Harry Reid, Nevada’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, remains a controversial figure.
But as a new documentary finds, some of those who once held him in contempt found respect as Reid worked to protect the environment in Nevada.
The film, "The New West and the Politics of the Environment" is the work of a team led by former Nevadan Jon Christensen. He's now an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA.
From the Great Basin National Park and protections for the water flowing into Pyramid Lake to the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act and his fight against the mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, Reid built a strong environmental legacy in Nevada over his 34 years in Washington, D.C.
“There was no grand plan. It was just something I was interested in and I was fortunate to be placed on the Environment and Public Works Committee,” Sen. Reid said about the beginnings of his efforts to improve the environment.
Christensen believes the former senator's efforts come from a personal place. He said at a Reid campaign rally in the 90s that he attended as a reporter for the New York Times the senator told a story of taking his wife to a once treasured springs area near his hometown of Searchlight.
Instead of the beautiful desert oasis, Reid had known as a child, the place was littered with trash.
“Seeing that destruction was one of the things that really motivated him to put the environment at the center of much of his career, which, of course, has been much bigger than that but an important part of it,” he said.
Christensen noted that during his research for the film he and his team looked through Reid's congressional papers now stored at the University of Nevada, Reno. They found more than half of them dealt with some environmental issue.
“Senator Reid has accomplished more for the environment, I think it is fair to say, than any other elected official, particularly from the American West, during [the last 30 years]," he said, “I think part of it is that personal passion and commitment and vision.”
Airing on Las Vegas’s PBS station in November, the film is also a demonstration of something rare in today's politics: compromise.
Christensen said Reid and his staff went out into the communities to work with the groups on all sides to get a deal.
“Getting out and talking to the rural county commissioners and the ranchers and the hunters and the miners and finding out what is it that people really need and talking as well to the environmentalists about what they wanted and crafting compromises that really worked that were able to protect more than four million acres of wilderness in Nevada in a time in which wilderness was at a standstill and a conflict in much of the American West,” he said.
Christensen pointed out that the former senator worked with Native American tribes on a number of issues, including saving Pyramid Lake. The compromise between the Pyramid Lake Paiutes and the cities of Reno and Sparks saved the lake, allowed the cities to get water during a drought and protected endangered fish in the lake that the tribe had relied on for centuries.
In Southern Nevada, Reid helped shut down a coal power plant that was polluting tribal communities, and instead, brought the first utility-scale solar power plant to tribal lands.
“I was struck by that relationship that Senator Reid had with tribal leaders and how they saw him as a friend who would be in their corner with them,” he said.
Reid said he has been part of getting hundreds of pieces of legislation passed during his time in Congress, but he never got exactly what he wanted.
“I always felt that legislation was the art of compromise that people who come to Washington with an idea and are not willing to change they wind up getting nothing done,” he said.
The former senator believes the current Senate is doing very little in the way of compromise or even in governing.
“We have a situation brought on, and been amplified significantly by Donald Trump, where the Senate of the United States has done nothing in recent years except judges,” he said.
He said the Senate doesn't have floor debates anymore and it doesn't amend legislation. In fact, he said it does nothing.
“I think it has been extremely detrimental to the country and we’re not going to get over it very quickly,” he said.
Reid believes Democrats will take the White House, keep their majority in the House and gain a majority in the Senate this November. With that in place, he would like to see the filibuster eliminated.
With the filibuster gone, the former senator believes Congress will be able to tackle climate change and infrastructure development.
Christensen agreed that if Democrats win the White House and the Senate significant environmental legislation could happen.
“The chance to have really significant progress on the environment and the economy will be unparalleled,” he said.
He believes under a Democratically controlled Congress and White House the country could see the kind of environmental reforms and economic recovery plan it saw during the Great Recession when Reid was the majority leader in the Senate and President Barack Obama was the president.
“I’m hopeful, cautiously hopeful, optimistic about what we might see in the next couple of years,” he said.
Reid also told State of Nevada he feels President Donald Trump's record on the environment is abysmal.
“I think what he has done regarding the environment is just treacherous, horrible and unwise. Anything that Obama accomplished, he wanted to be done away with,” he said, “Everything that Obama did for the environment, he’s withdrawn. He’s as bad on the environment as he is on any other issue.”
Besides being a champion for Nevada's environment, the senator has been in headlines recently for his remarks on UFOs, known now as UAPs--unidentified aerial phenomenon.
Reid helped move defense spending to a program to study and create a report about the phenomenon, which he said thousands of people have witnessed.
In the past, the federal government has been accused of covering up what Air Force pilots and others have witnessed, Reid said that is changing.
“They’re doing better. They used to try to cover up any pilots that said they saw these strange occurrences, but now they have them report them," he said, "In the past, they didn’t because it would hurt the pilots and their advancement from captain to major, etc, but now they want them to report them.”
Reid said the Pentagon now has a separate department to track and investigate the phenomenon. In addition, more modern aircraft and better photography are helping track and monitor anything strange in the sky.
The former senator knows the unidentified aerial phenomenon exists but he has no idea of where they might be from.
Harry Reid, former U.S. Senator, D-NV; Jon Christensen, adjunct assistant professor, UCLA