That is the number of the week.
In case you missed it on Monday, a 1,500-page United Nations report found that one million plants and animals are at risk of extinction because of human disturbances. It is sobering, and many media outlets made the point that this development also comes at our own peril as a species.
The New York Times cited a report that nature in the Americas “provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year.” Arguments such as these are important in getting people to care. But there is an equally valid point: Protecting biodiversity is, well, the right thing to do.
Where does Nevada fit in? With its extremes, springs and distinct topography, Nevada is one of the most biodiverse states in the union, despite also being the nation’s driest state. Nevada ranks 11th for biodiversity, sixth for endemic species and third for at-risk species, according to the Nevada Natural Heritage Program (a program that has invaluable information on this).
From a more global perspective, the report raises some important questions about our politics and values — and who gets to develop and who doesn’t. Should conservation always come before economic development? No. But maybe we can incorporate nature into our calculus more often. It reminds me, a bit, about some of the solar debates over whether to add a social cost of carbon.
Emma Archer, a researcher who helped compile a report on biodiversity in Africa, was quoted in the Times, and I thought she summed up the tension here nicely: “You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park. But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.”
There’s another conundrum facing environmentalists. Our ability to mitigate climate change — whether that is electrifying the grid with new transmission and utility-scale solar fields or mining for lithium — is going to require us to displace more land. The Los Angeles Times captured this dynamic well in a story about the debate over a potential lithium mine near Death Valley.
That’s all taking place on a macro scale. My reporting focuses on the region. And in Nevada, the changing landscape (transmission, development, invasive species, etc...) is already apparent. Couple that with climate change, driving larger fires in the West, and we face challenges.
“It’s absolutely devastating.” Can you imagine putting years — sometimes even decades — of energy into a conservation project only to see it burn down in 30 days? That’s becoming an increasingly common occurrence for wildlife biologists, conservationists and land managers in the Great Basin, where megafires are destroying sagebrush and converting the state’s landscape.
Over the past two years, wildfires have burned more than two million acres in Nevada. And the increased fire regime has taken its toll on the imperiled sage grouse, an indicator species for the health of the iconic sagebrush sea that fills most of Nevada. In fact, a 2016 study projected that, if unabated, wildfire could decrease Great Basin sage grouse populations by 50 percent over the next 30 years. Although wildfire is the primary driver of sage grouse declines in Nevada, the bird also faces multiple threats from human development (ex. transmission lines, roads, etc…)
A few weeks ago, I tagged along with an upland game biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. We went on an annual survey of the grouse’s mating grounds, known as “leks,” to talk about wildfire and the other threats facing the bird. Here’s my story on the bird’s current status.
Wildfires don’t only affect grouse. Across the West, fires are contributing to earlier snowmelt in more than 11 percent of forests, according to a new study. That report, published in Nature on May 2, was authored by a team that included researchers from UNR and the Desert Research Institute. Why does it matter? Earlier snowmelt is contributing to more fires, part of a feedback loop making fire more extreme. The Reno Gazette Journal’s Ben Spillman has more on this. The larger story is that as fire burns, it often creates conditions for more extreme future fires.
The mining bill: Rep. Mark Amodei re-introduced the “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act,” a bill removing certain requirements for mine permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock public lands law that requires public agencies to analyze project impacts. The response: National Mining Association President Hal Quinn argued the bill supported manufacturing and was a “step forward in reducing our import reliance for minerals.” But environmentalists have long disagreed. Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said “we could be risking catastrophe” for land and water to lessen the standard of environmental review. “We’re not against mining these minerals, per se,” he said. “But gutting NEPA just to do it faster and cheaper is a giveaway to the big corporations.”
- More deja vu: In my inbox, a press release that Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall are again seeking to overhaul the General Mining Act of 1872.
“Make room for the snowmelt” is the title of Nevada’s latest water supply outlook. From the report: “Snowmelt is in full swing and creeks and rivers are swelling with water. Nearly half the [telemetry] sites across northern Nevada and the eastern Sierra had peak snow water amounts ranking in the top five years.” That’s good for the water supply. And it’s good for soil moisture.
The future is at the water broker? For anyone interested in water and the Colorado River, Voice of San Diego’s Ry Rivard did a fascinating investigative piece on a little-known company in Los Angeles. Let’s just say the story begins with Harvard University and includes the phrase: “working on another deal that could rearrange the distribution of water in California forever.” It makes me wonder if the fiction about water speculation is not all that far from true. As climate change is expected to change — often reduce — supplies, is this going to be the new normal?
On the subject of investigative water stories. If you haven’t, it is worth spending some time this week reading the Review Journal’s longform piece on a Nye County boarding school that state regulators failed to shut down despite operating a noncompliant water system and after years of even more chilling reports of abuse to state agencies. The school was finally shut down in February after the owners were arrested on child abuse and neglect charges stemming from water contamination. Although state water quality regulators sent letters to the school, urging it to fix issues, including its failure to test water, they did not seek fines. The four-part story is full of some disturbing details in its excellent reporting from Rio Lacanlale and Amelia Pak-Harvey.
Assembly Growth and Infrastructure heard testimony Tuesday on Senate Bill 299, which would help school districts with the cost of investing in electric school buses. On deck across the way: Senate Natural Resources is hearing two big water bills at 4 p.m. today. They’ll also talk about a resolution opposing a military expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Clips from the news:
- The Center for Biological Diversity is using a rare plant (white-margined beardtongue) to block an effort to open federal public land to development in Las Vegas. (RJ)
- On Wednesday, the League of Conservation Voters announced a $2 million 2020 push to organize around climate with organizers in New Hampshire and Nevada. (LCV)
- The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than 65 percent of the state’s land, is seeing more occurrences of unauthorized use on public land. (BLM)
- For Democratic voters in 2020, climate change was ranked the most important issue tested in a recent CNN poll (with 96 percent saying it was important). (CNN)
Correction: Last week’s newsletter incorrectly referred to the Virgin River watershed plan as a “plan from The Nature Conservancy.” It was unveiled by the Virgin River Coalition, a group that included The Nature Conservancy. I apologize for the error, which was also corrected online.