by Richard Bednarski, Nevada Current
With more people exploring Nevada’s public lands than ever before, impacts to the landscape are on the rise. This raises concern amongst conservationists and state officials about how best to protect the environment.
Gov. Steve Sisolak on Wednesday signed a shared stewardship agreement focused on expanding outdoor recreation opportunities. The partnership brings together a dozen state and federal agencies – including the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Natural Resources and Nevada Division of Outdoor Recreation – with the goal of establishing equitable and accessible outdoor recreation opportunities throughout Nevada through shared management and allocation of funds.
“I strongly believe that protecting and preserving our natural and cultural resources can go hand in hand with enhanced recreation experiences that will boost tourism and economic development,” said Sisolak to a crowd of several dozen at the Mormon Station State Park in Genoa before signing the agreement.
“This is an opportunity to leverage our responsibilities [and] our resources to the benefit of all the citizens of the state,” said Director of Nevada Department of Wildlife Tony Wasley.
Wasley said the agreement will formalize communication between agencies to achieve efficient completion of projects, saving agencies money in the long run. State and federal agencies are expected to receive an influx of new funding through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed in November.
The signatories hope to promote environmental stewardship through a coordinated message focused on responsible recreation ethics.
Nevada is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. The demand for outdoor recreation has also increased, and the outdoor recreation industry brings in an estimated $4 billion a year in Nevada, according to the agreement. Recreation is at an all-time high for visitors and residents. According to Nevada’s Outdoor Recreation and COVID-19 report, over 14 million people visited Nevada state parks in 2020. This is up from 3.6 million visitors in 2018.
State officials have attempted to capitalize on the boom. In 2019, the Nevada Department of Outdoor Recreation was created and is seen as a key stepping stone for the new shared stewardship agreement. The Conserve Nevada Grant Program, which funds a diverse array of conservation and recreation projects, was another step in the process.
In 2021, state lawmakers passed legislation to develop a star-gazing tourism program. Nevada is home to some of the darkest skies in the country, including two Dark Sky Areas designed by the International Dark Sky Association.
The risk of loving Nevada to death
“Programs that focus on environmental education and stewardship are key to providing a quality recreation experience and strengthening Nevada’s economy,” said Colin Robertson, administrator for the Nevada Department of Outdoor Recreation. He stressed the importance of simultaneously protecting natural and cultural resources.
With increased outdoor reaction comes the chances of a greater ecological impact. Most of the pandemic-related increase in recreation focused on established outdoor parks, like Valley of Fire State Park.
Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center of Biological Diversity, says this is pushing more people to explore the remote valleys, canyons and mountains.
“My hope is this [agreement] will equally focus on protecting the environment from outdoor recreation as it does promoting outdoor recreation,” he added.
Donnelly pointed to a recent campaign by Travel Nevada – a tourism agency that promotes the state – highlighting a hot spring in central Nevada. He said the hot springs experienced heavy visitation after promotion via social media. This recreation harmed an endemic plant species located around the hot spring, which he declined to specify out of concern for the ecosystem. He worries this level of impact could be broader under the shared stewardship agreement.
“In the pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration of use,” Donnelly said. “We need to focus on how to protect our wildlands and our species from the impacts… They need to be very careful about what places they are promoting.”
Donnelly feels the agreement could be a potential step in the right direction. It could highlight the need to balance use and impact – something he says the agreement may establish with appropriate planning and funding.
Nevada Department of Conservation Director Bradley Crowell said that sustainable and responsible recreation is the goal.
“This landmark stewardship agreement provides a science-driven framework for tackling current and emerging environmental, recreational and social challenges,” he said.
The agreement seeks to better educate the public and help keep them from loving Nevada to death. Crowell believes it will allow visitation to happen without undermining the natural resources. He cited investment into transit around Lake Tahoe to reduce congestion and helping to improve education about cleaning up after dogs on public lands as examples.
“It will really help people learn how to recreate more safely and more sustainably,” said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a statewide non-profit that has advocated for public lands and wilderness areas for decades.
One of the outcomes Netherton foresees is the potential for more funding for conservation organizations. She believes it is a great opportunity to share the incoming resources more equitably across the state, “to really put money in places where you need it.”
Netherton acknowledged that outdoor recreation is becoming a massive industry. “We should be paying more attention and putting more effort into it,” she said. The potential for increased impacts and the love-it-to-death sentiment echoed by Crowell and Donnelly was not lost on her. “It is important that people recreate respectively; more people, more impact.”
Outdoor recreation is a multi-billion dollar industry with many components. From the retailers to tour guides to the people who recreate across Nevada.
“Then you’ve got the component of people who are living and moving to Nevada for the lifestyle,” said Lou Bubala, a board member for the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition. “It’s a great place to live and the idea that the state and federal agencies are going to work together to streamline and find better ways to coordinate is a good thing for both businesses and the residents.”