What’s at Stake: Nevada, Public Lands and the Conservation Lands Foundation

KCET, October 2020

Since its beginnings in the late 1800’s, the story of the American conservation movement is as complex, and as contradictory in its ideals, as the founding of the Nation itself. President Theodore Roosevelt, rightfully considered the first “environmental president,” was also a passionate hunter of big game; John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, held deeply racist views against Black and Indigenous peoples. In July of 2020, Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune, acknowledged the organization’s past in a statement, stating that “white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years.”

But two decades into the 21st century, American conservation is changing in transformative ways, especially in the American West. Brune’s statement on Muir was just the latest piece of a larger conversation in the United States about Indigenous rights, systemic racism and climate change. The issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota, the Black Lives Matter and anti-racist movements and protests surrounding the lack of political action against climate change have all broken into the mainstream American consciousness.

This combination of political action, public activism and conservation is especially emblematic in the state of Nevada, which has seen some of the highest population growth in the United States over the last decade.

Jocelyn Torres, senior field director at the Conservation Lands Foundation (and Nevada resident for almost 30 years), has seen many of these changes happening in real time. The Conservation Lands Foundation is a nonprofit organization that leads, in their words, “a national movement of grassroots advocates to protect, restore and expand National Conservation Lands.” But part of her job is to educate the public on what a “Conservation Land” actually is.

To put it simply, public lands are places that are open to the public (and collectively owned by American citizens) and are managed by the United States government. And while national parks get the most attention in the media, federal, state and local government manage public lands. Whether it is a park across the street from your house, a bike trail outside of town or a majestic tourist destination, each is managed by its respective agency (depending on the designation of the land).

National Conservation Land is specifically managed by the Bureau of Land Management. These areas are part of a system of public lands that include 873 federally recognized areas, encompassing approximately 32 million acres, primarily across 12 western states. National Conservation Lands also include, in the Bureau’s words, “certain national monuments, Wildernesses, Wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails”

Although Conservation Lands are less well-known and are typically located in more remote locations than other popular public lands, national Conservation Lands represent the heritage of natural, cultural and outdoor spaces. These areas are a huge economic driver, as well: Americans and international tourists spend over $800 billion on outdoor recreation annually. In turn, the “outdoors economy” supports over 7 million American jobs. But what is the difference between a National Park and Conservation Land?

“There is a big difference [between the two],” she said. “But I think for the visitor, it’s hard to distinguish between the various designations, say a local or state park, or a federal designation. The big difference really is who manages the land.”

In government, the two agencies that manage federally-designated land is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service, but the mission of each of these is different. Torres explains: “The mission of the National Park service is strictly conservation-focused,” she said. “The Bureau and Land Management is a lot trickier. They have a multiple-use agenda.”

The BLM agenda, according to the agency’s website is a little different: “Congress tasked the BLM with a mandate of managing public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use.”

The American West is unique in that, in huge swaths of the West, the land is not designated yet, which makes it challenging for organizations like Torres’ to advocate for conservation, especially with so many competing interests.

“The story of the West has been one of opportunity,” she said. “Specifically, in Nevada, there’s a whole lot of land that is multiple-use, but not for a particular use. Under the Bureau of Land Management, it could be a number of things.”

For Torres, these undesignated spaces offer her organization an “exciting opportunity.”

“In our work, it’s a chance to set things aside, for their cultural value or their historical value,” she said. “But that’s also the scary part of living in the West, that these areas could become a mine or some other destructive industry.”

Another challenge for the Conservation Lands Foundation in Nevada is managing conservation during a time of explosive urban growth, especially in cities like Las Vegas.

“Cities can merge into conservation areas,” she said. “Red Rock Canyon is now right up against the city of Las Vegas. People can see the area right out of their backyard. They can bike and walk to it. It’s treated almost like a local park. But there was a push to build a development there, and people thought it was inappropriate. So, we are seeing more of these battles.”

Torres believes that this push-and-pull between developers and local residents will continue, especially as places like Las Vegas and neighboring cities continue to expand. One of the challenges Torres and her colleagues face is how to educate the general public in distinguishing these unique areas.

“It gets really tricky for people,” she said. “They go do things that they would at a local park, have a picnic, walk, ride bikes. But the rules can be different, because its Wilderness or a National Conservation Area.”

For Torres and her organization, the balancing act of managing conservation, city growth, mixed-use and recreation all comes down to old-fashioned, give-and-take compromise.

“It really comes down to bringing people together in a room and talk about what’s at stake,” she said. “You work together and you’re left with some core issues about how this land can be protected.”

Her experience at Conservation Lands Foundation has taught Torres that “change comes through communities.”

“You have visionaries who say ‘Las Vegas will triple in size’ and no one believes them,” she said. “But then it’s like boom, the community is huge.”

Torres believes that people like Senator [Harry] Reid and his staff, in their effort to protect conservation lands, have the ability to see both the long game of conservation management, while juggling the delicate politics behind the scenes. But the community plays a role, as well.

“We listen to the community… their different needs and hopes. People really do share a love for these public lands. The community outreach is crucial.”

When asked about making conservation a more inclusive effort, Torres believes that changes are happening both in the public eye and behind the scenes.

“As a person of color, I feel like these issues have always been intertwined for me,” she said. “The Sierra Club statement did not come out of the blue. This is years of work behind the scenes…to make amends with their history.”

Conservation Lands Foundation is looking to the election and beyond, while contemplating high-level discussions about the organization’s conservation values, how their advocacy impacts the environment and how their work impacts people. Torres suspects this is happening internally at other organizations as well. “There’s definitely been a big shift. People are more comfortable speaking out.”