Outdoor recreation chief: Industry needs boost for BLM, Forest Service budgets and aid for rural communities

Colin Robertson, head of the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation, called for more federal funding for land management along with investment in rural communities to help better manage resources stressed by the pandemic, which drove more campers to remote areas even as jobs decreased in outdoor recreation.

Robertson said he believes boosting annual appropriations for the Department of Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which control more than 80 percent of land in Nevada, would position the industry for a comeback and needed growth. 

“One of the biggest impacts my role and my office of outdoor recreation in Nevada can have is to advocate for increased resourcing for those federal land management agencies who are responsible for so much public land in the state,” Robertson said on Tuesday.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) visits with Outdoor Recreation Administrator Colin Robertson after a hearing, June 15, 2021. (Photo by Humberto Sanchez)

He spoke after testifying before a Senate tourism and hospitality panel chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) on the state of the U.S. outdoor recreation industry. Nevada lost about 6 percent of the jobs in its outdoor recreation economy during the pandemic, according to a study commissioned by Get Outdoors Nevada and the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition and cited by Rosen.

Rosen agreed that more funding is needed to help recreation services rebound. 

“Our nation’s outdoor economy is still hurting and Congress, we have a role to play in helping rebuild it,” Rosen said at the hearing. “We must provide better funding for land management agencies and local communities so that they can better protect and maintain public lands and serve visitors to them. Without adequate staffing and resources, we won’t be able to continue enjoying the outdoors or have a healthy outdoor tourism future.”

Funds would help an industry that took it on the chin last year. Travel and tourism visitor volume and spending in Nevada both dropped by more than 50 percent in 2020, and employment in the sector fell by more than 24 percent, according to Robertson. He said the pandemic negatively affected guides and outfitters, campground and marina owners, outdoor recreation concessions and non-profit education organizations, among others. 

Outdoor tourism is a significant part of Nevada’s economy. In 2019, before the pandemic, it accounted for 60,000 jobs and 3.1 percent of the state's gross domestic product (GDP). That is a full percentage point more than the 2.1 percent national average, Robertson said.

The Silver State has a variety of major outdoor recreation destinations, including two national monuments, Gold Butte and Basin and Range. 

While there were losses in some areas, the pandemic did drive increases in other areas of the industry, spurred by people looking for relatively safer activities that did not have the risk of contagion carried by indoor activities.

According to Robertson, there was a 40 percent increase in 2020 in dispersed camping on general forest lands and a more than 70 percent increase in visits to wilderness areas. Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in a national forest outside of a designated campground.

But those increases put pressures on outdoor resources and highlighted the need for increased land management funds, Robertson said. 

“What it does is create resource impacts that are unfunded, basically,” Robertson said. “Those resources need to be managed to be maintained well in order to not be deteriorating.”

That dynamic at Lake Tahoe was also highlighted during the hearing. The alpine lake area typically gets three times more visitors than neighboring Yosemite National Park, despite being only a third of the size of Yosemite. 

“It was magnified,” Robertson said of the pandemic boost in visitation to Tahoe, adding that there were “detrimental effects on the environmental quality of lake clarity.” 

“There's a lot of positive associated with that growth, but there are some negative impacts as well, one of which is that the federal land management agencies for example, don't have enough funding to deal with that increased visitation,” Robertson continued. 

Robertson also said that federal investment and economic development in rural communities is another key factor in bringing back the outdoor recreation industry. 

One example he gave was the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recreation Economy for Rural Communities. The program, launched in 2019, provides economic development funding to help rural communities revitalize their economies through outdoor recreation.

Robertson hopes that the program gets expanded and augmented with other similar programs at the Department of Agriculture.

During the hearing, Robertson and other industry experts also made a case for more affordable housing and better broadband connectivity for those who work at the national parks and live in surrounding communities.

“It's becoming an intractable problem because, especially for state and federal land management agency staff, they're being priced out of the housing that's available near the work, right?” Robertson said. “That's a significant problem from a recruitment and retention standpoint.”

Rosen also asked whether a lack of daycare options, in addition to affordable housing, was a problem for attracting workers. Joe Henry, the executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism in Minnesota, said the two topics are among the biggest issues when it comes to finding workers. 

“If you have kids, it eliminates so many workers,” Henry said. “They go hand in hand, and they're both very big issues across our entire state.”

All of the panel’s witnesses also agreed that getting better broadband connectivity in rural areas, a top issue for Rosen, would benefit the outdoor tourism industry. 

“Those very rural places are oftentimes the gateways to the most beloved outdoor recreation destinations in the state,” Robertson said. “But in order for them to take advantage of the recreation and economic development opportunities, we really need to increase their connectivity.”

Last week, Rosen signed onto a letter with 19 other Senate Democrats calling on the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to share data with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to improve broadband connectivity.

“Millions of households remain unconnected either because broadband infrastructure has not been built to their homes or the price of broadband services is out of reach for them,” the letter said. “We need a collaborative, cross-government approach to address this gap.” 

Nevada tribes roll through vaccine process, feel hopeful for the future

Pyramid Lake

At dawn on a Saturday morning in late February, Autumn Harry eagerly secured her spot in line to receive the Moderna vaccine through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s health clinic. 

Seated in her vehicle at 6 a.m., she was three hours early to the 9 a.m. vaccine event for tribal members, with only three vehicles ahead of her. 

“And when I left, there was probably closer to 50 cars that were lined up waiting to get their shot,” Harry, 28, said. “And many of those cars were whole families that were inside, you know, so it was really moving to see so many members from my community wanting to get their vaccine.” 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is one of many tribes around the state and country moving quickly through the vaccine rollout process, opening appointments and eligibility to the general tribal population 18 and over. There are more than 2,000 enrolled members of the tribe in Northern Nevada. 

For tribal members, reaching the final stages of the vaccine rollout provides a greater sense of safety and hope among the disproportionately hit population. 

“It has been really devastating for so many of our Native communities with COVID because we have had a lot of elders and knowledge-keepers who have passed from the virus,” Harry said. “There's still so many families that are grieving, and also just people who have recovered from the virus, they're still dealing with the long-lasting effects from COVID.” 

There have been 223 cases of COVID-19 and five deaths among the tribe as of Thursday. Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus than non-Hispanic whites, with the disparity highest among those ages 20 to 49. 

Harry said she felt happy upon receiving the vaccine, but more than that, she felt a sense of relief. 

Autumn Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe received her first dose the Moderna vaccine in late February. Photo courtesy of Autumn Harry.

She and the other tribal members who received vaccines in late February are scheduled to receive the final dose in a few weeks. As of Thursday, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe had administered 733 doses of the Moderna vaccine. 

Other tribes that have moved to the final stage of the vaccine distribution process include the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Elko Band. 

Walker River Paiute Tribal Chairman Amber Torres said the small population size of the tribe helped the vaccine distribution speed along to its final stages within two months of receiving the initial allotment of Moderna doses from the Indian Health Service, a federal agency responsible for the public health needs of tribes across the country. There are more than 1,000 tribal members living on the reservation 100 miles southeast of Reno. 

“I think it did work to our advantage because we did see that in the urban areas, they were still trying to work on first responders, health care personnel, teachers, those types of things where we were ready to move into the second tier at that point,” Torres said. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has administered vaccines to more than 500 tribal members as of last week, with the goal of reaching more than 600 on the reservation. 

South of Las Vegas, the Moapa Band of Paiutes expanded availability for the Moderna vaccine to tribal members over the age of 18 on March 1. More than 300 enrolled members live on the reservation. Tribal Secretary Ashly Osborne credits the success of the tribe’s quick distribution to the preparedness of the tribal council. 

“We were always a step ahead. Things back at home, I would say are running efficiently. They felt safe, they felt secure, they had access,” said Osborne, referring to tribal members. 

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony will also expand the vaccine tier to the population 18 and over on Monday, announced tribal leaders during a live meeting on Facebook last week.  

There are more than 1,000 enrolled members in the Reno colony and the Hungry Valley Reservation. But the tribal health clinic treats non-Native patients as well, so the vaccine distribution process has been a heavier lift for the clinic and tribe. 

Tribal Administrator Angie Wilson said the tribe has been tight on vaccine allotments through the Indian Health Service, which she acknowledged as an issue the state and local counties have experienced as well. 

Wilson said another issue the tribe and clinic are facing amid the vaccine rollout is that some tribal members who have received their first shot are not showing up to their appointments for the final dose, which is needed for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but not the newer Janssen vaccine. The tribe won’t receive allotments of the latter until April. 

“Getting the vaccines is critical,” said Wilson. “We're not only facing the challenge of these vaccines, but we're also being challenged in the administration and the logistics of getting these vaccines out to such a high Indian population here.” 

