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Nevada’s empty range merits monument status

If you drive through Nevada and see only a tumbleweed wasteland, then this column is probably not for you.

If you increase your speed on U.S. Highway 50, dubbed “America’s Loneliest Road,” because you find that it’s also America’s most boring road, then you’d better pass on this commentary.

If you see distant brown hills and imagine them a good location for a strip mine or a nuclear waste dump, then you’re not going to like this column a bit. And if you consider the water from mountain creeks and riparian springs more commodity than poetry, I guarantee you’re going to hate it.

With Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid doing the political heavy lifting, last week President Barack Obama designated 704,000 acres of Nevada as the Basin and Range National Monument. In so doing, Obama protected it from development under the Antiquities Act and infuriated some of the state’s conservative buckaroos and libertarians in the process. The designation doesn’t keep citizens from experiencing the land, but it does prevent oil and gas exploration and strip mining on it.

Arguments that Obama’s decree was somehow illegal are empty. The accusation that the deal was done without the input of Nevada’s entire Congressional delegation plays pretty tone deaf considering the acrimony between the parties. (Not that conservative Congressmen Cresent Hardy and Mark Amodei didn’t attempt a dustup.)

Folks who see Nevada as a fine place to put a toxic hole in the ground will never appreciate that the “big empty” element of the state is one of its magical qualities. The undisturbed long valleys and distant blue vistas are what need preserving, and they’re harder to protect than a petrified forest or some Native American cliff dwellings.

What’s left empty in the frame is still part of the work of art.

On KNPR’s “State of Nevada” on Monday, Reid defended his effort and celebrated the decision. He’s not jogging much these days, but it sounded like he was taking a victory lap.

“My point is this,” Reid said. “In the generations to come, people will look back at this like they look back at some of the things that Theodore Roosevelt did. He’s the one who got this going under the Antiquities Act. And he did some marvelous things. As has every president since him. Reagan used this. Both Bushes have used this. Clinton has used it. And it’s magnified the need of it during the Obama administration.”

Frankly, I don’t know whether the President knows Beatty from Belmont. This was obviously Reid’s idea, and it’s part of both men’s legacies.

“So that’s all done,” Reid said. “Now it’s over with. And I’m happy.”

Given his long and tumultuous political history, and reputation as a master manipulator whose moves generate conspiracies in the minds of his enemies, I don’t know if Reid’s late-career push for the Basin and Range National Monument was done out of altruism or ego. If there’s something more sinister or self-serving in the works, the bones won’t stay buried for long.

The fact remains Nevada’s big country deserves more respect, not less.

For lovers of the real Nevada that exists outside the lights of Las Vegas and Reno, what matters is that substantial sections of our majestic wild country will now be preserved from the brothel treatment by those who are always willing to take a shot at our great outback.

The Senator from Searchlight found a way to get it done before riding off into the sunset.

If you still see that as a sign of the approaching Apocalypse, then I’m guessing you won’t be visiting the Basin and Range National Monument any time soon.

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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