* Article originally appeared on The Hill *
Growing up in Southern Nevada, I enjoyed time spent outdoors with family and friends, connecting to nature through hiking, camping, picnic days, and during annual family hunting trips to the Ruby Mountains. These lands and the ability to access and forge a connection to nature is something precious we must protect for future generations, and we have an opportunity to do just that through legislation introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (SNEDCA) and the Ruby Mountains Protection Act, introduced by Cortez Masto and co-sponsored by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), would enhance protections for millions of acres of public land beloved by many. I recently testified in support of these bills at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C.
SNEDCA, the largest conservation bill in Nevada’s history, expands Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by over 50,000 acres and enhances protections for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, establishing wilderness areas recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s. The Act also establishes protections in many vulnerable areas in Southern Nevada, protecting important Mojave Desert Tortoise habitat, as well as opening up funding for sustainability and climate projects in the region.
The Ruby Mountains Protection Act withdraws lands in the Ruby Mountains — located in the northeastern part of the state — and the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge from speculative and inappropriate oil and gas leasing. This will help ensure that these naturally valuable lands are protected for wildlife and recreation for generations to come.
This past year has shown us how important access to outdoor spaces really is. We took refuge in the outdoors as the pandemic forced us out of our regular routines. As a result, we saw a phenomenal increase in visitation to parks and other public lands. We’re also seeing more clearly how America’s public lands are vital to addressing the public health, climate, and biodiversity crises. We need urgent action on all these fronts, and we know that land conservation is a key component to a climate resilient future.
SNEDCA also modifies an existing program to create a new source of funding for local development and implementation of Nevada’s sustainability and climate initiatives and much needed economic diversification and affordable housing solutions.
For example, it would protect two million acres of public lands while also addressing the needs of a rapidly growing region in a thoughtful way. Our area’s population is going to continue to grow in the coming years and we are already experiencing a housing shortage. According to Clark County, there is a shortage of over 78,000 homes for low-income families in the region.
While making history as Nevada’s largest conservation legislation, SNEDCA makes a specific amount of land available for smart growth and needed affordable housing. Importantly, the bill doesn’t change existing policies around development and planning. The existing processes at the local level to determine if, when, and how development takes place remain unchanged.
As local officials weigh these decisions, they will take into account the availability of water, as they do with any new growth. Drought is a reality for our state and we must work together to plan for a future that recognizes this. The good news is that we’ve been able to successfully do that in recent years. Despite growth of half a million people in the Las Vegas valley, we are using less water. In fact, we’ve used 25 percent less water from the Colorado River than we were in 2000.
Despite the challenges we face — from the pandemic to the realities of climate change — I am optimistic about our future. We can move forward critical conservation measures that benefit our state. We can create a future where more low-income Nevadans have access to affordable housing. We can take care of our public lands as much as they take care of us. This means strengthening our bonds with the lands we know and love and protecting these places for generations to come.
Jocelyn Torres is the Conservation Lands Foundation Senior Field Director, based in Las Vegas.