Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, The Great Basin: America's wasteland seeks a new identity.
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.
But 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 direction.
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."