Growth at what cost?

Conservation groups split over federal bill

By: - May 20, 2021 6:00 am

The image was “accidentally double-exposed on film that has the Plaza overlaid on top of Hidden Valley. Accidental but appropriate,” said Justin McAffee, who took the photo.

A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to conserve environmentally sensitive lands while creating affordable housing in Southern Nevada is a triumph of historical magnitude, according to supporters.

But opponents contend the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act is a greenwash — a pro-development measure cloaked in the guise of conservation.

“There was the sense that it didn’t have any teeth, that it was window dressing,” Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter volunteer Justin McAffee says of the perception of the legislation among some conservationists.

“It was developed in a different way than the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act,” says retired Environmental Protection Agency employee, congressional fellow and Sierra Club actvist Jeff Van Ee, adding that effort was more collaborative.

Opponents suggest the measure is a means of conveying more than 30,000 acres of federal land to Clark County to auction to home builders under the auspices of creating affordable housing and permanently protecting sensitive lands.

“Destroying more habitat is extremely irresponsible,” McAffee says, noting scientists estimate humans have modified more than half of Earth’s land surface. “At some point we have to ask ourselves, when do we stop this?”

The lands designated for protection, according to McAffee, are largely unsuitable for development because of their slope, rendering the compromise meaningless in some cases.

Southern Nevada is also experiencing a drought.

“While we support protecting public lands, designating a bunch of wilderness areas does nothing to ameliorate the climate or justice impacts of sprawl. It’s a false equivalence,” says Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Clark County lands bill is a greenwash to give cover while the feds sell off our public lands to real estate developers.”

Van Ee says he’s especially troubled by the designation of desert habitat for off-highway vehicles. “Who’s looking out for the desert tortoise? That’s what I’m wondering. That used to be a big deal in Clark County.”

But supporters suggest progress must be found in compromise. They say applying a purity test to the measure is short-sighted.

“There’s going to be a lands bill. I was trying to be pragmatic,” says Battle Born Progress Executive Director Annette Magnus, adding she hesitated before signing on. A former staffer of then-state Sen. Dina Titus, Magnus remembers Titus’s failed proposal to draw a ring around development in the valley in 1997. “Growth is going to happen. I think it’s a good compromise.”

Nevada must find “a bold and smart and sustainable way to tackle our climate crisis while balancing for the future growth of our state,” says Paul Selberg, Executive Director of the Nevada Conservation League, noting Clark County’s population is expected to reach 3 million by 2060. “We need to start planning for that future growth now.”

NCL is best known for grading legislators on their environmental votes and for bestowing campaign largesse on favored candidates. Its political action committee spent close to $4 million in 2018 on electing candidates, according to campaign finance records.

Electing public officials committed to infill — the practice of building on available land with existing infrastructure — is not on the organization’s agenda.

“When it comes to infill, if every acre were made available for development, there’s still a shortage of 34,000 acres,” to meet the demand of inevitable growth, Selberg says.

The legislation would increase undeveloped lands in Clark County from 60 to 70 percent, he says because it would protect 2 million acres from development, even as it disposes of land to developers.

It would also generate an estimated $8.5 billion from the sale of public lands through the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, which has been wildly successful auctioning parcels to developers.    

“It’s the economy stupid,” McAffee says, quoting political consultant James Carville’s admonition during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. “That’s the focus for people trying to win electoral politics. That growth model of economics is going to hit a wall and be catastrophic.”

What does preserving habitat for tortoises, sheep and wildflowers have to do with electoral politics? Everything, according to McAffee, who says “expanding Las Vegas north to St. George and south to Primm has always been (U.S. Sen.) Harry Reid’s plan.”   

McAffee points to the troubled Coyote Springs development as an example. The bedroom community that never was is an hour north of Las Vegas in Lincoln County.  

Reid was criticized by environmentalists who alleged he arranged favors for developer Harvey Whittemore. Whittemore was later convicted of giving illegal federal campaign contributions to Reid. 

“People still kind of see that vision,” says McAffee, referring to former Reid and Democratic Party staffers who serve as staff or board members of a handful of conservation organizations.

Reid loyalists say the senator’s environmental bona fides are unparalleled, pointing to his condemnation of coal-fired power plants, efforts to preserve sacred lands on behalf of Native Americans, and massive wilderness designations that drew the ire of ranchers.

“When Reid first took office in 1982, his home state had less than 67,000 acres of federally protected wilderness. It now has nearly 3.4 million acres, all of which he brokered, along with 600,000 acres of other protected areas,” the Washington Post wrote in 2015, as President Barack Obama prepared to designate more than 700,000 acres of desert in the middle of the state as a national monument.

NCL is laden with ties to Reid and the state’s Democratic establishment, as are other environmental groups that support SNEDCA.

Board member Megan Jones, founder of Hilltop Strategies and wife of Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, is a former Reid staffer. She declined to speak on the record.  Selberg previously ran the state Assembly Democratic Caucus. Assistant Director Verna Mandez worked for Cortez Masto before joining NCL, according to a news release.

Familial dysfunction

McAffee says the environmental organizations lined up on both sides of the bill are like family members airing their dirty laundry in public. NCL and a coalition of other groups that support SNEDCA “are doing good stuff,” he says, including expanding the protected area at Red Rock Conservation Area. But the trade off –sprawl — is untenable.  

