Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Arid Wastelands

A long article in the New York Times discusses Nevada’s practice of selling federal land to subsidize local development:

More than $1 billion in proceeds from the federal land sales have been allocated for parks, trails and nature areas that often amount to public amenities — many of which elected officials say they would not have been able to pay for otherwise.
To be precise, they couldn't pay for them without raising taxes, which'd be tantamount to telling Nevadans that you can't get something for nothing. Better by far to turn public land over to private corporations, and let market forces work their world-healing magic:
The projects have enhanced property values, and benefited big-name developers, including Focus Property Group, the American Nevada Company, the Del Webb Corporation and the Olympia Development Group, all of which have bought large parcels of arid public lands and turned them into elaborate housing tracts.
And why not? Unused land just takes up space. But land with elaborate housing tracts on it will inevitably generate wealth, as long as there’s enough water to support the population.

Which there will be, because there must be:
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency that has long provided cheap [!] water to the valley’s two million residents, has received $285 million from the federal land sales, which it has used on a variety of water treatment, testing and transport projects, including facilities at drought-plagued Lake Mead. Plans for revenue from future land sales, water officials say, could include work on a pipeline to import water from 250 miles away.
In other words, they’re selling land that belongs to all Americans in order to support unwise local development, the primary effect of which will be to increase Las Vegas’s already staggering demand for “cheap” regional water. To suggest that they have no right to do this is to reveal yourself as a collectivist of the worst sort…the type of person, in other words, who doesn’t understand the dignity and sense of self-worth that come with being self-reliant.

In an earlier post, I quoted SNWA general manager Pat Mulroy on the “impossibility” of changing water consumption patterns in Las Vegas:
Mulroy says raising water rates and pushing aggressive conservation is politically impossible in Vegas, partly due to the ingrained culture of waste. “We’ve had the luxury to let water run down the streets, and quite frankly, it’s created a mindset that it’s something you take for granted,” she says.
The NYT article goes into a lot more detail on how this “luxury” is maintained and justified. Even so, there are several points at which it basically accepts the same disordered thinking that naturalizes and glorifies this behavior:
[W]hat exactly do America’s national lands represent: Are they expendable, tradeable, and now, salable resources meant to be made private for the sake of progress and individual gain? Or are they public treasures to be protected at all costs, even when they are essentially arid wastelands?
You can’t have it both ways. If the lands in question are “essentially arid wastelands,” then covering them with housing tracts and casinos, on the assumption that demand and carrying capacity are limitless, is a terrible idea; the "cost" of protecting them is bound to be less than the cost of developing them.

Unless we can do it “sustainably,” that is. Triple Pundit discusses a recent paper on the “efficiency paradox,” which explains how gains in efficiency actually increase resource consumption:
It’s a bit like the dieter who buys a box of low-fat cookies and ends up eating the entire box in one sitting. So much for the diet.
Little wonder, then, that Pat Mulroy has suddenly started prattling about how “adaptable” Las Vegans are when it comes to environmental issues:
"If you go to this community and you tell them there is a need for something," she says, "they step up to the plate. They are very agile and very willing to make those changes."
Given the city’s burgeoning commitment to green building, how could anyone begrudge them the trickle of water they need to fuel their “sustainable” growth, or the paltry acreage of public land they need to sell off in order to maintain their reputation as a refuge from the Taxation Holocaust?

It'd be like saying they don't deserve it.

(Photo: Golf course in Las Vegas Valley, by Marli Miller, whose other photos are well worth a look.)


Anonymous said...

This is perhaps the best succinct description of the seriously out-of-balance and out-of-control situation we have in Nevada. And it comes down to the basic fact that the developers and their friends in the SNWA are destroying the environment - and ripping off all of the country in the process.

Rmj said...

All I have to say is: after reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire (and, much later, Herbert's Dune), I came to appreciate deserts as eco-systems, not "wastelands."

Unfortunately, such understanding is far from universal. Reality, of course, has the last word, as ever. Gonna be hell to pay, though.