in systems design as a physicist working on Department of Energy contracts, John Tsitouras designed and built a “super green” house. His total energy costs — winter and summer — are about $150 a month. His neighbor, who lives in a house of similar size, pays around $800.

What lies beneath: Nestled in the Huntridge district on a large lot once owned by Howard Hughes, Tsitouras’s expansive Southwestern-style home is luxurious and inviting, with high, open-beam ceilings, spacious rooms, a finished basement, and an eight-car garage. What a superficial look can’t reveal is that the house sits on top of a buried “ground loop” — nearly 2,000 feet of polybutylene pipe. Connected to a heat pump, the ground loop system uses the heat of the surrounding earth during the summer months and the cold during the winter months to regulate temperatures inside the house. For further efficiency, Tsitouras used innovative insulating and building techniques and installed triple-paned windows. The result is an ideal indoor climate year-round.

Tsitouras’s house is the result of a life-long interest in energy efficiency. “I’ve been green since 1952,” he says. As a college sophomore, he attended a lecture on solar energy techniques under development in Israel, and it wasn’t long before he was building his own solar collectors. Throughout his career as a physicist, Tsitouras designed, developed, and built solar power collectors for buildings throughout the southwest.

Why did he do it? While low, low utility bills might be incentive enough for many people, Tsitouras’s interest in efficient systems is much deeper. It’s simply the right way to build a house — something far more people should be doing.

“This is my dream house,” he says, “a house for all seasons. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be standing in 200 years.”

How you can do it: If you’re building a house from scratch, Tsitouras says, consider a ground loop system. “It’s your best bet, and believe me, I’ve looked at all of them.” All of the materials are readily available, and any contractor can install them. If building a house isn’t among your plans, “at least look for a water heater equipped with a little heat pump,” Tsitouras suggests. “They cost more, but they pay for themselves pretty quickly.” Info on ground loop systems and heat pump water heater:

Little things, big change: Andrea Bensmiller

Green claim to fame: While the spotlight usually shines on singer-songwriter Andrea Bensmiller to highlight her musical talents, she is also a charismatic example of the ecological difference one person can make. Calling herself a “home greenist,” Bensmiller makes daily — and even moment-to-moment — decisions to lead the most environmentally responsible life possible. She shares her green views and practices through her ever-expanding social media presence. “I’m not screaming from the corner with a megaphone,” she says. “I’m putting on a sweater before turning the heat up.”

Unload the van — recycle the can: Bensmiller first joined the green movement as a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she organized her dorm’s first recycling program. “It became a part of who I am,” she says. “I don’t accept the ‘let’s wait until the crisis’ attitude.”

Bensmiller’s day-to-day choices include practices as simple as unloading her music equipment after every gig if she needs to use her vehicle for an unrelated errand. Even if the distance isn’t great, the fuel saved by those 500 fewer pounds is worth the effort. “It’s really very simple,” she says. “Maybe not so much plastic. Turn off the lights. Use a rag instead of a paper towel.” She chose her apartment for a different set of perks: a good recycling program and the fact it’s within walking distance of work. (They’ve even got biodegradable pet cleanup bags!) She buys food in bulk when she can — and even makes her own hand and body lotion. Is it convenient? That shouldn’t be the deciding factor, Bensmiller says. Instead, ask “Does it make a difference?” Answering that question with action can change the world.

Why does she do it? “We’re talking about the survival of the planet,” Bensmiller says. “I see my role as talking to people. I’m a voice, a teacher. It’s not that hard to live this way, and it’s important.”

How you can do it: Make green choices every day, even if they are small ones. Walk instead of drive. Turn off appliances when they aren’t in use. Recycle. Buy in bulk. Avoid chemicals. Turn down the heat and use less air conditioning. Conserve water. Be an example. Spread the word. “It doesn’t have to be dramatic,” Bensmiller says. “Whatever you can do is worth it.”


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