State turns greener as Californians, others flood in

RENO -- Ame Hellman and other backers of conservation measures had cause for concern when a conservative Republican tidal wave swept across Nevada last week.

Voters chose Republicans for all six top statewide offices and a new congressional seat. GOP candidates kept control of the state Senate and gained seats in the Assembly. The conservative trend also showed as Nevadans amended the state constitution to ban gay marriages and snuffed out a proposal to legalize marijuana.

But despite a sour economy and in the middle of the GOP Election Day landslide, voters around Nevada approved three significant measures to protect the state's open spaces.

Supporters say similar quality-of-life causes could be the wave of the future in a rapidly growing state being overwhelmed by urban sprawl and vanishing open space.

"I think people deep down come to Nevada because they love the independence and they love our wide-open spaces," said Hellman, state director of The Nature Conservancy, which spearheaded the campaign for Question 1, the biggest conservation bond measure in Nevada history.

"I think the vote was a clear message to community leaders: We care about this and we want to support good conservation projects," she said.

Approved by a 3-to-2 margin, Question 1 authorizes up to $200 million in bonds to protect open space, rivers, lakes, wetlands, wildlife, parks and cultural resources across the state. It's the largest conservation bond measure since 1990, when Nevada voters approved a $47.5 million bond measure for state park improvements and wildlife preservation.

In Douglas County voters also approved a stringent growth-control measure last week, and Carson City voters rejected a plan to allow commercial development to replace the city's fairgrounds at Fuji Park.

Paul Starrs, a University of Nevada, Reno geography professor, said the results are not surprising given Nevada's explosive growth. Its population soared from 488,738 in 1970 to 2.1 million in 2001, making it the nation's fastest-growing state over that time.

The growth also has changed the state's demographics, making Nevada the nation's most "urban state," with 91.6 percent of its residents living in the Las Vegas and Reno areas in 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau said.

"We see rampant change and people are scared and they ought to be," Starrs said. "Our next-door neighbor is a state of 34 million people. There's a helluva lot of Californians moving eastward.

"We don't want to see Nevada 'Californicated' in the same way as the Santa Clara Valley, Sacramento Valley and Sierra foothills," he said.

Veteran political consultant Jim Denton of Reno said he thinks many new Nevadans want to avoid the mistakes of their home states. Only 21.3 percent of Nevadans are natives, the latest census figures show.

"I think a lot of (Nevadans) have moved here from regions where they didn't do a good job of preserving open space. ... They've made a choice that they would not like that to happen to Nevada," said Denton, a Republican.

"I think voters decided quality of life is more important than lower property taxes at this point," he said.

Marge Sill of the Sierra Club said the state's growth and changing demographics also have spurred other recent successful efforts to protect public land across Nevada, where the federal government manages 87 percent of the land.

Two years ago, Congress passed a measure to protect 1.2 million acres in northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert, doubling the amount of wilderness in the state.

Last month, Congress passed a bill to protect 444,000 acres around Las Vegas as wilderness, while freeing 223,000 acres for public use or possible development.

"When I moved to Nevada in 1959, few people recognized that we had something really, really important worth saving here," Sill said. "There's no way Question 1 would have passed back then because of the dominance of the rural counties.

"Nevada is hardly at the vanguard of the environmental movement, but it has come a long way in the last few decades," she said.

Many Nevadans -- especially those from rural counties -- are unhappy about the trend.

Rural Nevada is home of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement spawned in the late 1970s by ranchers and miners to shift control of public land in the West from the federal government back to the states.

Despite receiving bipartisan support from popular Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and others, Question 1 was overwhelmingly rejected in 12 rural counties. The five counties that approved it are around Las Vegas and Reno.

"We feel government already has enough land, and there are things in that question that allow the state and local government to acquire more land," said Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, who opposed the measure.

"We do have a lot of friends in urban areas. But we also have a lot of extreme environmentalists that want to see rural Nevada all wilderness. They want to basically get rid of everything, especially ranching and mining," he said.

Janine Hansen of the conservative Eagle Forum criticized both Question 1 and Douglas County's growth cap, saying they infringe on property rights.

"Only (about) 11 percent of Nevada land is owned by private property owners or the state of Nevada now," she said. "And now we want to lock up more land where we can't use it?

"There's one reason we're the most urban state in the country and that's because the federal government has locked up the rest of the state and they've destroyed the rural economy through oppressive regulations," she said.

But Starrs, a former ranch cowhand, said he expects Nevadans' support for slow growth and quality-of-life causes to grow.

"The Sagebrush Rebellion or county sovereign movement is alive and well in rural counties but it's beginning to disappear off the radar screen in urban counties," he said.

"At some point you have to draw the line and say it (protection) is important and doesn't cost very much. It'll be condos as far as the eyes can see if you don't."


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