Kai Anderson’s eye-catching, multi-colored, hand-drawn thematic maps have developed a cult following in conservation circles in the American West. They don’t just portray the land. They portray how the land can be protected. Some call them “power maps” because they show where power lies in the landscapes, powerful allies that need to be aligned, and powerful opponents that must be brought around or overcome. In that way, the maps embody strategy and tactics, too, the moves that need to be made successfully to get to the end goal of designating a wilderness area, a national monument or park, or a national conservation area. Anderson has taught power mapping in classes at Stanford University and in workshops for conservation organizations sponsored by Patagonia, as well as the Conservation Lands Foundation, where he serves on the board of directors.
Anderson is a former aide on science and the environment and deputy chief of staff for Sen. Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader of the Senate from Nevada. Anderson worked for Reid from 1999, when Anderson was a recently minted Ph.D. in geology, to 2005, during a time of crucial campaigns that won conservation designations for more than 2.5 million acres of public land in Nevada. Anderson left the Senate to join Cassidy & Associates, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, where he has continued to work on public lands issues in the West, sometimes with Sen. Reid and his staff. As Anderson told us, “Once you’re part of ‘Team Reid,’ it’s a family thing, so you’re not going away.” Anderson created a power map of the environmental campaigns Reid led during his long career in Congress to accompany our documentary “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” and he walks us through the map in this interview. (View an expanded version of the full map.)
Mapping, Power, and Strategy
Jon Christensen: Talk us through how you use maps like this, and what you teach others about using them.
Kai Anderson: Some people are better with the written word and can take a book and digest it and get the full meaning. For me, this is another way to portray information and capture this history. How do you make a pictograph that maps out the power centers, the order of operations, the campaign, in a fashion that is, in time and place, properly organized? If you're working on multiple projects at once, it's easy to forget pieces. Mapping it out helps to make sure that you see all the pieces at once.
Actionable power maps are really just a distillation of the people and efforts you need to get things to move. This one is more historical than it is action-oriented. It depicts a lot of the players: not all of them, certainly, but a lot of the players in these various campaigns.
Graham Chisholm: Let's walk through the map, starting with the "Wilderness Deals" panel when you first worked with Senator Reid. What's going on there? What was the strategy that is represented here? And does it have potential relevance for other states today?
Kai Anderson: This attempts to capture the major achievements that Reid secured on wilderness through time, starting with his U.S. Forest Service wilderness bill in 1989 and going through the last one that he finished in Lyon County in 2014. You can see a couple of things. They vary in size. They vary in geography. What you don't see from just the pictograph is the level of difficulty and contention related to them.
Reid has said on a number of occasions that he went from being one of the more popular people in rural Nevada to being one of the least popular people in rural Nevada as a result of that Forest Service wilderness bill. That didn't stop him a decade later from moving forward on the Black Rock Desert bill, which was at least as unpopular, if not more. Then in 2002, Clark County; 2004, Lincoln County; 2006, White Pine County; there was more of a routine to the negotiations around these things.
You can see from the timing that they were on almost exactly two-year intervals because it would take us a year and a half to put them together during a Congressional session, and they would pass in November or December at the end of a session. I think that momentum, frankly, was helpful in keeping people at the table. Various stakeholders came to the conclusion that it was probably better to engage with Reid than to let him operate unfettered.
I was thinking about this the other day. Recreating what we did in the early 2000s right now would be nearly impossible because getting out on the ground and spending time with people and working through issues is not on the agenda during COVID times. And the kind of agreements that went into those bills were not things that you do over a Zoom call. You just can't.
House vs. Senate
Jon Christensen: The "Great Basin National Park" and "Pyramid Lake" panels represent events that took place before your time in the Senator's office, so you're representing those for us historically. What was the strategy in each of those cases? How did Harry Reid, who was a Representative in the first case, and a Senator in the second case, use power in each of those cases?
Kai Anderson: I'm not sure that in the first case he had a ton of power. I think in the first case, as throughout his career, he was persistent. He was a great lobbyist. The story he tells in the documentary about going to William Penn Mott to lobby for Great Basin National Park is fantastic. At that point, he's early in his career as a legislator and he prevailed through dogged determination. This is a good example of Reid taking something that on paper is complicated at best and impossible at worst, and staying after it, staying interested in it, getting kicked in the teeth a few times, I'm sure, and then still being willing to go back and take another run at it. That was not an easy thing to get resolved. Making national parks is hard. Making national parks in places where they're controversial is even harder. But that's not the sort of thing that deterred him much.
Then, by the time he got to working on the Truckee River settlement, he was starting to hone those legislative and negotiating skills. He knew his way around. And one of the reasons he was so successful in the Senate was that he had served in the House of Representatives and he knew the ecosystem of the House.
