Harry Reid’s legacy will be remembered on the land

A reflection on what endures after the death of the longtime senator from Nevada.


When Harry Reid died, mountains of words accumulated, praising him to high heaven or damning him to hell for his legislative accomplishments as a Democratic senator from Nevada and Senate Majority Leader.

Because of the political moment we are in, Reid will be remembered for political purposes, that is, differently depending on where you stand. Many epitaphs conjured the image of a pugilistic politician — Reid was a boxer in his youth — who grew up in a shack in Searchlight, a busted down gold mining town in southern Nevada, then fought his way to the center of power in America. Others focused on his relatively conservative views on social issues, and how he had moved more to the left over the years. But all of that will eventually fade into history. What will be left is the land, where Reid’s legacy will endure.

In October 2007, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., testified at a hearing on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project. Reid was against the high-level nuclear waste dump.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

We came to know Reid through his work protecting Nevada’s lands and waters. In campaign stump speeches, he often told a story about escaping from hot, dusty Searchlight to a cool, green oasis in the nearby mountains. Piute Springs was a place of ecstatic boyhood memories: the remnants of an old rock fort on a historic mail route across the Mojave Desert, the miracle of a gushing spring in an arid landscape, flycatchers, warblers and sparrows calling among the cattails, willows and cottonwoods, hawks and vultures circling overhead.

When Reid brought his wife Landra to Piute Springs as an adult, they found it desecrated, the fort walls knocked down and trees burned. Reid was devastated. Saving Piute Springs became his lodestar. If we can’t save a precious place like that, he would ask, what are we doing?

If we can’t save a precious place like that, he would ask, what are we doing?

When archivists at the University of Nevada, Reno, combed through Reid’s congressional papers after he retired in 2017, they found that fully half of his congressional record was devoted to protecting Piute Springs and countless places like it in the surrounding, wide-open Western landscape.

As the junior member of Nevada’s congressional delegation, Reid was at the center of creating Nevada’s first and only national park — Great Basin National Park — on Oct. 27, 1986. It showed Reid that the art of compromise was crucial in politics. The park was smaller than he wanted and grazing was still allowed, but he would come back and fix that later. And it showed the nation that Nevada was far more than a wasteland suited only for blowing up bombs and storing nuclear waste.

It also boosted Reid’s campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat, which he won the following week. When a reporter asked him what topped his agenda, he said: ending northern Nevada’s century-old water wars. He went on to facilitate a deal that changed the way the Truckee River is managed to provide drought supplies to the growing cities of Reno and Sparks, while mimicking natural flows to Pyramid Lake, thus saving the home to endangered cui-ui, a fish found nowhere else on the planet, threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, who call themselves Cuiyui Ticutta, cui-ui eaters. The settlement became a model for resolving Indigenous water claims and restoring rivers around the West. 

In the final year of his Senate career, Reid persuaded President Barack Obama to establish Basin and Range National Monument, embracing nearly 1 million acres of the iconic mountain ranges and desert valleys that define this region, as well as City, a monumental sculpture created by land artist Michael Heizer.

In his 34 years in Congress, Reid helped put together a bipartisan deal to enable Las Vegas, ringed by federal lands, to continue growing by auctioning off public lands within growth boundaries to the highest bidder, while funding protection of important wild lands and access to the outdoors for city dwellers. Through shuttle diplomacy between conservative rural county commissioners and environmental advocates he and his staff brokered deals designating more than 4 million acres of wilderness across the state.

Reid used all the powers of his office to kill a high-level nuclear waste dump slated for Yucca Mountain, block new coal plants in Nevada, encourage the development of renewable solar and geothermal energy plants, fund the construction of a regional power grid that sends clean energy to urban centers, and ensure that the Moapa Band of Paiutes would build the first ever utility-scale solar power plant on a tribal nation.

Reid rode the changing Western United States to power, and he used that power to change the West for the better. But when we asked him, for a documentary we produced about this history, whether he had a grand vision for how the West was changing and how he could be part of it, he said he did not. Historians might think so, he acknowledged, but he just did what was right in front of him at the time.

That pragmatic path for environmental politics could be a model for the West and the nation. Alas, in the void left by Reid’s absence, and our increasingly polarized political landscape, it may take many years for us to find that path again. But the land will remember.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. Graham Chisholm is a senior policy adviser at the Conservation Strategy Group. View their documentary on Harry Reid’s environmental legacy at “The New West and the Politics of the Environment.” 

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