Column: A shy activist finds a cause - 'Nevada is not a wasteland'

Twenty years ago in July, I fell in love with Nevada. Four months later, I was offered the chance to stop the MX missile by working for Citizen Alert, Nevada's citizen action organization. It was an offer I couldn't refuse and have never regreted.

I'd never been west of Michigan before 1980. I was living in Boston, single, age 27, and ready for an adventure when the John Anderson for President campaign sent me to Reno to help get the Republican-turned-Independent on the ballot in Nevada.

The rural counties were my responsibility, so I drove out I-80 and back on Highway 50, distributing petitions and gawking at the wide open spaces and blue sky. I was awestruck by the beauty of the undisturbed valleys of the Great Basin and horrified that the Air Force was planning to tear them up to install nuclear warheads.

Before long the election was over, and I was moving west to organize opposition to MX in northern Nevada for Citizen Alert. I was on a steep learning curve, with seasoned activists as my coaches. My first challenge was to represent Citizen Alert at an anti-MX press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. I'd never spoken at a press conference before, hardly ever spoken in public, but suddenly I found my voice. After years of shy silence, I could communicate effectively.

My first experience with the Great Basin MX Alliance came in January of 1981 when the bi-state coalition met in Baker, Nev. We drove in a VW van across the snow-covered valleys of Highway 50 at night. It was a full moon, so bright that we drove through the valleys without headlights, our way lit by the moon shining on the snow.

That meeting was the first of many where I learned how to work with and build coalitions, and began to understand the power of coalitions. The Great Basin MX Alliance was Nevada and Utah ranchers, miners, Indians, environmentalists and citizen groups who parked their disagreements at the door to forge common agreement that the MX project should be stopped.

The power of that Alliance and the pivotal role of public opposition were key to pressuring elected officials to stop the project. When it came in October of 1981, the MX victory was sweet, even more precious in retrospect, with the end of the Cold War.

Since MX, Citizen Alert has continued to speak up about issues that affect Nevadans. Citizen Alert has endured, with a continuum of issues

based on the motto "citizen action for democratic decisions that affect our lives."

They have been a leader in public awareness about the effects of land and airspace issues on Nevadans. They continue their "Nevada is not a wasteland" campaign to educate the public here and throughout the country about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste issue.

It was the nuclear waste issue that compelled Susan Orr and Katherine Hale to start Citizen Alert in 1975. Nevada was under consideration as a possible site for (surprise) a nuclear waste repository. Nevada's Legislature at the time was thinking it might be a good idea. Susan and Katherine hit the road that summer, meeting with residents of Nevada's urban and rural communities, to find out what the people thought. They learned that Nevadans thought inviting nuclear waste to Nevada was a bad idea. This early encouragement was why they founded Citizen Alert, 25 years ago.

My four years with Citizen Alert were invaluable, instructive and evolutionary. The defeat of the MX was an incredibly satisfying and meaningful victory. The friends I've made through Citizen Alert have become lifelong, and are a part of my world view and memory.

For me Citizen Alert is connected to Nevada through the landscape and the people, both of which are pivotal to its mission, success and purpose.

Citizen Alert: Here's to another century of Nevada activism.

(Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, grant management and nuclear waste issues. She is married and has one middle school-age child.)


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