In the farthest northeast corner of the state, Elko Band Chairman Davis Gonzales said the tribe moved smoothly through the vaccine process, now distributing vaccines to all members 18 and older. More than 1,200 tribal members live in the colony. 

Gonzales said the tribe is focused on reaching tribal members who haven’t received their shots at this point. He said he scolds tribal members he comes in contact with who haven’t received the vaccine. 

“Get the damn shot because COVID don’t care who you are, what you look like, it’s going to jump on you and make you sick!” said the chairman, who received his shot about a month ago.

Bethany Sam, spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, echoed Gonzales’ urgency. 

“Our ancestors went through this with smallpox and they didn't have the science that we have now and I just think about how our tribes had to leave people behind so they wouldn't infect the rest of the community,” Sam said. “And now we have a vaccine, we don't have to do that, so I'm just encouraging you all to really think about the vaccine and scheduling your appointments as we start opening it up by March 15.” 

Looking ahead with hope

As sovereign nations, many Nevada tribes implemented tighter restrictions on reservations than state or local directives in the last year during the pandemic. Many ordered curfews, mask mandates and completely closed reservation borders to non-residents in an effort to protect vulnerable communities. 

Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe credits the strict measures with the tribe’s success in maintaining low case numbers throughout the reservation. 

“We put a lot of measures in place early on in March. I think that was also what helped us keep our numbers down, because we do have a majority of our membership who work off of the reservation. So they're going in and out every day, but we wanted to make sure that once they were home, everything was safe here,” she said. 

As the state and local directives have yo-yoed through phases and “pauses,” tribes remained steadfast in their orders, with some only now, a year later, having conversations among tribal councils about loosening restrictions while maintaining mask mandates and social distancing. 

“We're really trying to also promote that if you get vaccinated, we can get back into the new normal and start looking at soft openings of businesses, entities, possibly Weber Reservoir in the future because our people will possibly be safe at that point,” Torres said. 

She added that she’s concerned about stalling a reopening in the springtime, as nonresidents seek to spend time among the reservation’s recreational areas, such as the reservoir. Last year when the tribe closed its borders, nonresidents trespassed and broke, shot and burned signs that warned the reservation was closed. 

“If we do decide to keep our reservoir closed, I hope that people can respect that decision because again, we as a sovereign nation make decisions on the best behalf of our membership,” she said.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reopened the reservation to recreational visitors in November. The Moapa Band of Paiutes lifted the curfew order and reopened the reservation for residents, but still requires non-residents to present a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to enter. The Elko Band Colony doesn’t have many restrictions in place for the reservation, except for a mask mandate and a restriction on events or large gatherings. 

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez said the tribal council would weigh the decision in a meeting last week, adding that he wanted to be cautious of opening too soon. 

“What we don’t want to do is open up too early,” he said during the live meeting on Facebook, adding that loosening restrictions prematurely could make all their “effort go down the drain.” 

“So we're just gonna have to wait and see what happens there but we're being vigilant here at Reno-Sparks and we're taking our time and trying to do things right as far as opening up,” Melendez said. 

Torres and Osborne from the Walker River Paiute Tribe and Moapa Band of Paiutes, respectively, said tribal members are eager to participate in important cultural gatherings and be in community again. 

“I think that's been the biggest burden on our reservation is that people can't practice ceremony, and just the way we interact with people as our relatives, as Native people, it’s not what we're used to,” she said. 

Both Torres and Osborne also said they didn’t know what to expect when their first vaccine allotments arrived from the Indian Health Service. Torres said she received “kickback” from tribal members initially regarding the vaccine, but that pushback has subsided and it’s become more normalized now. 

Osborne said that when the pandemic began a year ago, the tribal council grappled with how to handle the unprecedented event. 

“It was terrifying,” she said. “It was challenging at times, when we didn't feel that this was going to end. And I think that our biggest concern that I've always stressed to a lot of people that I spoke to about this is that not only do we have to worry about our immediate families, like losing a loved one, but the preservation of our culture.” 

Osborne credits the work of the tribal council in protecting their community through the pandemic during the last year. 

“All of us working simultaneously together really was able to preserve not only our culture, but take care of our people and keep it going — resilience,” she said. 

Blockchains CEO discusses lobbying effort for new city, company funding, efforts to acquire water in rural Nevada, claims about technology

Blockchains LLC CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a new city in Northern Nevada, has hired an array of high-profile and high-powered consultants, some of them connected to Gov. Steve Sisolak, to push his plan through the Legislature. But he has rarely discussed his plans publicly.

In a lengthy interview on the IndyMatters podcast Tuesday, Berns offered insight into the company’s plans, its balance sheet and his relationship with the governor. Berns conceded that there were many uncertainties about the plan and “hundreds of things that could go wrong,” but he believes there is a huge upside for a state economy pounded by the pandemic. 

Berns, who says he developed a friendship with Sisolak and got the governor to embrace his plan, chafed at the idea that he is proposing a company town and insisted he needed legislation to bypass Storey County, which opposed a development on the scale that he is proposing.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,'” Berns said. “This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.”

With Sisolak’s endorsement, Blockchains is asking lawmakers to establish new laws that would allow wealthy developers with an innovative technology and large land holdings to break away from existing counties and create a new local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.”

Blockchains, which controls about 67,000 acres of land outside of Reno and recently purchased water rights, wants to build a technology park and new city along the Truckee River that would incubate blockchain technology, which offers a decentralized form of information storage that experts say is more secure and could give individuals more authority over their data. 

But there are many questions about how the company would build this new smart city of about 36,000 residents and what oversight the project would have. Where will the water come from? How will the land be developed? And who would have access to the new tech community? 

A “friendship” with Sisolak and a pitch

Berns said he developed a “friendship” with Sisolak after meeting with him to talk about issues related to the overpopulation of wild horses, which roam the property that Blockchains owns.

“So a couple of years ago, right after our governor was elected, I got my way in to see him and talk to him about the wild horses, and we have developed a friendship since,” Berns said. 

Berns, who purchased the land in 2018, said he also met with Sisolak and other gubernatorial candidates during the election. Berns made substantial donations to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sisolak approached Berns to serve on a committee that was handling issues related to personal protective equipment. But Berns said he declined that offer.

In the interview, Berns recounted telling the governor the following: “I’m of no use to you on that committee. Let me work on a concept that I think might be something that will drive additional revenue to the state, because when we come out of this, that’s going to be the focus.”

After that discussion, he started to develop the concept that is now before the Legislature. 

“Around Labor Day, I presented [the idea] to him,” Berns recalled, “and then he made the decision of whether or not it was something that he felt was worthy of his stamp of approval.”

About four months later, Sisolak would include the concept as a major economic development strategy in his State of the State speech, and the governor’s office is sponsoring the legislation.

A spokesperson for Sisolak did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

Evaluating the company’s finances

Sisolak’s proposal to allow Blockchains to create an Innovation Zone is premised on the idea that the company will invest an initial $250 million in land and infrastructure with a promise to spend at least $1 billion over 10 years. Berns said Blockchains is prepared to invest. But the company’s business model remains unclear. To date, Berns said he has funded the company. 

“We have not made any money, and we have not actually figured out where we will extract fees,” he said, though he alluded to products allowing people to control their digital identity. 

The company plans to release products next year, Berns said.

Until Blockchains starts building out the Innovation Zone technology park, Berns said he plans to continue funding the business. But he acknowledged that private investment would eventually be necessary to fully build out the technology park, what he estimates will cost about $10 billion. 

When asked how the company planned to recoup its upfront costs and whether they would be passed down to end-users, Berns offered only vague details about his plans for monetization. 

“If you’re going to be using our vaults to store your information, will there be a fee for that? We’ll figure all of those parts out of it as we go. We don’t know yet,” Berns said. “But when we build out the park, you’re talking about over $10 billion. That is certainly not something Blockchains will do. We will raise private money to build it out. But there won’t be public money.”

Berns talks about vaults the company purchased in the company’s “Global Event Launch Keynote” in 2018. These vaults will store digital backup keys to access digital assets. Two vaults the company purchased are in Wyoming and Georgia. There are also two international vaults in Sweden and Switzerland. According to what Berns said during the keynote, these vaults are nuclear bomb resistant and resistant to electromagnetic pulses.

Investors have contacted the company since 2018, Berns said. 

Berns noted that the company’s land is considered an “opportunity zone,” a federal designation that offers a tax break to wealthy investors who develop in economically-distressed areas. The decision to give the land special tax status in 2018 came under scrutiny. Nevada politicians and lobbyists pushed for designating the area, despite nearby areas having lower income brackets.

The designation, Berns said, “offers some very unique abilities to raise money.” He also cited the state’s nascent infrastructure bank as a source for potential private or pension investment. Berns said another possibility was using blockchains technology to help fund buildings. 

