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The rural West has provided an all-you-can-eat buffet for developers

Judith Nies doesn’t leave the environmental optimists and desert daydreamers among us much room for hope in her new book, “Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa and the Fate of the West.”

But as she sees is, those are the cards we’ve dealt ourselves.

Her history of the region and the brutal political maneuvering that helped facilitate the rise of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles is thoroughly engaging and at times heartbreaking. From the profligate wasting of water resources to the exploitation of the Navajo and Hopi people of Arizona’s Black Mesa region for their land’s vast coal reserves, this is the real American hustle.

Sparks fly from much of the writing.

“Las Vegas is like an atomic particle, with a bright nucleus surrounded by dense dark matter,” Nies observes. The dark matter contains some of the most militarized real estate in the world.”

But what makes Nies’ approach even more persuasive is the fact she’s willing to bloody the noses of the limousine environmental crowd that usually comes away unscathed when studies of the plundering of the West are written. Democrats and Republicans have been little more than courtesans to corporate behemoths such as Bechtel Corp., the remarkable American corporate success story that has been on the ground floor of everything from Hoover Dam to an airport near you.

“One of the benefits of hiring a company like Bechtel is that not only does it have experience in building pipeline projects all over the globe, but it also had an unparalleled political and government relations department that knows how to work congressional committees and federal agencies,” she writes in a decidedly backhanded compliment.

It’s probably safe to say renowned environmentalist Robert Redford won’t like his depiction as celebrity rube amid the manipulators of native American natural resources. Peabody Coal is a chief culprit here, but there are no shortage of outlaw corporations in Nies’ narrative.

Although the Nevada sections provide intriguing takes on our deeply shadowed history, Nies’ focus on the story of the separation of the Navajo and Hopi from their coal with federal complicity is devastating.

Water, natural resources, cheap land: The rural West has provided an all-you-can-eat buffet for developers and corporations with the right political connections. Tap the right federal sources, and the riches pour forth from the arid land like something in a dream.

As always, there’s a price to pay for the kind of rapacity it takes to create large cities in places of little rainfall. And Nies predicts that bill is being compounded by the dramatic forces of climate change.

The availability of water for the masses is perhaps the most obvious priority. But it’s another example of where prudent policy and reckless philosophy clash.

“The water situation in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles is two-edged,” she writes. “No one wants to be alarmist because it slows growth and keeps the tourists and their dollars away. On the other hand, there is cause for alarm. Thirty million people are dependent on the waters of the Colorado River. And if the Colorado River keeps shrinking, there will soon be need for federal money, a lot of federal money.”

Watchers of Nevada politics will be left to wonder whether that is an unintended endorsement of our powerhouse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or a condemnation of his career.

Perhaps it’s just a reminder of a painful reality of the sins committed, the cities that have been given life, and the precarious nature of the times we live in.

At the end of her compelling social commentary, Nies concludes, “Meyer Lansky used to say there was no such thing as a lucky gambler. The only winner was the house. In this case, the house is nature. We’re in the climate casino now. Who will win? Who will pay?”

The answer is that we all will pay. And soon.

John L. Smith writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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