Las Vegas and Public Lands
Graham Chisholm: The "Las Vegas & Public Lands" panel represents a really interesting, complex story and it represents some change over time, too. Talk us through that.
Kai Anderson: In light of the recent elections, this one's worth talking about a little bit. In the center, you've got components of the public lands bills that were passed, creating the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Lincoln County bill, and the Clark County bill. Those are the pieces of legislation. To the left, you've got the old school power interests related to water and land, some of the well-known families and companies, Greenspun, Howard Hughes, The Sands and Station casinos, and multiple generations of MGM leadership. That was the foundation and the history of how Reid understood and operated in Clark County.
But as you move to the right, the things that are over there are really the direction that part of the West has been going, as the documentary shows, with urbanization, immigration, growth, changing demographics, and not just changing demographics, but the empowerment of people of color in the state, the emergence of the Culinary Union. And the Las Vegas Sun is on there in an effort to keep alive some component of real journalism. The Nevada Independent postdates this period, otherwise I'd have them on there now, too.
Basin and Range National Monument
Jon Christensen: You worked on Basin and Range National Monument, which is represented in a panel on the map, after you left the Senator's office. Describe what it took to get this monument designated. In what ways is this similar to or different from other monument campaigns?
Kai Anderson: Basin and Range National Monument was a monument of last resort.
One of the things that was clear was that unlike when we had worked on the Clark and Lincoln County bills alongside Republican Sen. John Ensign, his successor, Sen. Dean Heller, also a Republican, was really nervous about something happening there. In the end, the conclusion that I reached, along with others, was that the only way to get the area protected in the way that we wanted to protect it would be to have it designated a monument by the president — in this case, over the objection of one of the senators.
As we started working through the process, folks in President Barack Obama's Department of the Interior asked us, “Do you have local support?”
And I'd say, “Well, if local support is whoever lives inside the boundaries of the future monument, the answer is yes. Because the sum total of that is the artist Michael Heizer and whoever is working for him at the ranch where he’s creating ‘City.’ If you draw a wider circle to include Lincoln County, that's going to be a harder task given that Obama only got about 18% of the vote in Lincoln County in 2012. But if you give me Southern Nevada as local, yeah, we can bring you a bunch of folks who are supportive because they have appreciation for the art. They have appreciation for the landscape. They have appreciation that it provides something that will over time diversify the opportunities to visit Nevada and the people that will come to do these sorts of things."
By the way, Air Force One is on there is because Reid had to make the ask of the President. And it's not a small ask that he made. As the documentary shows, he made that ask on Air Force One on a ride from D.C. to Rancho High School, where they held a press conference on the DREAM Act. There was a lot going on at the same time that is not on this map.
Killing Coal and Jumpstarting Renewables
Graham Chisholm: The “Reid Gardner Coal Plant” panel represents a campaign you were not involved in directly, but you did play an interesting peripheral role in that story. Describe what's on the map, but also the larger context of the energy transition that is represented on the map.
Kai Anderson: Reid sent letters to all of the companies that had proposed coal plants in Nevada at the time. One of them was a client of mine. It was a 12-page letter, plus or minus, basically telling these companies that they weren't going to build coal plants in Nevada, no way, no how. Later Reid called me and said, “I want to visit with your client about this coal plant.” So we flew out to Las Vegas to meet him.
Reid walks in, no introduction, no handshake, nothing. He's like, “You know I'm killing your coal plant, right?” I'm sitting across from my client. I'm watching him because I had coached him on our meeting. And I could see he was thinking through “What am I supposed to do?” And Reid doesn't even let him respond. He says, “But I want you to build the power line.”
At that point, my client said, “We can't fund it without the coal plant because we have to have cheap base-load generation to underwrite that line.” And Reid points at me and his staff and says, “You guys fix that.” And that was the end of the meeting.
The challenge of that effort was that everybody knew there were enough renewables out there that you could fully subscribe the line, but nobody would put the money up for it because they had no idea how long it would take to get the renewable sources online. So, we went to work on a provision that provided a federal safety net for underwriting the line. Borrowing authority was given to the Western Area Power Administration in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that made it possible to build the line to carry renewable energy without having a coal-fired power plant on it.
That was not a decision that Reid made based on what was going to be good for him politically. It was him having a sense of what he thought was right, for the state and the particular place and for the planet, and just deciding to go do it. He wanted that power line to be built because that was key to kick-starting the renewable energy economy in Nevada. And killing those coal plants that were on the drawing board was one step. With the powerline, you've improved the grid. You've got north-south connectivity. And all of these things built on each other.
