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What’s at Stake in Our 'Public Lands'?

Basin and Range landscape.
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As an advocate for public lands in Nevada, Jocelyn Torres has a lot of territory to cover. More than 80% of Nevada is owned by the federal government (and by extension, by the people of the United States), a higher percentage of land than in any other state. 

Torres has lived in Las Vegas for almost 30 years, since her family moved to the city from Mexico, when she was a kid. Her uncle had found work in Las Vegas. So, her family decided to give it a try. They stuck around. Living in a small house in the city, her family was drawn to the great outdoors for recreation rather than the glitzy Strip: camping, hiking, off-roading and hunting. Her dad led them on trips exploring many of Nevada’s 314 mountain ranges and the valleys in between. 

Torres moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, and then moved to New York, but she missed the wide-open landscapes of the American West. Now, she works to protect those landscapes as the senior field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, “a national movement of grassroots advocates to protect, restore and expand National Conservation Lands.” 

Jocelyn Torres of the Conservation Land Foundation
Jocelyn Torres of the Conservation Land Foundation | Still from "Earth Focus"

Part of her job now is to educate people about their public lands. One simple way to think about public lands, Torres says, is that they are places that are open to the public and owned and managed by government agencies on behalf of the people, whether it is a park across the street from your house, a bike trail outside of town, or a majestic national park.

But in Nevada and the rest of the American West, “public land” has a special meaning. It means the vast swaths of federally owned lands that are open to the public and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, often referred to simply as “the BLM.” 

In Las Vegas, as in many expanding western cities, residential neighborhoods butt right up against public lands. “Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is now right up against the city of Las Vegas,” Torres said. “People can see the area right out of their backyard. They can bike and walk to it. It’s treated almost like a local park.”

Torres can see the mountain ranges surrounding Las Vegas from her home. That’s all public land. 

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area entry sign
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area entry sign. | "Earth Focus"

The BLM manages 48 million acres in Nevada, covering 63% of the state. Congress has tasked the BLM with managing public lands for multiple uses, including mining, energy development, livestock grazing, timber harvesting, recreation and conservation. The BLM must do this while ensuring “natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use.” But in practice, around the West it has been referred to as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” because it has often favored extractive industries over protecting the environment.

For many years, these lands were not high on the priority list of major environmental groups either. The Conservation Lands Foundation was created in 2007 to change that picture. 

Advocating for conservation values on these lands can be tough. Pushing the National Park Service to better protect national parks is pretty straightforward, if not always easy. 

Watch a trailer to "The New West and the Politics of the Environment," an "Earth Focus" film exploring Nevada Senator Harry Reid's approach to conservation in the American West.
The New West and the Politics of the Environment (Media Manager)

“The mission of the National Park Service is strictly conservation-focused,” Torres explained. “The BLM is a lot trickier,” she said. “They have a multiple-use agenda.”

To shift the focus of the BLM and communities surrounded by BLM lands more toward conservation, the Conservation Lands Foundation focuses on so-called “National Conservation Lands,” which are managed by the BLM. The National Conservation Lands system includes 873 federally recognized parcels, embracing approximately 32 million acres or 50,000 square miles, and area larger than the state of Mississippi. The National Conservation Lands system is not well known, but it includes many very well-known and well-loved national monuments, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails, mostly in 13 western states and Alaska, with some scattered parcels in eastern states.

These are the lands that Torres fights to protect, and she wants to see more BLM land come under these kinds of protections. 

“The story of the West has been one of opportunity,” she said. “In Nevada, there’s a whole lot of land that is multiple-use. Under the Bureau of Land Management, it could be a number of things.” For Torres, these vast open spaces offer her organization an “exciting opportunity” to shape the future of conservation. “It’s a chance to set things aside, for their cultural value, their historical value, their ecological value,” she said. 

“But the scary part of living in the West,” she added, “is that these areas could become a mine or some other destructive industry.” 

For Torres and the Conservation Lands Foundation, the balancing act of managing conservation, city growth, recreation, and the multiple uses on public lands requires compromise.

“It really comes down to bringing people together in a room to talk about what’s at stake,” she said. “You work together. And you’re left with some core issues about how this land can be protected.” 

Torres said that Harry Reid, the former U.S. Senator from Nevada, and his staff had the ability to see both the long game of conservation, while juggling the often-contentious politics of competing interests behind the scenes. She worked with “team Reid” on building community support for designating two national monuments in southern Nevada toward the end of his career in the Senate: Gold Butte National Monument, which protects nearly 300,000 acres of red rock desert canyons and rock art sites; and Basin and Range National Monument, covering nearly 1 million acres of towering mountain ranges and high desert valleys, with the monumental sculpture “City” by land artist Michael Heizer at its center. 

Michael Heizer sits on the ledge of one of his City installations.
Michael Heizer sits on the ledge of his "City" sculpture.

Rallying long-term community support for protecting public lands is at the center of the Conservation Land Foundation’s strategy. “Community outreach is crucial,” Torres said. The foundation works with hunters, ranchers, miners, tribal members and leaders, and local elected officials. “People really do share a love for these public lands,” Torres said. “We listen to their needs and hopes. Change comes through communities.”

And that means listening to the diverse communities of the American West and their concerns about conservation has become increasingly important. Nevada is now a majority-minority state, with growing Latino, Black, Asian, and multiracial communities. Those communities, too, must be part of conversations about conservation, which historically have been dominated by white male voices. 

Several national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, made national news this summer by publicly renouncing the racism of their founders, like John Muir. Torres said these changes were a long-time coming and the work of changing the face of conservation is ongoing. 

“There’s definitely been a big shift,” Torres said. “People are more comfortable speaking out. But the Sierra Club statement did not come out of the blue. This is years of work behind the scene to make amends for their history.” 

She added: “As a person of color, I feel like these issues have always been intertwined for me.”

Torres recently led her extended family, now including her husband and 7-year-old daughter, on a trip to Gold Butte National Monument. Her daughter, she said, had been asking her, “What do you do for work?” 

“It’s really hard to explain a lot of conservation work and policies and politics,” Torres said. “But just being able to show her the land, and that this is the way it’s going be for her to grow up in, that made it a lot more real.”

Top image: A mountain range in Basin and Range National Monument. | "Earth Focus"

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