Bob Fulkerson is a fifth-generation Nevadan and environmental activist who should be on top of the world. He could be coasting on victories he helped bring about, including the end of underground nuclear testing in Nevada; the mobilization of state government, media and citizens against a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain; and Las Vegas' retreat from a massive rural water grab.
When Fulkerson took on these battles as
the director of Citizen Alert, Nevada's only homegrown
environmental group, he was up against long odds. The state had
welcomed nuclear weapons testing with open arms, encouraged the
federal government to dump nuclear waste here, and applauded the
water-grabbing ambitions of its gambling mecca.
Nevertheless, Fulkerson and Citizen Alert set
out to change Nevada. Fulkerson drove the back roads, mobilizing
all kinds of people from Indians, ranchers and miners to urban and
rural politicos, as well as other environmentalists.
During the 10 years Fulkerson was the director
of Citizen Alert, the battles were won. Congress banned nuclear
testing. Nevada united against Yucca Mountain. Las Vegas abandoned
its rural water grab and turned to the Colorado River.
But instead of resting on his laurels, Fulkerson
is again starting at the bottom, this time trying to organize a
broader environmental and social coalition. Having won many
single-issue fights over the years, he is now struggling with
Nevada's deep-rooted social and economic problems.
A year ago, he left Citizen Alert to organize
the Nevada Progressive Coalition, a broad-based alliance working to
elect politicians, cultivate new candidates, and lobby the Nevada
Legislature. The coalition is composed of social service providers,
unions and minority rights groups, "mainly of people fighting the
symptoms of our low-wage economy," Fulkerson says.
Compared to leading Citizen Alert into battle
against the federal government, the issues he confronts now are
"overwhelmingly complex," says Fulkerson. "Before, it was us
against the federal government. Now it's deeper."
"We're a state that has never dealt with its
most serious problems," continues Fulkerson. "That's why we lead
the country in bad things, such as suicide, cancer, child and
spousal abuse." These problems are tied to the "low-wage jobs
gaming brings in. As jobs increase, welfare rolls, child abuse, and
demand for affordable housing also increase."
It's easy to blame the nuclear industry for
Yucca Mountain, he says. "But you can't lay all of our social ills
at gaming's doorstep. When we're tossing blame around we have to
look at ourselves. Everybody living in this state bears part of the
responsiblity. Everybody wants to have it both ways. They want a
robust economy with low taxes and all the services of schools and
roads and amenities that go with quality of life. But if you talk
about getting people to pay for that, they balk."
Fulkerson has discovered that beating the
federal government may be easier than reforming his fellow citizens
and improving Nevada. Meanwhile, Citizen Alert has floundered.
There is a simple explanation: The group's board has been unable to
find someone to fill Fulkerson's shoes.
there are other factors underlying its plight. Citizen Alert lost
its main job when the state took over the fight against Yucca
Mountain and the federal Energy Department shut down the Nevada
Test Site. Citizen Alert's model of organizing coalitions around
single-issue battles also limited what the group could address. It
was unable to take on grazing and mining because that would have
alienated the rural elements of its coalition. And when it tried to
battle urban growth in Reno and Las Vegas, the group found itself
in over its head.
Fulkerson left Citizen Alert
just as it was reaching a turning point. It was easier for him to
change directions than to change the group's
He wanted to get out of single issue
organizing, he says. But "working in coalitions is still important
to me. We can't achieve the justice we're looking for by going it
alone." - J.C.