Representing the Outdoors is a series dedicated to interviewing policy makers about outdoor issues. The Co-op Journal takes a nonpartisan approach to interviewing elected officials. If there is a Congressperson who advocates for the outdoors that you’d like to see interviewed here, please let us know in the comments below.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Co-op Journal or REI.
What’s one of your most memorable outdoor experiences, and why?
When I was 10 years old, my family had a vacation similar to the Griswolds’ in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” We took an RV trip to Yellowstone, exploring beautiful landscapes along the way, in Nevada, Montana and Utah. But besides the breathtaking views, it was one disaster after the next. Our RV broke down in St. George, Utah. My mom later lost the keys to our RV while horseback riding. My dad had to break in by smashing the window, and since I was the smallest, I had to crawl through the precarious window opening. Also being the smallest, I had a makeshift “bed”—my body was strewn across two swivel chairs each night, so I never felt well-rested. We also had competitions over who had the most mosquito bites each day because we were eaten alive the whole trip. But sprinkled throughout the chaos were moments of pure, unadulterated joy. My sister and I swam in pristine, crystal-blue lakes. We hiked up some of the tallest mountains I’d ever seen each day, and we told ghost stories around the fire at night. That trip sparked my love for the outdoors at an early age, and now I can’t look back on these memories without smiling.
What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear and what do you love about it?
Mosquito spray. I’m not kidding when I say we were eaten alive on our RV trip across the West. We were covered head to toe in mosquito bites—so much so that there was never a true winner on who had the most bites. Now, I’d never dream of embarking on an outdoors trip without a healthy coating of mosquito spray to ward off those pesky insects. Having the most bug bites is one competition I never want to win.
What are the outdoor places in your state or district that people should visit?
One must-see is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which boasts breathtaking views and miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and rock climbing. The area is historically the home of the Southern Paiute people. More than two million visitors come each year to spot some 600 species of plants, along with wild burros and desert tortoises, while trekking along the canyon. Lake Tahoe is another favorite spot of mine, with crystal-blue waters, immaculate beaches and striking mountains in the backdrop. Residents and tourists alike come to the lake for skiing, watersports, hiking and bicycling as well as its sheer beauty. Another point of pride in our state is the Ruby Mountains, whose towering 10,000-foot peaks and pristine alpine lakes promise to impress. Outdoors lovers should also explore Great Basin National Park, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Valley of Fire State Park.
What are the most pressing conservation and stewardship issues our country currently faces?
Climate change is the single most pressing issue facing not just Nevada, but our entire world. We’re facing a series of global crises from resource scarcity to rising ocean levels, the extinction of wild species and the health impacts of climate change. I’m proud to be on the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis and to be in the fight as we work to address this pressing issue and examine how climate change is affecting the country and the planet. We must mobilize action for bold climate solutions.
Another pressing issue that is exacerbated by climate change is wildfires, which are one of the biggest threats to our public lands. In August, I hosted an extremely successful wildfire summit to bring together local, state and federal stakeholders in Nevada to discuss how to pool and manage resources to combat wildfires and prevent the mega-fires that have devastated rangelands and rural communities in the Silver State in recent years. In the Senate, I’m also working hard to bring more funding for fighting and preventing rangeland fires, which account for 75 percent of all the acres burned in the West in the past two decades.
Additionally, our public lands are in serious danger, as the Trump administration continues to strip critical funding from conservation programs. This administration has repeatedly attempted to gut funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has directed over $100 million to the Silver State to preserve national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and other public lands. To thwart these threats to our environment, I’ve supported legislation to permanently fund the LWCF so that Nevada, and every state, can continue to invest in keeping these public lands pristine for future generations.
I’m also concerned by this administration’s attempts to ramp up oil and gas leasing speculation on public lands with very low development potential. I’ve been working with a coalition of Nevadans to prohibit oil and gas development within one of Nevada’s most prized treasures, the Ruby Mountains. It’s an area that has recently seen repeated attempts to develop the land. I’ve introduced legislation to ban oil and gas leasing on the Ruby Mountains, even though the administration has been hell-bent on allowing oil and gas speculators to subject hundreds of thousands of acres to oil and gas extraction. I’ll continue this fight to protect these pristine natural spaces in my home state of Nevada.
What role can the outdoors play in promoting health and well-being among U.S. citizens?
Nature builds strong, connected, healthy individuals. Spending time outdoors has therapeutic effects, especially for populations like our veterans, for whom getting outdoors with friends and family is a crucial part of their return to civilian life. That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation, the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, to identify opportunities to expand access and usage of public lands for outdoor therapy and rehabilitation treatments. I’m proud to have introduced legislation that will help our nation’s heroes better access the healing power of the outdoors, and I encourage all Nevadans to enjoy our public lands.
What do you see as the biggest threat to public lands and waters today?
President Donald Trump. His administration, along with Republican leaders in Congress, has launched a crusade to strip control of public lands from local communities and Native people to reward big corporations that want to exploit these lands—many of which have scarce potential natural resources—for their own profit. Places like Gold Butte National Monument, Great Basin National Park and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest are at risk of being irreparably harmed beyond recognition for future generations.
Protecting our public lands should not be a partisan issue. That’s why I supported bipartisan legislation that Congress passed into law last year that promotes the management and conservation of federal lands. It designates 1.3 million acres of wilderness, 2,600 miles of new national trails and 367 miles of wild and scenic rivers for protection. It also provides increased technologies to more effectively and safely combat wildfires. If we don’t protect our public lands and waters, we run the risk of harming local communities that rely on outdoor recreation for their economies, as well as threatening our own history.
Why is access to public lands, parks and waters important to you?
Nevada’s canyons, deserts, mountains and lakes are a source of pride and joy. Our public spaces provide us with the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors with loved ones, and they’re an indispensable part of our collective heritage and Nevada’s Western identity. Additionally, our robust outdoor recreation economy depends on the conservation and preservation of lands, parks and waters in the Silver State. Tens of thousands of jobs depend on the health of our lands, and I’m dedicated to protecting this vital driver for our state economy. In addition, the health impacts of having clean air and water can’t be overstated. The rates of asthma among American children, and the other health impacts of climate change and pollution, clearly demonstrate the public health importance of accessing and maintaining our public lands, parks and waterways.
What impact does the outdoor recreation economy stand to make nationwide?
Nevada’s public lands are integral to the state’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy. Outdoor recreation supports 20,000 jobs and generates $1.8 billion in sales in Nevada each year. Visitors from across the country are drawn to the natural beauty of our lands as much as they are to the casinos in Reno and Las Vegas. Since tourism is one of the most vital industries in our state, it’s crucial that we protect the same environment and lands that provide these jobs. This is also true of our national economy—outdoor recreation generated $412 billion and made up over 2 percent of our nation’s GDP in 2016. It’s the duty of each member of Congress to protect our environment and the millions of jobs tied to outdoor recreation across America.
What’s a policy solution for the outdoors you’re working on?
I’ve introduced legislation to prohibit oil and gas leasing on the Ruby Mountains. The Ruby Mountains Protection Act would protect approximately 450,000 acres from oil and gas leasing, ensuring this land is preserved for existing uses like recreation, grazing and mining. My bill protects our environment, and it’s good for our economy. We know in Nevada that a thriving economy and a healthy environment are intertwined. I’m proud to stand alongside a coalition of local business leaders, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts in my home state, like REI, who are standing up to protect our pristine and sensitive public lands. It’s time for Congress to act to protect the Ruby Mountains for Nevadans, and the thousands of annual visitors from around the world who boost the economies of Elko and White Pine counties.