For more than 30 years, the Nevada activist Jo Anne Garrett fought to preserve the environment, character and beauty of her sagebrush-stubbled quarter of the rural West.
The unlikely base for her “brushroots” organizing was the tiny outpost of Baker, Nev., on the doorstep of lightly visited Great Basin National Park and close to the spot where U.S. 50, the “Loneliest Road in America,” crosses into Utah.
There was a lot for her to fight. First was the Cold War “shell game” of the MX missile system. This wacky scheme envisioned confusing the enemy by continuously trucking real and fake nuclear weapons through dozens of remote valleys across Utah and Nevada. Next came the Yucca Mountain repository in southern Nevada, which would be used to bury deadly radioactive waste after it was trucked in from nuclear plants all across America.
After tireless organizing by Garrett and many others helped defeat the first threat and shelve the second scheme, a third menace loomed. This is the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s multibillion-dollar plan to drill wells and pipe away east-central Nevada’s most precious and irreplaceable resource – its groundwater. She helped mobilize the earliest local and regional opposition to the plan.
But in the second week of October, Garrett, 88, died unexpectedly on a solo walk in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, steps away from the ruggedly elegant home she built herself, just on the edge of the national park boundary. When searchers found her body days later, they said that her face looked serene.
No one who knew her was surprised to hear that. Jo Anne Garrett loved where she lived, surrounded by piñon pine, juniper and sagebrush, and atop glacial rubble from the Snake Range. Her high-desert retreat fueled her intense drive to protect the landscape and people of the Great Basin.
Garrett, however, was no firebrand. She was politely insistent in a era of shouts and brawls. She delivered precise criticisms against project promoters with such grace and civility that they often failed to realize she’d left them bleeding, for they had yet to even feel the cut.
She lasered in on the essential truth that needed speaking aloud, and then she spoke it. Her words were not conventional sound bites, but their succinct messages always had teeth.
Over the years, her house, built with her late partner, Joe Griggs, from hand-gathered rock and old railroad timbers, became command central for activists. The couple hosted organizing meetings of the bi-state Great Basin MX Alliance, which forged an improbable rural-urban coalition of ranchers, farmers, Native Americans, miners and environmentalists.
Later, she hosted steady streams of friends and activist colleagues as
she gradually finished the house alone. From annual retreats for Citizen Alert, Nevada’s environmental justice movement, to gatherings of the Great Basin Water Network, her house was a refuge for people of different backgrounds yet similar goals. She knew the importance of building relationships among people who may have had little in common except a shared love of place and a determined resistance to any schemes that threatened it.
She also knew that the more time anyone spent on the land, the more fiercely they would fight for it. Her concluding words at a 2011 water hearing typified this: “To remove water from all that good soil is to kill the real economy. If the economy means anything besides cash, if it means something real, what’s real is the fertility of those valleys, besides the beauty, which is as nourishing as food itself.”
Garrett became ill for a time last summer and went through hospitalization and recovery in Reno. Once on her feet and home again in Baker, she told us over and over how relieved she was to be back in “this place, this marvelous landscape.”
The imprint of Jo Anne Garrett’s activism there, and on the landscape of the greater West, is profound. Her absence now -- the missing smile, lusty laugh and her gracious invitations to stay another day or two -- is heartbreaking. But we tell ourselves that Jo Anne Garrett was like a bristlecone pine, an enduring icon of the Great Basin landscape that she loved.
The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Abby Johnson of Carson City and Baker, Nev., is president of the Great Basin Water Network; Bob Fulkerson of Reno is co-founder and director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and former executive director of Citizen Alert, where he met Garrett in 1984; and Patrick O’Driscoll of Denver is a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service and a former reporter, who first interviewed Garrett in 1981, while covering the MX missile project.