In October 1999, I called up an old friend who had quit a job at Patagonia in the hopes of making a difference in his own backyard. John Wallin’s fledgling conservation nonprofit, the Nevada Wilderness Project (NWP), had been up and running for six months and I figured his staff of three might be happy to have another body. Within 15 minutes, John had wooed me with the allure of free space on his living room floor, the opportunity to get to know some of Nevada’s wildest places and the promise of making a difference to his neighbors.
I spent the next few months driving the old roads and riverbeds surrounding the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. I mapped old mining claims, “roads” that were barely dirt tracks, and tried my best to capture the beautiful, wild serenity that I found wherever I looked. Little did I know that I was building a prospectus John would use to help everyday Nevadans, Congressional representatives and anyone else who’d listen fall in love with Nevada’s wildlands and then fight for their protection.
In 2002, the NWP spearheaded an intense campaign to protect 452,000 acres of wilderness near Las Vegas through the Clark County Conservation of Public Lands and Natural Resources Act, effectively multiplying the amount of wilderness in southern Nevada by a factor of ten. In 2004, the NWP won protection for 768,294 acres in eastern Nevada the largest single wilderness designation in Nevada’s history through a development bill called the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2004. To date, the tireless work of the Nevada Wilderness Project has resulted in protection of 1,975,294 acres.
What makes the success of the NWP all the more unique is its unconventional approach to protection. Many old-time Nevadans, the kind of folks typically alienated by the super-liberal politics of many conservation groups, have come out to support wilderness in Nevada. They came to know wilderness advocates over months of community meetings, came to understand the threats to their backyard wilderness, then supported well-thought-out plans for protection. The NWP’s growing membership now includes: a waitress in Mesquite who protects the Mormon Mountains; a home builder in Reno working to protect Burbank Canyons; a bartender in Vegas who writes letters to the editor. These locals are the fabric of the NWP and deliver its successes.
Sponsored by regular folks and across partisan lines, the Nevada Wilderness Project isn’t caught up in politics as usual, nor does it play all-or-nothing wilderness roulette; it’s used on-the-ground knowledge as a tool to engage, not to bludgeon. NWP modifies a proposal and accepts compromises that don’t undermine the ecological integrity of an area. Some have called this unscrupulous behavior unprincipled and deleterious to the wilderness movement. John Wallin was labeled a “quisling,” a traitor, at a recent meeting of environmental groups. But John just calls it political pragmatism, especially necessary in today’s political climate. “You can’t sit down and negotiate by saying, ‘Our position is sacred, yours is negotiable.’ You have to be fair to be credible.”
Today, the Nevada Wilderness Project is drumming up support for more protection throughout the state: the stark and rugged Bald Mountain in Lyon County, the majestic Schell Creek Range in White Pine County, the Lava Beds in Pershing County and Gold Butte in Clark County. Through a slew of upcoming community meetings, slide shows and sit-downs with local shareholders, the NWP is focused on ensuring that wherever public lands decisions are made, wilderness has a prominent seat at the table. By building relationships between Nevadans and their precious wild heritage, finding the common chord between uncommon folks who want to leave some wildland for their children, and creating a new conservation paradigm, the Nevada Wilderness Project has already had a significant impact on the conservation movement. And it’s just getting started.