When President Obama and Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) flew to Las Vegas in November to tout the president’s plan to block the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, Reid took the opportunity to broach an unrelated subject, one that tied together his childhood love of Nevada’s desert with his political legacy.
Reid asked Obama if he would be willing to designate a huge swath of desert in central Nevada as a national monument, in part to protect a mammoth, unconventional art installation constructed over the past half a century by one man.
“Explain it to me,” Obama said, Reid recalled.
“I can’t,” Reid replied.
He was referring to Michael Heizer’s “City,” a series of sculptures reminiscent of a ceremonial Mesoamerican city stretching across an expanse of desert nearly the size of the Mall. But the request also included a much larger section of the Basin and Range, an arid landscape marked by caves, ancient bristlecone pines and walls where petroglyphs — rock engravings — testify to the presence of vanished ancient people.
Reid was asking for a measure that would infuriate conservatives in a state where rancher Cliven Bundy won acclaim for refusing to pay federal grazing fees, and another set of ranchers defied grazing restrictions that the Bureau of Land Management imposed because of a recent drought.
As soon as Friday, according to people briefed on the decision, about 704,000 acres in central Nevada will receive federal protection, in no small part because Harry Reid loves the desert, thinks it’s beautiful and pictures it in his mind when he’s trying to fall asleep at night. It also demonstrates the political power Reid has amassed over more than three decades in office and the important relationship he has with a president whose legacy he has helped to build.
“It is only due to Harry Reid that this is getting done,” said a former Obama adviser who was close to the process.
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.
For more than a decade, conservationists have sought to protect the area, which bridges the Mojave Desert and the sagebrush steppe, an important environmental ecosystem stretching across the Western United States. It serves as a migration corridor for large mammals such as mule deer and pronghorn, as well as habitat for imperiled species including the hoary bat and the flowering White River catseye.
Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said it is remarkable for its “intact and unspoiled expanse,” whose valleys have not been split up by extensive roads and transmission lines.
But in a state where the federal government owns about 87 percent of the land and most local officeholders are Republican, the push for additional protection has rankled.
News of the potential monument designation leaked in May, when Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.), who represents the two affected counties, received a copy of a draft proclamation and posted it on his Web site. Hardy said he was concerned that the move could interfere with the Pentagon’s battle training exercises at the Nevada Test and Training Range. Other local officials questioned how it would affect grazing and other activities.
The proposed site includes land in two counties, Nye and Lincoln. Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said the terrain under consideration is “no more unusual than the rest of the state.”
Any restrictions would translate into “an economic loss,” she said, adding that she had made her opposition clear to Reid’s staff a couple of years ago. “We actually thought we had put this to bed,” she said.
On Tuesday night, Hardy offered an amendment to the Interior Department’s annual spending bill that would block the use of federal money to carry out the presidential designation of a national monument under the Antiquities Act in 17 counties in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, where local opposition exists. Democrats objected to the measure, which will now be subject to a vote of the full House.
An administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no formal decision has been announced, said the administration had taken into account the Pentagon’s input as well as feedback from a Feb. 18 listening session in Las Vegas.
The Basin and Range Province is a vast region spanning several Western states as well as the U.S.-Mexico border, an area of mountains and valleys that writer John McPhee described as having “reached a state of precarious and temporary truce with God, physics, and mechanical and chemical erosion.”
Reid said the soon-to-be protected land is a part of the American landscape that is often overlooked. Others have done their share of protecting “mountains and beautiful places,” he said. “But for me, the most beautiful parts of nature, it’s the desert.”
He added: “When you have a time when you’re sitting back and thinking, and you’re trying to go to sleep, and you’re thinking what is really the best thing you’d like to see, I can see the desert. To me that’s such starkness, that’s such beauty. And there’s no place in America that represents what I think is beauty more than this Basin and Range.”
As a child, Reid fell in love with Piute Springs, the site of an old cavalry fort in California that he remembers as a place with lily pads and gushing water. “It was like going to Disneyland from Searchlight,” he said, referring to his Nevada hometown. After seeing how degraded it had become years later, Reid recalled, “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do something about this and other places so this doesn’t happen again.’”
In the span of two years he secured $495,000 for the site. The fort has been rebuilt, the trees replanted.
Reid has been “masterful, by using all the various options within the legislative process, at protecting special places,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski, whose group gave the senator a lifetime achievement award last month. Karpinski added that the senator also “put his foot down” by blocking three coal plants in Nevada in 2007 — one in the same part of the state that is being eyed for protection.
Those initiatives irritate Lincoln County Commissioner Ed Higbee, who is angry that Reid blocked energy projects in his county while he has backed development in the more populous and Democratic-leaning county including Las Vegas.
“He stopped it, black, dead in its tracks,” Higbee said.
Reid, who served as Senate majority leader for eight years until Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2014, excelled at cutting deals across the aisle. He was crucial to the passage of some of Obama’s most important agenda items. But having unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to protect the Basin and Range for two Congresses in a row, Reid was left with only one viable option to preserving this stretch of the desert before he leaves office in 2017: Obama’s pen.
Although Obama has shown an increased willingness to use his authority under the Antiquities Act this term, some of his aides were initially surprised by the push to protect the Basin and Range. There were other proposals that had been vetted for a longer period of time, such as ones to safeguard California’s Lake Berryessa and the Waco Mammoth site in Texas.
“This was on nobody’s radar screen, and it certainly wasn’t part of the plan,” said one person close to the president who has been involved in the discussions. When the question of possible controversy was broached, Obama said: “I don’t care. I want this done.”
Reid visited Heizer’s art installation and its remote environs in 2007. He said went “to check off a box.” But the visit changed him. “I became a convert. . . . You have this magnificent work of art that this man spent half a century working on. And that’s quite a story.”