“I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that far.”

Looking for water in six different places

To build out a new city with about 36,000 people, Blockchains will need water. The company has water rights through an existing water district within Storey County, but that water district does not serve the area of land where Blockchains has said it plans to build a residential community. 

As The Nevada Independent first reported in February, the company is looking to import water from rural areas. Not long after Berns pitched the concept to Sisolak, the company closed on a more than $30 million deal to purchase water from the area around Gerlach, a small town that sits at the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man festival is hosted each year.

When developers proposed a pipeline to move that water in the 2000s, environmental groups, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and local, state and federal entities filed legal protests. At the time, the tribe told state officials that exporting the water could harm Pyramid Lake, hindering decadeslong restoration efforts after water was diverted from tribal land in the early-1900s.

In February, a lawyer for the tribe said the tribe is watching the “water rights very closely.” Berns has not yet consulted with the tribe. He said it was a “bit premature” to engage with water users.

Berns believed he could find a “win-win” solution, but indicated that he would respect the tribe’s sovereignty, saying that “if the answer is the door is closed, there’s nothing we can do.” 

“But if the answer is, ‘look, we all have issues with water,’ let’s look at the ways in which maybe we can all work together to not just solve our issue, but to solve your issue and your issue and try to find that win-win. That’s my approach with everything,” he said. “That’s what I hope to do here.”

Berns said he recognized the environmental and economic concerns of piping water from rural Nevada, and he said that “we’re not going to do something that is going to hurt the rural counties,” but he provided few specifics. Berns said the company is investigating water in six different places in multiple counties, but he would not disclose the exact locations. 

“I can just tell you that we know that water is an issue in all Western states,” he said. “We know it’s a serious issue. Stakeholders have very serious, legitimate concerns. And the hope would be that we can get together and figure out a way that takes into accounts all of these concerns.”

Having moved from California, Berns called the water issues a “harsh learning experience.”

Top consultants and a full-court press

In working toward obtaining and entitling the water a city would need, Berns said the company hired Jason King, a former top water regulator. Berns described King, who retired as the State Engineer in 2019, as “the best person” the company could hire “to figure all of this out.”

Since the company first purchased land in 2018, Blockchains has contracted with top lobbying firms and economic consultants across the state. At one point in the interview, Berns said the company “hired the best people in Nevada to do an economic impact analysis on what it would mean to the state,” referring to the Innovation Zone concept and Blockchains concept. 

Berns identified the company’s economic consultant as Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst with Applied Analysis. Aguero presented the Innovation Zone concept at a panel that Sisolak hosted. Berns also said Guy Hobbs, managing director of Hobbs, Ong & Associates, helped conduct an economic analysis. Kathy Ong Sisolak is listed as a director and the co-founder of the firm.

In the Legislature, the company is deploying a full-court press strategy to convince Democratic and Republican lawmakers to support the proposed bill. Blockchains has hired R&R Partners, a political powerhouse, to lobby lawmakers. In addition to launching a fact-page for the Innovation Zone plan, the campaign sent a video pitch to lawmakers and purchased ad time in Las Vegas.

Despite these efforts, Berns downplayed the idea that the proposed legislation was a big ask.

“All we’re saying is give us a chance to prove this out,” Berns said. 

The company, he noted, is not asking for money and is working to absorb risks. Once the new government structure is established, Berns said that it would operate similar to other counties.

Storey County said no. Will the state say yes?

Last week, Storey County voted to oppose the proposed legislation because of the concerns associated with carving up the county and establishing “separatist governing control.” Many have asked: Why can’t Blockchains develop on its land within the current county structure?

Storey County’s entire population is about 4,000 people. The company’s development proposal involves building about 15,000 dwelling units and establishing a city of about 36,000 residents. When Berns pitched the idea to the county, he said officials did not want to grow to that scale. 

With the proposed development, Berns said the company would be “forcing a change on them, on who their leadership is, on how their government runs, on how everything is structured. And they indicated two years [ago], they had no interest in letting us do that… The max amount of houses that they would authorize would be 3,500 houses, which effectively means you cannot build what we are doing because you need to have that many residents to make this work.”

Apart from the homebuilding and zoning issues, he said other aspects of the proposal — like collecting sales tax instantly, direct democracy through blockchains technology or mandating a higher minimum wage — would not be feasible under Storey County’s government structure.

“This is for people that they don’t even represent yet because they don’t live there,” he said.

Large-scale developers are often frustrated with a county’s decision on zoning or how private land can be entitled. With the county rejecting a full build-out of Blockchains LLC’s development, the company asked the state to endorse creating a new type of local government, Berns said. 

Berns said he approached state officials because the company’s plans, if successful, could have a significant fiscal impact on the state. With plans to launch a digital currency tied to the dollar, Blockchains said it would charge a micro-fee on transactions that could generate revenue.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,” Berns said. “‘This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.’”

A company town?

Because of the company’s involvement in lobbying for the Innovation Zones and the set-up of the new local government, critics have said Sisolak’s proposal would allow for the creation of new company towns. Last week, late-night host Stephen Colbert did a segment on the proposal, comparing it to feudalism. Berns, a fan of Colbert, said the company’s goal is to do the opposite.

“It’s using technology to take away the power from the tech companies,” he said. “The narrative out there isn’t the narrative that should exist with the legislation. As soon as the bill comes out, and the governor gets out there and all of those kinds of things, I think that narrative will change.”

Throughout the interview, Berns emphasized the decentralizing features of blockchains and its potential to break up big tech and businesses that have a stranglehold over individual privacy and data. A main feature of blockchains, he said, is that it allows businesses to have more control over their data. Berns described it as the “most anti-Big Tech thing there is.”

“This isn't a company town,” Berns said. “We already own the land. We already could build the city. There's nobody living there. Once there are people living there, [the residents] take control.”

Once the city is populated, there will be elections. For now, Berns said the company is asking this: “please replace the three county supervisors that oversee us, because they are responsible to the voters, with three people that the state will [appoint] to oversee the development.”

The plan, Berns said, is that multiple companies would move into the Innovation Zone. 

“The goal is to show how this technology could allow the community to have control,” he said.

When asked about housing affordability and distributing the land, Berns said that the goal is to lease, rather than sell the land Blockchains owns. Berns said the community would control what happens on the land, but provided few details. He said his concept is “not ready to roll out yet.” 

The technology and international interest 

Throughout the interview, Berns offered vague sketches of how the city might operate and how it would test Blockchains technology. He emphasized the opportunities that come from starting from scratch — that it could change the way infrastructure is built and decisions are made.

“My vision for this is a place where people can come to create,” he said. “In innovating new ideas, you are failing. That’s just the nature of innovation. We have failed probably 50 times already on what we’re trying to develop. So I want to create a place where that’s OK.”

The goal with the Innovation Zone is to create a place to develop new blockchain technology. 

Berns said his vision for the city is “to incubate these different ideas like using blockchains as the foundation for transparency, for payment, for all the ministerial things that companies don’t trust each other with, and then create this place where people can live, work, play, vote — do everything they do in their normal communities — but testing out all of these new technologies.”

Exactly what that technology would look like and what companies are interested in coming to the park remains an open question. Berns said he had nondisclosure agreements with some companies and he could not disclose details, but he added that “we have interest from some very large multinational companies that have indicated they’re interested in projects out here.”

Berns said countries and cities have reached out to the company about working on projects. One country, Berns said, is the Republic of Korea, but he declined to provide other examples.

When asked about how Blockchains planned to market its technology, Berns said that it is not a primary focus for him right now as he concentrates on getting the proposed legislation passed.

“We need to get the legislation passed to see if we’re going to be able to build a smart city,” he said. “And that’s really all I’m focusing on — is trying to answer the legislators’ questions and make sure that I’m out there explaining what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“This is not Big Tech trying to take over the world,” he added. “This is not a separatist who wants to destroy the government. This is me saying there is a technology out there that would allow for us to shift the paradigm and empower the individual, and I want to try to create that here.”

Mining gave half a million dollars to Sisolak-affiliated PAC shortly before session that could raise tax on industry

Sign in front of the Nevada State Capitol building

A political action committee affiliated with Gov. Steve Sisolak raised more than $830,000 in the last three months of 2020, including $500,000 from Nevada Gold Mines — a joint venture between mining giants Barrick and Newmont — and another $260,000 from the pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA, according to campaign finance documents filed Wednesday.

Those major contributions came just months after the Legislature had raised the prospect during a special session of expanding mining taxes to cover massive revenue losses amid shutdowns related to the pandemic — and the issue is expected to be revived during the ongoing 2021 session.

