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Dreamlike oasis sparks preservation crusade

Out in the Mojave National Preserve, the rocky road to Piute Springs is an unmarked shock-buster.

But there in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the intrepid traveler will find water gushing to the surface and cottonwoods and willows lining a small stream that was an oasis for native people and in the 1860s was the site of the U.S. Army cavalry’s diminutive Fort Piute.

As a boy growing up in Searchlight, Harry Reid heard stories about the verdant Piute Springs, where the water rushed to the surface and created big pools full of frogs and lily pads and cattails. Right there in the Mojave, so close to the middle of nowhere you could hit it with a rock, was a desert rat’s dream come true.

It was a day’s drive from Searchlight if your tires didn’t shred and a rock didn’t pierce an oil pan, but it might as well have been Washington, D.C., at cherry blossom time for the son of a hard-drinking, hard-rock miner. To say the Reids didn’t get out much is something of an understatement.

“I was 12 before I made it to Needles,” Reid said recently during a meeting with Las Vegas Review-Journal staffers.

The only oasis young Harry experienced was an occasional splash in the pool at the El Rey, Willie Martello’s whorehouse. With due respect to Martello’s maidens, Searchlight was essentially bereft of natural beauty.

That is to say, there weren’t enough trees to hang a hammock.

A resident who had once killed a man was also well-known for managing to keep a fig tree in bearing shape. He was Searchlight’s arborist. Sen. Reid recalled being brave enough as a boy to negotiate a few figs from the man with the criminal record. It was a skill which no doubt came in handy when Reid grew up and went to Congress.

These days find Reid near the end of his historic political career, and his efforts at conserving Nevada’s precious public lands have become part of his legacy. He’s positively preening over the creation of the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument. He was the driving force behind the Great Basin National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. He’s deeply proud of all the millions of acres he’s had a hand in protecting.

But you’d be forgiven for wondering how he ever became interested in preserving the environment. His father spent a lifetime digging in the ground in search of elusive wealth. Searchlight’s environment, to put it politely, was parched and forbidding, give or take a fig tree.

“It was really not much,” Reid said.

Searchlight ranked somewhere between humble and homely on its best day, and Reid’s rise from that fallow ground to Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate is one of the great American political success stories.

It was Piute Springs, he said, that first sparked his interest in preserving the harsh but precious places in the region. The oasis of his boyhood dreams had been abused and vandalized by the time he first saw it. He became determined to protect it, and through the years has used his clout in the Senate to preserve wild lands and carve out protected status for millions of acres in the state and region.

It all began, he said, with a dream of Piute Springs.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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