While NCL dismisses the environmental drawbacks of sprawl as a part of the compromise,  the organization supports AB 343, a measure that would lay out plans for ‘walking audits’ – surveys that determine the walkability of neighborhoods.

“Walkable neighborhoods increase physical activity and promote healthier communities, and can help make our communities more safe, accessible and enjoyable for everyone,” the NCL said in a weekly legislative update.

NCL is known in conservation circles as a centrist organization that remains above the fray on contentious issues, especially those involving wildlife. The organization declined earlier this year to weigh in on the federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would provide funding to protect thousands of declining or rare species. Selberg said he’s not familiar with the legislation.

NCL’s lobbyist, Kyle Davis, is well known in Carson City for representing the interests of not only NCL, but also hunters and anglers.

Unseen wonder

To the untrained eye, Hidden Valley is massive, desolate, and made for development. It’s a perception that has long complicated efforts to conserve desert lands.

“It’s like a flat cul de sac. It’s got all these little foothills. It’s perfect for separation from the next house,” says Lisa Ortega, co-chair of the Sierra Club Toiyabe chapter.

The  area, south of Las Vegas near Jean and the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, attracts hikers, photographers and the occasional off-road vehicle enthusiast.

It’s right on the back of Sloan — one of the closest places to see petroglyphs,” says Ortega. “We don’t want it backdoored by development.”  

Ortega complains Transform Clark County, which revisited the nearly 40 year-old master plan and was launched in 2020 during the pandemic, was “all developers and the Nature Conservancy. That’s not representative.”

“I always feel like the wheels were greased long ago,” she says. “I feel like there’s some developer in there with a game plan. They really drive elections through their donations. Then we rely on volunteers.”

The proposed development under SNEDCA includes not only housing but commercial and industrial, as well. 

“It’s habitat,” says McAffee, “People look at it and they see desert.  There’s a lot more to it. I took a picture of 20 bighorn sheep.”

Bighorn sheep in Hidden Valley. (Photo courtesy Justin McAffee)

“They’re talking about adding another Henderson to the valley to allow another one million more people to move here,” he says. “Why create a conservation area if you’re going to surround it with tech and industrial? It almost defeats the purpose.”

Sprawl also perpetuates “white flight” to gleaming, master planned communities while existing underserved neighborhoods languish, McAffee says.

Not-so affordable housing 

SNEDCA requires that developers who win the coveted parcels via auction provide housing that is affordable for households earning up to 120 percent of the area median income, which is currently $62,107. A household earning 120 percent of that — just under $75,000 — could qualify for a home costing as much as $350,000, depending on down payment and existing debt.

The bill contains no provision for low-income housing, defined as housing affordable to households earning up to 80 percent of area median income.

That would mean “less people could qualify for those acres set aside for affordable housing,” says the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, adding its unaware of any efforts to tailor the bill to provide housing to low-income Nevadans.

It’s unknown how the auction process, which favors the highest bidder, lends itself to affordable housing or whether an affordable housing requirement would dissuade developers.

In 2003, the BLM attempted to auction 1,940 acres in Henderson with a mandate for some units of affordable housing. It drew no interest from developers.

A spokesman for Clark County says such decisions would be made at the local level.

“The language in the bill related to affordable housing would help resolve one of the biggest obstacles to quickly making land available for more affordable housing projects,” says a statement from the county.

The initial compromise

During the last two decades federal land sales have reaped billions of dollars in funding for parks, trails and schools.

While Reid, Sen. Richard Bryan, and then-Congressman John Ensign championed SNPLMA in Congress, the seeds were planted decades earlier by Rep. Jim Santini, a Republican, and nurtured by Rep. Jim Bilbray, a Democrat.

Land exchanges were taking a decade and would ultimately fail when the parties — the federal government and the land owner — couldn’t agree on a price, according to Van Ee, a congressional aide at the time, and the Congressional Record.

“Because of the dynamic nature of the real estate market in the Las Vegas valley, any delay in the exchange process can cause the appraisals to become out-dated before the transaction is closed,” Bryan said on the floor of the Senate in October 1998.

“Congressman Santini introduced the bill that would establish the trust fund that would allow the money to be used to buy environmentally sensitive lands,” says Van Ee, who objected at the time to the proceeds being absorbed by the U.S. Treasury.

Santini won the support of the committee chair, California Congressman Phil Burton, by agreeing to use proceeds from Las Vegas land sales to buy privately held sensitive parcels in the Lake Tahoe basin.

The Santini-Burton bill also drew a box around the Las Vegas valley, laying a boundary for land sales.  The current measure would expand that boundary well beyond anything envisioned in the past.

McAffee says some activists who have protested have been muzzled after being threatened with losing their seat at the table.  

“There are organizations that didn’t take a position on SNEDCA because they want to be at the table,” he says, adding there was “strong arming behind the scenes to back off” from Cortez Masto’s office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

“That’s not how democracy should work,” he says. “Instead of petitioning redress of grievances, we have the government petitioning us to ‘shut up or we won’t listen to the rest of your grievances.’”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.