The PAC also received funding last quarter from the pro-gun regulation group Everytown for Gun Safety ($25,000), UFC parent company Zuffa ($20,000), a subsidiary of Caesar’s Entertainment ($10,000), an LLC linked to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas ($10,000) and Nevada REALTORS ($5,000). 

Though the Home Means Nevada PAC was initially founded to fund Sisolak’s transition to governor following his win in 2018, the group has since shifted its focus, doling out funds largely to the state Democratic party apparatus. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office declined to comment, and a representative for Home Means Nevada PAC told The Nevada Independent that the governor was “not involved” with the PAC and that the group was issues-focused. 

Still, Wednesday’s filing showed the PAC contributed $390,000 in the fourth quarter, of which more than half — $250,000 — went to the state Democratic Party. An additional $100,000 was given directly to the Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm, while $10,000 contributions were made to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft (D-Las Vegas). 

The PAC also gave $10,000 — the statutory maximum in Nevada — to campaigns for Wendy Jauregui-Jackins and Kristee Watson, two Democrats who lost their bids for competitive legislative seats last year.

This is a developing story.

Update, 3/3/21 at 5:03 p.m. - This story was updated to reflect that a spokesperson for the governor's office declined to comment.

Indy Q&A: Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray on taxes and the Legislature

The front of the Nevada Legislature Building on a sunny day

Is Nevada’s mining industry paying its fair share of taxes?

How people answer that question says a lot about how people feel about the state’s mining industry — and how they might feel about any of the three constitutional amendments potentially headed to the ballot in 2022 that would increase limits on mining taxation.

In the months following the 2020 special sessions where those proposed constitutional amendments were passed, the Nevada Mining Association and its president, Tyre Gray, have been trying to influence the answer to that question — heavily promoting the industry in advertisements, social media and (virtually) in the Legislature.

Tyre Gray, president of the Nevada Mining Association. (courtesy of NMA)

This isn’t the first time mining has been in the hot seat — a similar debate played out a decade ago, when lawmakers at the time approved sending a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the cap on net proceeds (the measure narrowly failed on the 2014 ballot).

(A quick recap on mining taxes. Nevada’s Constitution sets a 5 percent ceiling on the net proceeds of all minerals extracted in the state. Net proceeds are the dollar amount after taking the gross (total) value of all minerals extracted by a mining operation, and subtracting all the deductions for costs incurred during the mining process.)

But in 2021, with more and more of the state’s population and political power base far away from rural counties where the bulk of mining operations happen, that hot seat has begun to warm up again — especially with progressive groups again calling for the counter-cyclical industry to pay more in taxes during a fallow economic time for the state.

The Nevada Independent spoke with Gray for a 30-minute conversation on the mining industry’s priorities this session, and what it would consider a victory when lawmakers adjourn in about three months. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where I want to start is getting a sense of where you (and) the mining association were at the end of the (2020) special sessions, especially the “policy focused” one where they had that whole debate and the three proposed constitutional amendments. Without relitigating all of those details, what kind of happened, how are you feeling, how was the industry feeling at the close of that special session?

When you reflect back on the special session, it’s kind of important to realize where we were as a state and as an industry. The state was shuttered, our biggest financial revenue generator and largest employer in the state was shut down, and these were times that we had not seen before. 

But even with that, before even most people knew what COVID-19 (was) going back into January 2020, Nevada's mining industry had been engaging in conversations with legislators and with the governor's office because everybody knew that 2021 was likely going to be some type of a revenue session. 

So we've been engaging and at the time — I was not in the chair, but that's at least what's been communicated to me — reaching out and starting to have soft conversations, ‘Hey guys, how are things looking and what are we doing’. And so there had been some level of conversation about there being the 2021 legislative session that would probably go with some type of revenue. 

Now you fast forward into February and we find out that there's a pandemic on the way, and then you fast forward into March, and those conversations that started by (a) nice reach out, ‘Hey, what can we do’, all of our focus went into making sure that our people were safe, our citizens here in the state were safe.

And you fast forward from March, into the very first special session, I receive a phone call, and I'd been on the job for about five months at the time, and I receive a phone call out that I kind of expected would be coming and said, ‘Hey look, we're going to look at the mining industry to prepay it’s taxes’. And that's something that we expected. We’ve seen that happen on two separate other occasions, particularly when we've had economic downturns. 

(Editor’s Note: Nevada lawmakers included a “prepayment” of two years worth of mining taxes in SB3 of the 2020 special session, worth an estimated $54 million in tax revenue.)

That is a very big give, period. Whenever you have an industry that prepays an obligation that requires some people to dip into savings, other people to do capital calls in order to do so, so it's not a small gesture, not a small give. We were willing to do that, and we came to the table prepared to do that. 

Yet what we didn't know, were there were other pieces of legislation that were being discussed in those hallways, and again those halls were closed and the conversations were not happening between us and the legislators about what would eventually be a bill to try to eliminate some of the, as people refer to them, deductions, but they're really a computation of how you get from gross to net.

(Gray is referring to proposals that fell short during the 2020 special session to limit deductions that mining companies can use to offset their tax burden.)

So, we have that dropped on us and my record is pretty clear on that, I think I've received about three hours of notice on that before that was heard on the floor. And then we go into the second special session where then we have three joint resolutions. And two of those joint resolutions, AJR1 and SJR1, I had heard about them about a day to a day and a half before the policy session began.

And then AJR2 was the result of some conversation between the industry and the speaker (Jason Frierson), and we are appreciative to him for launching that. But yet the 12 percent is beyond our comfort level as an industry, because even though that only authorizes the constitution to raise up to that, as you can imagine when you're looking for financing and different things which are critical to the mining space...between the permitting process before a shovel even hits the ground in Nevada, A) you have to pay a reclamation bond, B) there is a seven- to eight-year time period between permitting and construction, and then there's another eight to 10 years for a project to actually start to become profitable. 

So you know you're looking at most cases of a 15- to 20-year period before you start to see a return on your investment. To say the least, when we came out of those special sessions, we kind of felt like we had just walked out of a tornado, because it was very much not anticipated, some of the joint resolutions were not anticipated, particularly as to what they cover.

I mean, if we would have seen a joint resolution that sought to remove the mining industry from the Constitution which, again, we saw in the 2011 session, that would be something that, okay, we couldn't necessarily say that we were surprised about, but this is really a fundamental change to the mechanisms by which we're accustomed to being taxed in the state of Nevada. 

So that was a lot there to digest. What I want to ask is about AJR2, and I believe you testified in the neutral position on AJR2 (in the 2020 special session). 

If that measure was to come up again in the 2021 session, would you and the mining association continue to testify in neutral, or have you switched to opposition, knowing what you know now over the past several months?

(AJR 2 would raise the constitutional limit on the net proceeds of minerals from 5 to 12 percent, and require the minimum rate of the tax be equal to the property tax where the mining operation is located).

So at the moment, we haven't switched our position. We still remain neutral and really a lot of the conversation around AJR2 would have to do with the trailer bill that would eventually look at how much we would increase the net proceeds, but at the moment we remain neutral on the bill.

I know you probably don't want to talk about any personal discussions with legislators, but I've just noticed, I can go to basically any news website in Nevada, or, even in our newsletters, there's been a concerted effort by the mining association to do kind of a promotional blitz between the special sessions and the start of the legislative session. 

Can you give any additional details on that campaign, any rough dollar amounts if you're comfortable sharing that, or any kind of rationale as to why this publicity campaign is coming out now?

Yeah, so I would say, I think maybe we're just noticing it right now. During the pandemic, the Nevada Mining Association took the time to look at its strategic plan, and out of its strategic plan, five pillars were revealed and two of those five pillars are particularly important to me. Number one being public outreach, and number two, being workforce development. 

And so what we know around this is you know there's a saying by Nat Turner that says ‘Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.’ And there are a lot of assumptions and frankly some just straight misinformation that exists out there around Nevada’s mining industry and so the opportunity to really be able to get out and share some of the information.

One of the things that most people are really surprised to find out is that mining is Nevada’s 12th largest industry in regards to GDP. A lot of times people will focus on, yes, the mining sector is a $7 billion industry in 2020. But by that nature that means that 11 (other industries) all the way up to one must have made at least $7 billion plus $1.

So, I really say that our blitz is really about making sure that we're able to build that bridge between reality and perception for people, so that there's an understanding of what Nevada’s mining industry is and what it actually does. We produce 20 minerals that are critical to life in the modern day world, and we do so by only disturbing roughly one half of 1 percent of land in Nevada. The fact that we're able to have the impact that we do here in the state, nationally, and globally by only disturbing that less than one half of 1 percent of land is incredible.

I want to give you a chance to address some of the things I've heard and seen from people who say that the mining industry in Nevada should be taxed more. 

