As the 81st Legislative Sessions gets underway, we face a range of challenges. Top among them is a global pandemic and recession that’s left families, businesses, and governments struggling to pay their bills and protect the health of those under their care. The last year has also laid bare racial disparities in our country, and how far we still have to go to achieve true equal opportunity for all. Intense droughts, deadly heat waves and seemingly never-ending wildfires remind us our environment is becoming more volatile thanks to greenhouse gas pollution.
Despite all of this, I believe that Nevada will emerge from the other side of this crisis stronger than we were when we entered it. A major cause for my optimism is a growing focus on climate justice among our leaders, including Governor Sisolak and his cabinet, the Biden Administration, key legislators, and a growing number of community organizations and businesses. Having spent more than a decade working in communities on these issues, I am honored to now help lead this change as the Chair of the Nevada Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources, and Vice Chair of the Committee on Growth and Infrastructure. There are some exciting policy proposals in Carson City this year to advance both climate action and social equity.
Why prioritize climate justice to address this moment of crisis? I think this approach recognizes the connections between the health of our environment and the health of our people, and seeks solutions that don’t leave anybody out. We can and must correct the lingering effects of past wrongs and makes sure every community has access to clean air, the physical and mental healing of outdoor recreation, and good jobs – regardless of the color of their skin, the neighborhood they grow up in, or the economic standing of their parents.
I could easily write a series of columns describing the problems we can address by focusing on climate justice: higher rates of pollution-linked disease, urban hot spots, reduced access to clean energy programs and outdoor opportunities (all linked to centuries of slavery, genocide, segregation and discrimination), just to name a few. But all of these things have already been discussed in greater detail elsewhere.
Instead, I’d like to highlight a critical first step toward climate justice: inclusion of and reparation for Native peoples. As the first communities who adapted to live in balance with this land for countless generations before the arrival of “settlers,” there is much we can learn from our Native brothers and sisters. To do that, we need them to invite them to sit on our decision-making bodies as equals. There are proposals in the Legislature this year to add Native representation to the interim Committee on Public Lands (AB 95), the Land Use Planning Advisory Council (AB 52), and the Board on Geographic Names (AB 72).
Speaking of names, we still have places and school mascots in this state that use racial slurs or racist imagery. Nevada’s only monument to the confederacy was a mountain in Great Basin National Park – a peak which has been recently restored to its Shoshone name. If we want all people to feel welcome across every part of Nevada, it’s time to join pro sports teams, major businesses, and others in fixing these mistakes. I introduced Assembly Bill 88 to do just that.
Taking actions like this are more than symbolic – they are an important step toward healing our relationships with Native communities so we can work together to heal our air, water, and land. The recognition of Tribes Day at the Legislature on February 9th is another positive step. At our first Natural Resources committee meeting of the year, I acknowledged on the record that the Nevada Legislature sits on the traditional land of the Washoe people, who were displaced by occupation and never signed a treaty ceding a single acre of their ancestral home.
There are additional bills that explicitly seek to preserve areas of immense cultural value to Indigenous Nevadans, including two bills the Public Lands Committee submitted at my request to protect the swamp cedars at Bahsahwahbee in Eastern Nevada (Bill Draft Requests R-467 and 47-468). Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 3, calling for 30 percent of our lands and waters to be permanently protected by 2030, a growing movement that can also support the protection of sacred places like Avi Kwa Ame and advance tribal sovereignty and Native inclusion in the management of our public lands. State agencies continue to work toward better consultation and collaboration with the 27 tribal governments in Nevada. And Assemblywoman Natha Anderson has a proposal (BDR 946) to provide tuition waivers to Native students for higher education. After all, where did the land for land grant universities come from?
I hope you will join me as a supporter and ally for Native inclusion and Tribal sovereignty as a foundation for climate justice this year. Head over to the Legislature’s website, find out who your representatives are, set up a free account to track bills as they move through the process, and learn how to make your voice heard on the policies you care about. While the Legislative building is currently closed to the public, going virtual has made it easier for you to participate from the comfort of your home.
Howard Watts is a two-term Nevada Assemblyman who represents District 15 in Las Vegas.
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