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OPINION: Pride comes before the sprawl: The Clark County lands bill is back

Dexter Lim
Dexter Lim
Opinion
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The earliest clear memory I have of the Mojave Desert is from pictures in DK Eyewitness’ Southwest USA & Las Vegas. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, images of the extravagant Sin City in juxtaposition with the blazing desertscape were unlike anything I had ever seen — and neither seemed particularly hospitable. 

Today, I know how wrong so many of my childhood preconceptions were. What I had feared to be a loud and debaucherous city is a down-to-earth and welcoming community, and the land surrounding it is far from barren, hosting some of Earth’s most unique ecosystems. Today, this place means home to me. It is out of my love and concern for the future of Las Vegas and the Mojave that I am again writing in opposition to the unsustainable path set by the recently reintroduced Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (SNEDCA), more commonly known as the Clark County lands bill. 

The Clark County lands bill manifests a yearslong campaign to extend the urban footprint of Las Vegas by tens of thousands of acres. In doing so, this expansion out of the valley would not only extirpate vast swaths of wild desert, but prime a spree of untenable development poised to shatter the balance of managing already burdened infrastructure and fragile water reserves. 

Urban sprawl is among the most rapid and irreversible causes of land degradation. Once urbanized, habitats that sequester carbon and hold back immense amounts of dust pollution can never be restored to their natural state. 

The residential harms of sprawl are also uniquely intrusive to everyday quality of life and disproportionately threaten the health and safety of lower-income and disadvantaged communities. 

Intensifying urban heat islands and rapid expansion of car-dependent transit networks have made Las Vegas one of the fastest-warming, least publicly navigable and lowest air quality metropolitan areas in the country. Adding the equivalent of an entirely new city through the Clark County lands bill would exacerbate these existing issues at an unmanageable scale. 

Such impacts are purportedly allayed by SNEDCA's eco-conscious aspects. The bill’s official reintroduction promises “text … to implement sustainable growth” and protections for other tracts of public land. These are goals that land use policy should strive for — but this bill does not accomplish them because it overwhelmingly uses these measures for reputation rather than focused climate resiliency. Even without the ravenous sprawl that heavily offsets the benefits of the conservation and wilderness zone designations, key concerns raised by this legislation including drought mitigation, air pollution and climate change are never recognized with clauses or even by name in the bill.

The eco-friendly provisions of SNEDCA do not serve as a compromise, but as a Trojan horse for its fundamental purpose: to authorize and expand the norms that have historically defined Southern Nevada’s development. It is clear from heightened disaster vulnerability and racially stratified inequities wrought by inefficient urbanization in Las Vegas that SNEDCA’s practice of trading conservation for more sprawl will deeply imperil the race to achieve sustainability under mounting climate change

Strain on the system is already evident in utilities across the valley. A trending rise in power bills deemed necessary by NV Energy for investments in the existing grid would only worsen with the burdens of servicing broad expansion. Furthermore, the added pressure of this proposed growth to our threatened water resources is truly existential.

In order to feed the sprawl that it would establish, this legislation endorses the Horizon Lateral pipeline — a straw into Lake Mead that would enable and incentivize consumption of water below the last 895 feet of the reservoir currently inaccessible to intake systems. This pipeline delivers another blow to the bill’s credibility as a conservation effort, with it being set for construction through miles of the biodiverse and culturally significant Sloan Canyon conservation area.

As someone who moved to Las Vegas and found a deep sense of belonging here, I am sympathetic to others who wish for the opportunity to do the same. But the solutions to accommodate this will not be found in the urban sprawl that threatens future livability for all residents, new and old. Future growth must center productive use of the land we have now, without ballooning the urban boundary of Las Vegas. This still includes more than 26,000 undisposed acres under the current Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act.  

Prioritizing infill and mixed-use development more effectively answers the affordable housing and sustainability issues that the bill invokes to legitimize sprawl. These initiatives show popular support and effective implementation in other Southwest cities including Mesa, Arizona, and Austin, Texas. Moreover, mixed-use living spaces provide additional economic and public health benefits that no measure of SNEDCA guarantees. 

The unprecedented demands for growth facing Las Vegas must be met with unprecedented policies — ones that look upwards and not outwards, breaking with the inequitable patterns of urban sprawl and pandering to wealthy outside demands. Future prosperity for Southern Nevada is dependent on maximizing the efficiency with which we use our resources and infrastructure to benefit all residents, not just a handful of profiteering private equity and luxury real estate conglomerates.

The Clark County lands bill critically misunderstands this by championing a radical swath of growth that entrenches roots of social injustice, arrogantly neglects the realities of drought and disregards the vital ways in which we are protected by bordering intact arid ecosystems. 

Ultimately, the preparations we make today to continue living within the Mojave are very much akin to getting ready for a hiking trip into that same unique and beautiful nature. Deciding where to tread, how far to go and, above all, ensuring that the water is secure must be responsibly accounted for. And it is through this comparison that we know the desert must be properly respected in such plans, for it is not forgiving of mistakes.

Dexter Lim graduated magna cum laude from the UNLV Department of Geoscience with a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science and minor in political science. They are currently a student of the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].

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