One of the biggest ones I've seen is that many mining companies and other countries pay a higher net proceeds tax rate, or just a higher tax rate in general than what they do in Nevada. Do you think that's an accurate statement to make? Are there any caveats that you think are important to add when people are looking at tax rates in Nevada versus other countries or states?

Yeah, I think that it's not apples for apples. I think it's important that when you look at other countries, versus a state, that it's important that when there is an agreement to pay a particular amount to a country, that is all that the industry pays in regards, usually to its obligation or tax burden. So, very much like here within the United States, we pay federal taxes just like everybody else does, so there is a large amount of compensation being remitted to the federal government and then we also have state taxes that remain here in the state of Nevada, so it's not quite an apples for apples comparison.

I think it's really one of those things where you really have to understand the nuance of what's being paid. So again, Nevada's mining industry pays every single tax, every other business here pays. That means we pay modified business tax, we pay sales tax, in fact, we account for nearly 10 percent of all sales tax collected in the state, paying over $120 million dollars a year in sales tax. We pay the Commerce Tax, if it's a tax that exists on property tax we pay property tax. If it's a tax that exists, we pay that, plus an industry specific tax. 

Again, there's not a complaint around that. There's not a hesitancy around that payment, but it is one of those things where we do see some level of not treating mining always as a partner of the state. And that's not the state necessarily doing that, but there are people who don't see us as that partner, that good corporate citizen and steward that we really are. 

It's really hard, when we hear people say mining doesn't pay its fair share. ‘We would like to see mining pay more,’ that is a different conversation than ‘mining doesn't pay its fair share’ because that, by its very means, means that mining isn’t paying enough. ‘Hey we have an industry here who might be able to help us out. Is there a way that you guys can help us out?’, versus, ‘You're not doing your part already, so come and do your part.’

Yeah, I asked that question because I was trying to give you a chance to address a concern I've heard, but I think the point you ended on is the next question I had, which is, there's a lot of conversation about ‘Is mining paying its fair share or not paying its fair share’. It sounds like you're saying, yes, we are paying our fair share, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the fair share (equals) paying more. There's a difference between what's fair, and what's possible for the industry. Is that accurate to say?

Yeah, I think that's accurate to say. So when somebody says, ‘Pay your fair share,’ if I were to ask you that, your natural response would probably be to say ‘Okay, what's my fair share?’

What industry within the state would you say their tax structure is what your tax structure should be? And so I think it's important to recognize that mining is the 12th largest industry in the state. We have the highest per-employee tax burden in the state. 

So it's important to make sure that the narrative is one that is actually fair, if you will. Just define what a fair share is. That's never anything that's ever been defined and, even in my personal conversations with people before even I sat in this chair, and I would hear people say, mining doesn’t pay its fair share. What is that? I mean, if we could start to have a conversation about what that actually looks like, and for it to be fair, that means that everybody would be doing that, and then that to me a little bit of a larger conversation.

I think a lot of times people will point to mining, because it's easy. You get to see what we make. It's a publicly available report. Even when you compare that to the gross gaming report, the gross gaming report says, Clark County table games, X amount of dollars. It doesn't say what property, X amount of dollars, versus the net proceeds tells you exactly what property, tells you how much they made, how much it costs them to extract the mineral, and then how much they’re paying taxes on. 

I think it's kind of important to make sure that what most people I think really have a frustration with is Nevada’s tax system as a whole. And that's why it's important to remember that Nevada is a property tax state. We were built on property tax and the second that we started kind of playing around with our property tax, today I believe we, we, abate somewhere close to $2.1 billion per biennium in property taxes. 

So I think it's probably fair to say that the question of ‘Is mining paying its fair share,’ you view as sort of a flawed inherently question, because ‘fair share’ hasn't really been defined. 

What I want to ask is, what does victory look like for you and look like for the mining association at the end of the legislative session? Is it, none of these proposed constitutional amendments passed? Are you happy with how mining tax is set up right now and are fine with no additional changes? What will make you happy if on June 1 the session ends, what sort of end status would you like to see as it relates to mining and taxation?

Well I would say what makes me happy is good policy. Good tax policy is meant to accomplish three things; continue to make Nevada's family stronger, continue to fund our government and continue to allow businesses to be healthy and thrive within our borders. 

When you look at these three joint resolutions AJR1, and SJR2, it's easy to get caught up on the impact to the mining industry. But what's much, what kind of is getting unintentionally swept under the rug, is that this actually results in a loss of county funding. And that's the scary part to that to the family that's living in Ely who wants to be able to have their daughter there and easily without needing to go all the way down to Las Vegas to have their daughter.

So the impact to the industry is one thing, but the impact is going to be so much larger than to the industry. It really is those rural counties that depend on their portion of the net proceeds, with that money going away will be crippled. And what does that do to the urban counties that are now usually importers of tax. 

Because again, I think it's important to recognize that most mining counties are exporters of tax revenue, to the point where we've even kind of changed our school funding formula in order to be able to capture more of those exported taxes from those communities. So, what happens when those counties are no longer able to be self-sufficient? Clark County and Washoe are going to have to start to divert more funds back to those counties, and so it creates a weird cycle of reversing the tables of flow.

So, for us, good policy is the easy answer to that, we are opposed AJR1 and SJR1, we are neutral on AJR2, but I believe that our legislators are smart enough, and they're willing, and we are willing, we've been at the table, to hopefully maybe come up with the structure and a solution, outside of those three joint resolutions.

So, if AJR2 were to pass out of this session and proceed to the ballot in 2022, would you be happy, or still neutral on June 1 when the session is over?

Well I think we would have to evaluate that at the top. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to financing of projects. And again, I know that sounds a bit of an evasive answer, 

When you go to the bank and you're applying for a loan, the bank is going to always use the highest available amount of money that you might have to pay, in order to determine your creditworthiness. 

And so, even with AJR2, banks and or loaning institutions, and capital calls, going out and trying to raise capital, they're going to evaluate it through the lens of 12 percent. Even if it came out to be 7 percent, that's still going to be the number that they will use to evaluate the project, because the ROI of the project is so far out, that there could be changes in between now and then. 

And so that's really the concern about AJR2, is how it's going to impact the continued investment into Nevada around the mining community, and the cost of particular projects that today are probably viable, but if that percentage went up, might not be as viable.

Judge rules against rural county lawsuit seeking halt to mining tax hike proposals

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

A judge has ruled against a suite of rural Nevada counties and a mining conglomerate that challenged a trio of proposed constitutional amendments changing mining taxation rates that were passed during a special session over the summer.

Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson issued the order on Thursday, striking a blow against efforts led by rural Nevada counties and Nevada Gold Mines to disqualify the proposed constitutional amendments. If any of the measures pass during the 2021 legislative session, they would proceed to the 2022 ballot for consideration by voters.

Wilson wrote in the order that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear challenges to the proposed resolutions at this middle point in the process, and that issues raised by plaintiffs about deadline dates and introduction of resolutions during special legislative sessions failed to violate provisions of the Nevada Constitution.

News of the court’s decision was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

While the order is likely to be appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, it marks an initial defeat for the state’s mining industry and rural counties in their opposition to increased mining taxes, as well as clears the runway for future Legislatures to process potential constitutional amendments on a more truncated timeline.  

Todd Bice, an attorney representing Nevada Gold Mines, said in an emailed statement that the company was considering whether to appeal, but that additional legal challenges would likely follow should the Legislature approve any of the proposed mining tax resolutions during the upcoming session.

"Since the court said it lacked jurisdiction, the legal merits cannot be decided unless the upcoming Legislature attempts to pass the proposed constitutional amendments," Bice said in an emailed statement. "If that happens, Nevada Gold Mines will renew its challenge, including in a new case and the matter will ultimately have to be addressed by the Nevada Supreme Court. "

Lawmakers over the summer advanced three proposed amendments to mining tax language in the Nevada Constitution, mostly along party lines with Republicans opposed. Typically, such initiatives are taken up by lawmakers in regular sessions that are two years apart, before possibly advancing to a statewide vote.

The timing of the measures means that they will come up for their second review in the forthcoming legislative session, possibly allowing them to move to a statewide vote years earlier than they otherwise would.

As it stands, Nevada applies a maximum 5 percent tax on the net proceeds of minerals. Progressives have chafed against the rate, saying the industry has had a “sweetheart deal” in the Constitution since Nevada gained statehood in 1864.

Two of the proposals (AJR1 and SJR1) would remove the 5 percent cap and implement a 7.75 percent rate on gross mining proceeds. The new tax funds would be earmarked for education or health care (AJR1) or payments to “eligible persons domiciled in this State” (SJR1).