I don't think there was a grand plan. We didn't have a power map in the office either before or after I left saying this is how it's going to go. Reid would decide where to go and people would try to keep up.
Jon Christensen: In the “Searchlight” panel you've represented Harry Reid's roots, the small, hardscrabble Southern Nevada mining town where he grew up. Why is that important?
Kai Anderson: It's part of the narrative, right, the story that he tells about himself. It’s also helpful in understanding what drives him. And I think it helps you understand why he was pretty fearless. My sense is he saw some things growing up that made legislative battles look pretty tame. His was not a coddled upbringing. He grew up in a place where grit and determination were rewarded — or requisite for survival. Where he came from was a lot of the reason that he would take a run at something like Great Basin National Park, get knocked sideways, and get back up and take another run at it. It’s like, “You can give me a standing eight count, but I'm not out.”
That steel in the spine explains why, even after he did a Forest Service wilderness bill that hurt his popularity, he would come back and do the Black Rock bill, which would hurt his popularity again, and then do Clark County, Lincoln County, and White Pine County. And then, at the end, he was pushing all his chips to the middle of the table. He wasn't asking President Obama for a lot of stuff. He was asking for the stuff that he couldn't get done legislatively, and there were precious few of those. In the end, Basin and Range and Gold Butte National Monuments were the capstones of his conservation legacy.
A Map and State Transformed
Map key: - Orange: reservations, tribal lands - Silver: the military installations - Solid green: wilderness areas that Reid got designated or expanded - Horizontally lined green: national conservation areas and national monuments - Bronze: Great Basin National Park - Purple: Wildlife refuges
Graham Chisholm: In the middle of this power map, we see a realistic geographic map of Nevada. What are we seeing here? How was this map of Nevada shaped by Harry Reid?
Kai Anderson: Let's work through the colors first. Orange are the reservations, tribal lands. The silver color are the military installations. The solid green are wilderness areas that Reid got designated, with one exception, the small Jarbidge Wilderness Area in northeastern Nevada, which he made bigger. The horizontally lined green areas are national conservation areas and national monuments. Great Basin National Park is in bronze. Wildlife refuges are purple.
What I take away from this is that every one of those green areas and the horizontally lined green areas is something that Harry Reid had a hand in protecting in perpetuity. When you step back and think about it, that's a pretty substantial map. And from a climate perspective, it provides the ability for species of all types to move as things warm and dry. The map that Reid made, from a conservation perspective, anticipates and will accommodate adaptation in a fashion that isn't the case everywhere.
What Comes Next?
Graham Chisholm: Rep. Mark Amodei, the only Republican in Nevada’s congressional delegation, and Sen. Cortez Masto, who succeeded Harry Reid in the Senate, are currently working to pass major public lands bills. How are they different from or similar to Reid’s public lands legislation?
Kai Anderson: We're sort of peeking in on Amodei and Cortez Masto’s efforts in the third quarter, right? We have the benefit of looking backward at Reid. But we almost failed on our own Clark County bill a number of times. There were certainly times where I thought for sure that bill was dead. I think they are actually doing exactly the same kind of work that Reid did. Having a little bit of distance from it in time makes the rough edges of Reid’s work a little less apparent. I think both of these members of Congress are trying to do what they can do to get the best deal that they possibly can for Nevada. And what they're trying to do is really hard.
Jon Christensen: Right now, we're looking at two possibilities for the U.S. Senate in the new year. One is that the Republicans retain leadership in the Senate after the Jan. 5 runoff in Georgia. The other is that the Senate is evenly divided, but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gets a tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats leadership in the Senate. During his career, Sen. Reid served as minority leader, majority leader, and minority leader again after that. What are the lessons of Reid's career for the environment in both of those scenarios?
Kai Anderson: Winning both Georgia Senate seats will give Democrats leadership in the Senate, but the parties will split everything equally. So, it's like running a three-legged race. It's awful — which is why Reid spent so much time trying to get Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee to switch parties when he was in leadership and the Senate was split evenly.
In a lot of ways, I think having a split Congress is okay as long as the Senate Republicans don't just try to shut stuff down. And trying to draw causation from the balance of power really is tricky because Reid did big conservation deals with virtually every different makeup of the House and Senate and White House. That's why, for folks that are really worried about the outcome of the Senate races, it may not matter all that much at the end of the day. If they keep their heads down and work on this stuff, they're going to get stuff done.
Part of the reason we haven't had as much since Reid has been gone is that he was a legislator of a different kind in a leadership position. You can’t expect to replace that immediately or in kind. He was really, really good at what he was doing. But, you know, he evolved into it, too. Politicians grow and evolve.