CATHLEEN ALLISON / NEVADA APPEAL
Monday, March 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The day after Republican Rep. Dean Heller declined to join the House in voting to end an $18 billion tax incentive for big oil, the congressman stands in his Washington office facing a gigantic wall map of his rambling, mostly rural Nevada district.
Heller stretches his tall frame toward the top of the map and jabs the center of the wall as if it were someone’s chest. Battle Mountain.
“Everyone who lives in Battle Mountain owns pickup trucks,” Heller said, referring to a community, population about 3,000, that is typical in this district. When created after the 1980 Census, the 2nd Congressional District was thought of as everything in Nevada except Las Vegas.
Heller scans a few inches to the right, and the finger lands again.
“Elko. Pickup trucks.”
Now to the left. Thump.
“Winnemucca. Pickup trucks.”
These are the ranchers and miners of Nevada’s rural north who voted him into Congress just over a year ago, and who are on his mind when he casts votes, such as the one last week, that leave environmentalists fuming. Heller recently earned the lowest grade among Nevada’s five members of Congress in an annual score card released by the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group.
He was judged for his votes against bills calling for higher fuel efficiency for autos, mining law reform and water pollution controls, among others.
Last week, he reinforced his standing by voting no on the Robin Hood-like scheme to take away tax breaks from the oil companies and use the money to develop renewable energy. The bill was a do-over of a 2007 bill, resurrected by House Democrats after it died in the Senate.
Republicans widely dismissed that as a political stunt because the bill is again unlikely to pass the Senate. Heller explained last week that he favors developing wind, solar and geothermal power, which many Nevadans think can provide a new industrial-jobs base for the state.
But he doesn’t want to pay for it by imposing what would essentially be an $18 billion tax hike on the oil companies. That would take away the oil companies’ incentive to explore for more reserves, he thinks, leading to higher prices at the pump.
In a district that is 110,000 square miles, among the largest in the nation, the trade-off makes no sense, he says.
“Everyday I walk in the office I look at that map,” he said. “I just take a look at what my constituents need.”
In some places, being criticized by environmentalists may be cause for political alarm, especially heading into an election season in a state where strained natural resources are among the most important local issues.
But Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at UNR, said Heller could wear his votes as a badge of honor.
Heller contends that he is voting with his constituents’ pocketbooks in mind — trying to keep gas prices low, food on the table and good-paying mining jobs in Northern Nevada. This conservative populism also reflects a broader disdain many rural Westerners feel for outsiders, especially those in Washington, who try to tell Nevadans how to care for their land.
Herzik said locals resent what they see as a “national environmental arrogance” of people who believe: “ ‘We know best for you bumpkins out in Nevada.’ ”
“In rural parts of the state, those are fighting words,” he said.
For all the demographic and culture changes Nevada is experiencing, as the once solidly Republican state now has more registered Democrats, the 2nd District is a reminder that the past is still very much the present. Only a decade ago a group known as the Shovel Brigade was protesting the feds’ decision to close a backcountry road to save a trout. Decades earlier the Sagebrush Rebellion, a Western movement born in Nevada that was opposed to restrictions on federal lands, solidified the state’s standing as a libertarian stronghold.
Because so much of Nevada remains in federal ownership, an ethos of local stewardship has passed down from the pioneers to today, state archivist Guy Rocha said.
Nevadans have endured for generations in this beautiful, often brutal landscape, digging minerals out of remote hills and mountains, raising cattle where few others live.
Last summer, at a hearing in Elko on a bill that would put restrictions on hard-rock mining, it was common to hear locals deriding the East Coast (or San Francisco) environmentalists who talk about protecting the scenery.
Rocha points to the long attempt to establish Nevada’s only national park, Great Basin National Park, a nearly 50-year battle in the middle of last century, as an example of the clash of cultures.
Outsiders “want to visit, they want to save the animals,” he explained. Locals, on the other hand, feel, “I live here. I got to survive here ... I got to make my livelihood here.”
But David Sandretti, spokesman for the organization that created the score card, said environmental attitudes are changing all across the intermountain West.
Clean air, land and water are vital issues for growing numbers of residents in these rural communities, helping to shoot up his membership list.
“Look at the progress we’ve made in Montana,” Sandretti said, pointing to the election of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester over the Republican incumbent in 2006 with the help of environmental voters.
Boyd Spratling, a second-generation rancher and immediate past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said there remain deep-rooted differences over how best to care for the land.
Heller’s votes are not “against the environment,” Spratling said. “It’s how you’re doing it we disagree with. Unfortunately, he gets a black eye from the environmentalists and that is absolutely not true.”
Whether Heller is reflecting the beliefs of his constituents or caught in a changing landscape will become clearer this fall, when he seeks reelection, Herzik said.
“There’s no question he is solidifying his Republican base,” Herzik said. “Is he solidifying it too much? I guess we’re going to find out.”
In his Washington office, Heller settles into a chair. The shade is drawn behind him, blocking the afternoon sun and the view out his window of the smokestacks from the coal plant that powers so much of the Capitol complex.
He supports the proposed coal plant in Ely, saying he wants to “be able to walk over to that light switch and turn it on, and ... be able to afford to turn it on.”
He even held his ground against the president when he cast a no vote on legislation to raise automobile fuel efficiency standards for the first time in nearly 30 years, which Bush signed into law in December.
Heller doesn’t believe cars can get better fuel mileage without being
downsized, which creates a problem for his constituents who need trucks for work or prefer the safety of a big SUV, he said. Plus he opposes the bill’s biofuel provisions that he thinks would raise the price of livestock feed, which would harm Nevada’s cattle ranchers and prices on eggs, milk, cheese, beef, “all of that is going to increase.”
After a year in Washington, his office walls are slowly being covered with pictures. There are photos of him with the president, with the other freshmen. He wants to hang his prized elk’s head hunting trophy here, but it’s too big for the space, so it remains home in Nevada.
He doesn’t seem too worried about his environmental record among voters back home.
“If they’re going to score me down because I protect the mining industry, so be it,” he said. “If a soccer mom wants to drive an SUV, I’m OK with that.”