How Nevada was despoiled

Photo By Dennis Myers Historian James Hulse’s current book has as much to do with Nevada’s future as with its history. He is now working on a book about relations between Las Vegas and neighboring communities.

“This is really exciting,” said Reno attorney Jim Smith. “He’s one of Nevada’s great historians, great
authors, great thinkers.”

Smith was one of 80 people gathered in the meeting house at the
Bartley Ranch Park. Their anticipation was over a white-haired,
soft-spoken academic who is slightly hard of hearing, Jim Hulse. During
the social before his appearance, he mingled in the crowd chatting with
people. He did not seem to be the kind of person who generated the
excitement felt by the people in attendance.

Hulse is a familiar figure to longtime Nevadans. Born in Pioche, his
home county is the subject of one of his lesser-known books, Lincoln
County, Nevada 1864-1909
. In the 1950s he was a reporter for the
Nevada State Journal, one of the forerunners to the Reno
Gazette-Journal, at one point publishing an investigative report on
huge sums of money lost by state government as a result of land sales
under an archaic state law. He left journalism to study European
history at Stanford University, which produced his first book, The
Forming of the Communist International
.

Back in Nevada, Hulse became a history professor at the University
of Nevada and wrote the standard Nevada history textbooks used in
Nevada classrooms for the past four decades—The Nevada
Adventure
, used from 1965 through six editions until 1998 and
The Silver State since then.

His mild appearance belies the strong feelings he sometimes allows
to emerge from his academic life. In 1986 his book Forty Years in
the Wilderness
contained harsh scrutiny of the state’s social
and environmental policies and did not spare the casino industry, which
outraged gambling lobbyists who muttered darkly about retaliating
against the university system.

This year he did it again with his book Nevada’s
Environmental Legacy/Progress or Plunder
, whose missing question
mark—“I don’t know where that title came from,”
he said—did not undercut the resonance that many Nevadans have
found in its pages. The book’s publication was the reason for
Hulse’s appearance at the Sierra Club meeting at Bartley
Ranch.

If knowing the background of public policy problems is useful, then
Hulse’s book is very helpful to new residents in a state with the
terrific population turnover of Nevada. Most new arrivals have no idea
how many of the state’s problems came about.

“When I was a kid there were about 110,000 people in this
state … or as we used to say, one square man for every square
mile,” Hulse said.

Nevada’s Environmental Legacy by James Hulse is available at Sundance Bookstore, 1155 West Fourth St., No. 106.

On the same day that Hulse spoke at the meeting, the Los Angeles
Times carried an article, “Nuclear scars: Tainted water runs
beneath Nevada desert,” that dealt with two of the issues in
Hulse’s new book—water and the despoilation of
Nevada’s terrain (see “Nevada aquifer contaminated,”
Upfront, at left). But coming from Hulse, such observations carry
greater weight in the state, partly because they come from a native
son, partly because brutal truths from such a mild looking fellow have
more power, and partly because he says and writes things that other
state leaders believe but are, for political reasons, reluctant to
say.

As he began to speak to the group, his tone of voice did not convey
the rage his words expressed, but it was felt by many in the naturally
receptive audience.

Not surprisingly, because he is at heart a historian, he began by
describing the way treatment of land evolved in Nevada. When the
frontier reached Nevada, he said, the federal government was in the
business of unloading land—to homesteaders, to mining, to
railroads, to colleges—and the formalities were not always
observed.

“When Nevada was created … when the mining business was
just opening, it was assumed that the land, the water, were here for
the taking. … So the purpose of the federal government was to
give this land away as a means of populating and developing it. Land
was there to be exploited. Now, if there were a few Indians on it, that
was a problem, but they didn’t pay much attention to the
existence of Indian reservations.”

That policy of giving land away, while it was made more formal over
the decades, stayed in place through most of the 20th century, and it
was accompanied by relative indifference to how that land was treated.
Pollution and contamination ensued.

“So there were many stories in which land was a resource to be
distributed, essentially free—until about 40 or so years ago when
the federal government decided under the Federal Land [Policy]
Management Act that the land ought to be distributed in a kind of a
responsible manner and some of it was to be retained for
long-term public purposes. That was a revolutionary concept which
caused all sorts of consternation in Nevada, particularly among the
cattlemen, miners and others who had been using it a great
deal.”

The new law, enacted in 1976, was a product of the rising
environmental movement and a report from the Federal Land Law Review
Commission that recommended in 1970 “retaining [lands] in Federal
ownership whose values must be preserved so that they may be used and
enjoyed by all Americans.” As a result, Nevada and other states
with large sections of federally managed land had difficulty obtaining
land that once would have been easily transferred. That prompted the
“Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by the 1979 Nevada
Legislature—soon joined by other states—to sue to obtain
state title to the federal lands within state borders. Friendlier
federal policies under the Reagan administration defused the effort and
as the implications of the Rebellion for development of public lands
became clear, even Nevada leaders distanced themselves from it.

Hulse essentially said that neither the private sector or government
has in the past been a trustworthy steward of the land. From industrial
pollution to atomic despoliation, the land has suffered, and until the
1970s there was little constituency to support environmental
protection. Since then home grown organizations like Citizen Alert have
been created to speak for that constituency. But huge amounts of land
and water had already been polluted or contaminated. (This mining state
did not even pass a mining reclamation law until the 1990s.) The Los
Angeles Times report published the day of Hulse’s speech said the
equivalent of a 300-mile-long lake under Nevada is contaminated.

Hulse is candid that his new book does not propose remedies. His
intent was to explain how Nevada got where it is and throw a light on
ongoing policies that continue to allow exploitation and despoliation
of its natural resources.

“Among the things I’ve neglected in my writings on
Nevada have been what we’ve done to the land and air and water
and the resources that we’ve taken for granted,” he
said.

“We’ve neglected the environment. Those of us who grew
up in the mining towns and otherwise have tended to take our land and
water and air for granted. But somehow maybe, what?—30, 40 years
ago?—many of us began to realize we were trustees of a place
that’s pretty special but that’s in bad trouble.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.