The third proposal, AJR2, is more conservative, amending the net proceeds tax rate up to a maximum of 12 percent. A minimum taxation rate would be tied to the property tax rate of the jurisdiction where the mining operation is located. 

The original case against the proposals was filed by Lander County in early September. Several additional rural counties with sizeable mining industries — Elko, Lander, Pershing and White Pine — joined on to the lawsuit, and the case was merged with a similar lawsuit brought by Nevada Gold Mines (the joint venture between Barrick and Newmont mining companies).

Todd Bice, an attorney representing Nevada Gold Mines, said during a recent court hearing that the resolutions should not have been taken up because they were not explicitly included in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proclamation calling for a special session focused on a particular set of policies. 

Lawmakers’ rationale for taking them up anyway included a legal opinion from the nonpartisan Legislative Counsel Bureau that says restrictions on topics of a special session apply to “bills,” but would not preclude “resolutions,” which are the vehicle for amending the Nevada Constitution.

In the order, Wilson wrote that a Constitutional change made in 2012 giving the Legislature the power to call itself into a special session without a proclamation from the governor gave the body an inherent right to conduct normal legislative business during special sessions save for explicit directions in the Constitution.

Updated at 9:08 p.m. to include a statement from Nevada Gold Mines.

Lyon County joins rural revolt against governor's COVID-19 orders for businesses; gov, AG respond

Lyon County became the latest rural county to declare an economic emergency and decline to enforce the governor’s COVID-19 directives on the basis that they hurt businesses.

The county of about 58,000 people joins the rural resistance along with White Pine, Elko and Eureka counties, which are less populous. 

“It's very important the rural counties of our great state to be united with one message going forward,” said Lyon County Commissioner Ken Gray, who spearheaded the effort. “We must stand together as one to face the abuses of our civil liberties which have taken place and stop them from going any further. Instead of working with the local government of Nevada as he should, the governor has chosen to ignore them and their residents.”

The resolution on the matter was reviewed and passed at a special meeting Thursday morning. It will allow businesses to determine whether and how to implement certain practices as they see fit, and allow the sheriff and district attorney to use their discretion not to enforce or respond to complaints related to violations of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency directives. 

But the passage of this resolution does not authorize businesses or private citizens to cease following emergency directives or CDC recommended practices, a statement from Jeff Page, the county manager in Lyon County.

Nevada's COVID-19 response director, Caleb Cage, said during the state's regular COVID-19 update call with reporters on Friday, after the resolution had passed, that he is "disappointed" in the county's "political posture.” 

Even though he said he understands that the commissioners have “a political constituency” that they're trying to fulfill by passing the resolution, he said it is "not helpful for protecting the community health and economy throughout the state." 

“We're gonna keep working with the folks in the community who are willing to partner with us," Cage said. 

In a joint statement, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Sisolak said the declarations encourage people to defy advice meant to keep people safe, and are non-binding.

"Resolutions like this are mere statements and nothing more. They have no force of law and cannot override the Governor's Emergency Directives, which have been issued under state law and upheld in courts several times," they said. "The Attorney General has spoken with counsel of various municipalities regarding actions such as these, and each counsel has acknowledged that these resolutions have no legal effect."

Cage said that the relationship between local and state governments remains positive, adding that Page has been a vocal advocate for applying necessary mitigation measures and has spoken on the record at the task force meetings about some of the political challenges in the county. 

Lyon County commissioners decided to not include a statement requiring authorities to enforce all regulations put in order by the Lyon County Board of Public Health based on the argument that the sheriff and district attorney have sworn an oath to enforce and uphold the law and that point in the resolution would be redundant. 

Commissioner Robert Jacobson raised the question of whether the resolution would give patrons the right to ignore businesses' requests for masks or social distancing, but Gray assured him that businesses have the right to refuse service. 

The resolution draft also included a $50,000 “Economic Relief Fund” for businesses that have incurred fines, penalties, or legal fees related to the directives, but concerns about using taxpayer money prompted the commissioners to choose a non-county alternative, such as the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, to collect donations to pay businesses’ fines.

“I just want to point out that nowhere in this resolution are we asking anybody to throw their mask away, throw their hand sanitizer away, just open up their doors and act like COVID went away overnight… We're asking you to self govern, take responsibility for yourself,” Lyon County Commissioner Vida Keller said at the meeting. “Nowhere in this resolution are we asking anybody not to take this serious. What we are asking is that we can allow our businesses to get back to some normalcy and we can live our lives.”

The governor’s directives generally require face coverings for all business employees and patrons, limit room occupancy and require a well-sanitized environment. 

According to the Nevada State Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)  dashboard, Lyon County businesses have passed 90 percent of the time that OSHA has inspected them. 

Complaints about Lyon County businesses that were logged with OSHA in the past month include employees and patrons failing to comply with mask mandates, management allowing an employee to go back to work the same day after testing positive for COVID-19 and employers not providing cleaning supplies for a work space. 

Since the passage of the resolution Lyon County officials said that they have received multiple questions and concerns. A statement from county manager Jeff Page clarified that the resolution does not authorize businesses or private citizens to quit following emergency directives or CDC guidelines, and encourages them to comply with the emergency directives.

In December, White Pine County commissioners approved a resolution that declared an economic emergency and became the template for Lyon County’s resolution. It allowed the sheriff and district attorney to use their discretion not to enforce the directives and established a $50,000 county fund to pay the businesses’ fines.

Elko and Eureka County commissioners passed their own resolutions in January, both deeming all independently owned businesses essential and urging the governor to remove restrictions on businesses and discontinue OSHA inspections that might lead to businesses being fined. 

The penalty for willful violations where an employer knowingly failed to comply with OSHA standards is a minimum of $9,639 and a maximum of $136,532. The agency said it still has a duty to enforce safety standards.

“Nevada law requires employers to maintain a workplace free of recognized hazards,” a Nevada OSHA spokesperson said in a statement. “OSHA has a legal obligation to conduct an investigation of these incidents when notified by the employer, employee or third party. The agency will take all available legal steps necessary in order to carry out its statutory duties.”

Sisolak’s spokesperson, Meghin Delaney, said in an emailed statement Friday that the governor shares the same “urgent desire” to overcome the pandemic and return to a sense of normalcy but discourages the resolutions passed.

“Local jurisdictions cannot override the Governor's Emergency Directives and by passing these resolutions, they are creating more confusion and headache for Nevada's businesses, who have shown grit and perseverance in the face of this pandemic,” the statement said.

Megan Messerly contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 12:43 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2021 to include that the resolution was passed and add details from the Lyon County commissioners special meeting. It was updated again at 1:10 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2021 to add comments from Caleb Cage. It was updated again at 3:27 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2021 to include comment from Sisolak's spokesperson, at 5:18 p.m. to include statement from Jeff Page, and at 9:25 on Jan. 30, 2021 to add comment from Attorney General Aaron Ford.

Nevada is looking at more lithium mining. An industry executive talks about a market driven by electric vehicles

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

The number one thing to watch: President Joe Biden’s first 100 days. It goes without saying at this point that what happens in the White House and Congress will have major consequences for environmental, energy and public land policy in Nevada and across the West. 

Already, hours after his Inauguration, Biden signed orders to block the Keystone XL pipeline and re-enter the Paris Agreement. But even as Biden moves the federal government to where many Western states are — at a recognition that climate change is a crisis that must be addressed — there are still many questions to ask. The pressing ones for me: What does a just transition look like? And what role will Nevada play in the transition? A lot to report in the coming weeks.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


When Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered his “State of the State” address on Tuesday, the speech included a section dedicated to “the new energy economy.” The governor, pledging to work on energy legislation, said that Nevada had an “opportunity to become to energy what Wall Street is to finance, or what Silicon Valley is to technology.” 

That, by itself, was not necessarily surprising. It’s the type of line you might expect to hear in a State of the State address. What struck me came a few paragraphs later. Sisolak called out the state’s potential for lithium mining, an ingredient for electric vehicles and batteries, as playing a key role.

For years now, companies and speculators have filed new claims to mine lithium. A rush, some have called it. When I started looking into it back in 2016, what became quickly apparent is that developing a lithium mine can be a long, costly and challenging process, even when there is a growing market. Since then, several projects have inched closer to coming online. 

On Friday, the outgoing Trump administration gave its final approval to the Thacker Pass mine, north of Winnemucca. Ioneer, an Australian-based company, is moving forward with permitting a project, known as Rhyolite Ridge, near Tonopah. Tesla, which is manufacturing electric vehicles at its Gigafactory outside of Reno, said it secured rights to mine lithium in Nevada. Meanwhile, a new firm based in Fernley, American Battery Technology Company, is looking at battery recycling and alternative technologies for lithium extraction.

