Nevada is not exactly a hotbed of environmentalism. We have some tree huggers up north in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, and there's a handful of dedicated eco-warriors in Las Vegas, but it would be a gross exaggeration to claim the existence of a genuine environmental movement in the Silver State.
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Elko to do some research. Somehow, I managed to find an environmental activist living up there. He described a very lonely and frustrating vigil to protect some of Nevada's most beautiful country.
Nevada's history is mostly about spoiling the environment, from large-scale mining operations to nuclear testing. Our laser-focus on economic growth views the state's natural attributes as resources to be exploited, not protected or treasured.
And so, when political leaders dare to propose ways to protect Nevada's environment -- however modestly -- they are certain to be met with arched eyebrows, if not torches and pitchforks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has seen both. Over the years, his environmental initiatives have earned him the nickname "Sierra Harry" in rural Nevada. This, despite the fact that Reid's voting record receives only above-average grades from national environmental watchdogs.
Reid actually has had some success in preserving parts of Nevada. First and foremost, he has been the key player in fending off the federal government's efforts to dump high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. He also was involved in the creation of Great Basin National Park, stronger protections for Red Rock Canyon, the Spring Mountain Range and Sloan Canyon, and the establishment of many wilderness areas.
Of course, at the same time, Reid has defended the interests of mining conglomerates, which are the state's biggest polluters.
While fighting Yucca Mountain always will be Reid's greatest challenge, he recently picked a new environmental fight that promises to have profound implications for the state.
Last month, Reid told The Associated Press that he plans to fight three coal-fired power plants proposed for eastern Nevada. "I'm going to do everything I can to stop it," Reid said. "All these power moguls want to do is steal our air and water."
Two of the plants would be built near Ely, while the third would be constructed near Mesquite.
Reid and others have long envisioned Nevada, with its sunny climate and wide open spaces, as an ideal setting for alternative energy development, including solar, wind and geothermal power. While some renewable energy projects are being developed, Nevada hasn't yet caught on as a host for green projects.
Instead, Nevada faces the prospect of three new coal-fired power plants within its borders. These plants are egregious polluters and primary contributors to the buildup of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. They spew large amounts of airborne mercury, which contaminates lakes and rivers, with the potential to cause brain damage, blindness and other developmental problems in infants. The plants also would use billions of gallons of water, a precious resource in the desert.
Reid's opposition is certain to draw critics, including rural political and business leaders who see the power plants primarily as sources of economic development. Altogether, the three projects involve an investment of several billion dollars.
In addition, with Southern Nevada's rapid growth, there is an inherent need for more electricity. If these plants are not built, Las Vegans face the possibility of higher bills.
But Reid is taking the right stance. He has adopted the long view, which has at least three related goals: 1) attacking the climate crisis in a significant way to try to avert global disaster; 2) accelerating the slow-moving transition to renewable energies; and 3) protecting Nevada's environment, including the pristine skies over Great Basin National Park. (Reid also is getting support in neighboring Utah, where much of the air pollution from the plants would spread.)
Rather than building new coal-fired plants, the nation should be working toward retiring existing plants and replacing them with cleaner alternatives. We know this can't happen overnight. But we also must realize that it is -- as former Vice President Al Gore persuasively argues -- immoral to ignore the climate crisis in favor of short-term economic gain.
Frankly, if anyone but the shockingly wrongheaded Bush-Cheney administration ran the executive branch right now, it's difficult to imagine the government endorsing the expansion of outdated coal-fired power in 2007.
Reid is likely to be deluged with criticism and political pressure for vowing to thwart these power plants. But he doesn't have to go it alone. All of you dutifully using fluorescent light and driving hybrid cars as earnest gestures to combat climate change should take your commitment a step further and register your opposition to these dirty plants. Send Reid an encouraging note. Show support for the local and statewide advocacy groups that have condemned the projects. (They are easily found through an Internet search.)
Because of its early Democratic presidential caucus, Nevada is in the national spotlight right now. Let's show the nation that Nevadans care about the well-being of their state.
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.