Developing a project can be a careful balancing act. There is a need for lithium to address climate change, a pressing environmental issue. But at the same time, consumers, companies and activists want to ensure that mining occurs without creating new environmental problems. 

The companies developing the Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge projects have cast themselves as critical to the green energy economy and vital to boosting a much-needed domestic lithium supply, but the two projects have faced criticism for their environmental footprints

All of this comes as demand for lithium is on the rise. As governments look to address climate goals by transitioning to electric vehicles and car manufacturers look to fill in the market, there is a clear need for more lithium. Sisolak and other elected officials see Nevada as playing a major role in securing that supply. 

At the moment, there is only one lithium mine in Nevada, and it’s the only active lithium operation in the U.S. Silver Peak, operated by global lithium company Albemarle, extracts lithium from brine outside of Tonopah. 

Earlier this month, the company announced plans to double lithium output at Silver Peak and explore clay deposits. To learn more about what prompted the decision to increase production, what’s driving the lithium market and Nevada’s role, we spoke to Eric Norris, Albemarle’s president for lithium.

The blur that was 2020 and the pricing issue that developers face: It was only a few months ago that Albemarle announced it would be idling production at Silver Peak because of a drop in demand during the pandemic. About 60 percent of its lithium goes to electric vehicles, with the other portion going into industrial markets — and plants were idling or closing as COVID-19 hit. 

But Norris said “it didn’t take very long, as we got into the latter half of the year, for things to turn around completely.” He said demand in the market is now much tighter. Still, pricing during the pandemic, he said, “fell to levels that were not very attractive.” That presented a challenge for mining projects that still needed to prove to investors that they could make money at low prices. 

“So I think the challenge is pricing has to improve a bit before we can get the kind of investment that’s required in the industry,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that’s starting to recover now.”

The cars are driving the market: Norris said that electric vehicles are “the driver” in the lithium market. Last year, he noted, the industry sold out, so there is a need to bring on more supply to meet demand. This, in turn, is driving increased exploration and mining activity. 

But the supply chain is more complicated than meets the eye. The contractors, in many cases, for a company like Albemarle are cathode and battery manufacturers, not necessarily car manufacturers. What’s more, companies based in other countries, Tesla aside, are ahead of major companies in the United States, in terms of manufacturing electric vehicles. 

Norris said it’s likely that the environment could change, and there could be more incentives for electric vehicle production under a Biden administration.

“Our concern, from a policy standpoint, is that the U.S. isn’t going to be competitive or be a critical industry worldwide, and we would like to see the U.S. be more competitive,” he said.

Norris said the company supports government investments, grants and efforts to bolster domestic manufacturing to expand the electric vehicle industry.

A long-term play in clay? Albemarle’s Silver Peak facility focuses on lithium production from salt brine. But projects in Nevada are also eyeing the extraction of lithium from clay deposits. Although lithium is less concentrated in clay, Albemarle announced that it would begin exploring clay as well. 

Because of the difference in geology, Norris said clay is often “not as economic, and it’s a little more challenging to get the lithium.”

“While it’s present everywhere, it’s very dilute,” he said. “And so nothing that we’re doing can change that, other than technology — and that’s what a number of other companies are looking at as well.” 

What it takes to sell a “green” product: Norris said that Nevada is poised to play a role in lithium production, but he said one challenge projects could face around extracting lithium from clay deposits is managing their environmental footprint. 

“The environmental footprint of the operation and the sustainability of the operation are very important,” he said. “And it almost sounds cliche to say that, but here’s the cold-hard fact on it: We’re selling lithium into a supply chain that’s selling a value proposition around climate change, more responsible greenhouse gas production.”

“You can’t have an operation that consumes gobs of energy, gobs of water and puts off all kinds of greenhouse gases and sell into that value chain,” he added. “Our customers, the automotive producers, want sustainable production. So I think the key is that you need to get a technology that can win in clays that has the right footprint to support the sustainability value-proposition of the industry.”


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Largest mining company sues state: Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest gold mining company, took the state to court last week. Several rural counties joined Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between rivals Barrick and Newmont. They argued that the Legislature acted improperly to pass three resolutions that aimed to amend the Constitution’s mining tax cap. My colleague Riley Snyder has more on the case. 

Biden looks to unravel Trump rollbacks: “President Biden on his first day in office is already taking aim at unraveling some of the Trump administration's most contentious rules, including wetlands protections, water permitting for the oil and gas sector, toxic chemical assessments, and emissions from waste sites,” E.A. Crunden and Hannah Northey write for E&E News.

  • Biden administration announces leadership at the Interior Department: On Wednesday, the administration unveiled its leadership team for the Department of Interior. Given the influence that the agency has in Nevada — managing more than 65 percent of the state’s land — staffing at the agency will be hugely important to watch for everything from Colorado River politics to developing renewables to protections for species like the Greater sage grouse.

Reno blames NV Energy for fire, NV Energy disagrees: Investigators with the city of Reno said high winds and NV Energy’s power lines were to blame for a fire that tore through about 500 acres in and around a Reno neighborhood last year, the Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo reports. The investigation found no signs of “negligence” on the part of the utility, but said an incident involving the power lines likely sparked the blaze. NV Energy said it conducted a separate investigation and found that the likely cause was a runaway campfire.

Revisiting the net metering debate (not that it’s even over): Property Brother and Las Vegas resident Jonathan Scott has made a documentary about efforts by utilities across the country, including in Nevada, to block incentives and measures to expand rooftop solar over the past decade. The Los Angeles Times’ climate scribe, Sammy Roth, did a great Q&A with Scott.

Bundy’s message to Biden: “Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is vowing to once again 'walk towards guns; should the incoming Biden administration attempt to collect on more than two decades of debt from trespass fines and unpaid grazing fees,” E&E News’ Jennifer Yachnin reports.

As I said last week, drought could very well be a big story this year: See here. And see here.

Lawyers battle over lawsuit seeking halt to mining tax hike proposals

Efforts to qualify a 2022 ballot question amending the state’s constitutional tax cap on mining could be effectively halted through a lawsuit that could be decided just weeks before the start of the 2021 Legislature.

Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson said on Thursday that he’ll take the request to halt the proposed constitutional amendment under advisement, after attorneys representing the Legislature, secretary of state, mining companies and a handful of small rural counties spent nearly three and a half hours locked in oral arguments.

Wilson gave no indication as to how he might rule, but asked attorneys to submit any requested changes to draft proposed orders by Tuesday at noon — a hint that a ruling could come next week.

The original case was filed by Lander County in early September and challenges the trio of proposed constitutional amendments raising the state’s 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of mineral taxes set in the state Constitution. Several additional rural counties with significant mining industries — Elko, Lander, Pershing and White Pine — joined on to the lawsuit, and the case was consolidated with a similar claim brought by Nevada Gold Mines (the joint mining venture between Barrick and Newmont).

Although the proposed constitutional amendments would affect the mining tax rate, arguments on Thursday focused almost exclusively on the legislative process — whether state lawmakers violated constitutional rules and requirements during the 2020 special session when the proposed constitutional changes were passed.

The request from the rural counties and mining conglomerate would throw a wrench in plans to increase the rate of mining taxes, essentially re-setting the five-year clock normally required for proposed constitutional amendments, which need to pass out of subsequent legislative sessions before heading to a statewide vote for final approval. If the 2021 Legislature passes any of the three resolutions, they’ll proceed to the 2022 midterm election.

Lawmakers during the 2020 special session considered and ultimately passed several proposals that would increase taxation rates for the mining industry — a longtime goal of progressives, who say the industry has had a “sweetheart” deal baked into the Constitution since the state was founded in 1864. 

Todd Bice, an attorney representing Nevada Gold Mines, said during the hearing that the resolutions were improperly passed because issues related to mining taxation were not explicitly noted in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s call for a policy-focused special legislative session.

Instead, lawmakers relied on a legal opinion authored by the nonpartisan Legislative Counsel Bureau stating that the constitutional language around special sessions only limits lawmakers on “bills,” and otherwise allows them to draft, vote and adopt resolutions, including those intended to amend the Constitution.

Although the specific wording of the constitutional provisions regarding special sessions was modified through a 2012 ballot question, Bice said that lawmakers were engaged in a “naked power grab” by over-broadly interpreting their powers during a special session beyond what the Constitution allows.

“They've now resorted to a super technical argument about what the word bill means, and so now the word bill has suddenly become to mean only legislation, not joint resolutions and so therefore we can do anything that's not technically a bill during a special session,” he said during the hearing. “That is simply not serious. Respectfully, the Legislature knows better.”

But Solicitor General Craig Newby, representing the secretary of state's office, said that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it was more focused on the “prospect of a future problem” rather than an actual, existing controversy.

“Nothing happens until the Legislature chooses to adopt any or all of these potential amendments. There's nothing here that’s ripe.”

Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers said both plaintiffs lacked standing — counties are limited in what kinds of litigation they can file against the state, and the mining conglomerate was similarly limited because the resolutions have not yet gone into effect — meaning outside of potential future harm, the only adverse effect on the business would be potentially more political or lobbying costs, not an increase in their tax burden.

“We are essentially at legislative halftime, waiting for the proposed amendments to be considered by the (2021) Legislature,” he said. “We are smack dab at an intermediate middle stage of the process.”

But Bice — who also argued that the legislative attorneys had mishandled a constitutional deadline requiring proposed amendments be published for three months prior to the next general election — said his clients were in fact injured because they needed to extend “political capital” during the upcoming legislative session to defeat the resolutions.

He also said it would be “backward” if the Legislature was limited to what kinds of bills lawmakers could take up during a special session but had otherwise unfettered ability to pass resolutions or proposed constitutional changes, a process that normally requires more deliberation.

“Special sessions are supposed to arise from extraordinary occasions,” he said. “Something that is unforeseen, that needs immediate attention, that can't wait until the next legislative session. Constitutional amendments, on the other hand...are the opposite. They are supposed to be handled in a very methodical fashion.”

In a small, rural school reside big hopes for Nevada’s Native students

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms. The project is made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.


Before class on a warm and sunny December morning, eight kindergarten students at Schurz Elementary School listened quietly as the Shoshone Indian Flag song played over their computer screens. 

The lyrics, translated to English from the Shoshone language, mean, “Across the big water, the red, white and blue is fluttering in the wind. War spear thrown in the ground by a foreign water.”

This is how students begin their virtual school day on the Walker River reservation, which spans 325,000 acres across the Nevada desert, east of Yerington and north of Hawthorne. Surrounded by mountains, the river valley is home to a little more than 1,000 people. And 69 of the 72 students who attend Schurz Elementary School, which sits on the reservation, are American Indian.

The school’s principal, Lance West, who’s filling in for a teacher on medical leave, waits for the song to finish before diving into traditional academics: studying the alphabet, identifying nouns and reading with partners. 

The school operates on a hybrid schedule in response to the pandemic, with some students learning in person at school and others connected virtually from home, split into morning and afternoon sessions. On this morning, West is in the classroom speaking to a computer screen, with the kindergarteners’ faces staring back at him.

Schurz Elementary School Principal Lance West teaches kindergarteners, who are distance learning, sight words on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The small, empty room looks like most kindergarten classrooms, full of colorful wall art, rugs with numbers and letters, miniature tables and chairs fit for 5-year-olds. But a tribal drum and a poster depicting Native American children, adults and elders distinguish the space as a classroom on a Native reservation. 

The public school, which is part of the Mineral County School District, is about two hours southeast of Reno. The remote location jibes with a 2010 Civil Rights Project report, which found that American Indian students are more likely to attend school in rural areas than non-Native students. Additionally, about a third of Native students nationwide attend schools in which at least half the student population is American Indian.

A poster in the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom shows a Native American community. (Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/The Nevada Independent)

Of the school’s six teachers, four are Native American, five if you count Principal West. 

Although he is an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, West grew up in this community on the Walker River reservation, his family split between the two tribes and reservations. He once sat in the same miniature seats as the ones in this classroom.

His path to the principal gig on Walker River reservation wasn’t direct. He lived and taught in schools across Northern Nevada — in Reno, Fort McDermitt and Spring Creek — for 17 years before returning to the reservation. He came with a singular goal of improving education for the young Native people in his community, and therefore contributing to the community at large, and for the long run. 

“No one's fighting for us,” West said. “Well, hard enough. So that's kind of where my push is now, and everywhere I go, I'm always talking about Indian education.” 

But improving education for Native students is a daunting task for a single person to tackle, weighed down by historical disparities that cannot be resolved or remedied overnight. Nationally and statewide, American Indian students have low graduation rates, high dropout rates, low math and reading proficiency scores and often don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers, many of whom are white.  

Principal Lance West inside the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

It’s a situation, West said, built on years of systemic racism — the same racism behind federal boarding schools, where young Native children were separated from their families and forced to assimilate into American culture and society. Consider what Indian School Secretary John B. Riley said in 1886:

“Education affords the true solution to the Indian problem … only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.”

More than a century later, Native students still find themselves facing prejudice in other forms, West said.

“There’s a good ol’ boy system that exists and the system is not designed, never was designed for minorities or people of color to be fully successful as they should be,” West said. “There is a racist system, if we’re speaking clearly, particularly toward American Indian populations. Our kids, they’re minimized.” 

He’s on a mission to change that. His journey just happens to coincide with a tumultuous period in the history of the nation’s K-12 education system, which has been rattled by the pandemic. 

***

In Nevada, there are almost 4,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s the smallest ethnic group. By comparison, Nevada’s school systems include more than 7,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, 26,000 Asian students, 56,000 Black students, 209,000 Hispanic students and 144,000 white students.

Nationally, American Indian and Alaskan Native students make up a little more than 1 percent of public school students, or approximately 644,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 90 percent of all Native students attend public schools, and about 8 percent attend schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, under the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

There are 183 schools across the country in 23 states funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, including two in Nevada — a junior and senior high school on the Pyramid Lake reservation north of Reno and an elementary school on the Duckwater reservation south of Eureka. Other schools governed by local districts and the Nevada Department of Education — like Schurz Elementary School — educate a large share of Native students.

Improving education for these students is the priority for Nevada Native leaders, such as West, who say they cannot rely on local, state or federal organizations to take the initiative. 

“I think that the topic, the issue of education in Indian Country, in Nevada, has always been near the bottom. It's always been in someone else's hands, but at the same time those other people's hands don't have our best interests in mind, because they have their own,” West said. 

Mineral County students trail their peers in other districts when it comes to academic achievement. During the 2018-2019 school year — the most recent year of testing data — only 23 percent of Mineral County students were proficient in math and 39 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. Statewide, 37 percent of students hit proficiency benchmarks for math, while 48 percent did the same for English Language Arts. 

At Schurz Elementary School, the achievement gap is even more visible. When 20 students in grades three through sixth took statewide standardized tests in 2019, none of them met proficiency benchmarks for math, and only 10 percent did for English Language Arts.

Nevada mountains are visible from the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom, including Thanksgiving decorations made by students, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Of the more than 500 students in the Mineral County School District, 76 are American Indian or Alaskan Native. 

Nationally, 19 percent of American Indian and 25 percent of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students tested at or above proficiency levels in reading compared to 57 percent of Asian students and 45 percent of white students, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress

The achievement gap is also reflected in disparities in graduation and dropout rates. 

Nevada’s overall graduation rate saw a dip this year, and American Indian students consistently have lower graduation rates than most other racial groups besides Black students. In 2018, nearly 80 percent of American Indian students in Nevada graduated, followed by a drop in 2019 and 2020, when 74 percent of American Indian students graduated both years. That mirrors national graduation rate trends in recent years.

Native students are underrepresented in graduation rates, and overrepresented in dropout rates. In 2018, among students ages 16 to 24, American Indian students had the highest national dropout rate: 10 percent of students, compared to 4.8 percent of white students. 

The situation creates a natural ripple effect for post-secondary education. Of the more than 600 people over the age of 25 living on the Walker River reservation, an estimated 86 percent have completed high school, but only 5.7 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The academic disparities contribute to cycles of poverty on reservations, where unemployment rates are high and rates of home ownership are low. 

Prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate on the Walker River reservation stood at 22 percent, while the statewide unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in December 2019. 

Additionally, the median household income for the reservation from 2015 to 2019 was a little more than $30,000, while the median household income in Nevada was double that, at more than $60,000 during the same time period. Of all families living on the reservation, an estimated 39 percent live below the poverty level, including nearly 57 percent of families with school-age children. 

Entering Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95"Entering Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Other troubling disparities linked to low graduation and high dropout rates include higher than average incarceration and suicide rates among Native youth. 

The academic, economic and mental health disparities among the Native population are historical and decades-long. Native leaders acknowledge the reality of these disparities, but to pave a way forward, they want to shift the focus from the disparities, which some say have created harmful stereotypes, to solutions, visibility and empowerment. 

In 2018, principal West created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group to boost conversations about and support for Native teachers.  Since then, West has focused on reaching out to other Native educators across the state to join him and build a strong foundation, which includes compiling the research and data necessary to make progress. 

Last year, the group also released a report analyzing factors that contribute to low academic achievement among Native students. Among the challenges: opportunity gaps, systemic racism, low teacher expectations and qualifications, and a lack of culturally relevant curriculum addressing Native history and generational trauma.

“Society’s narrative of us revolves around the Deficit Ideology,” the report states. “... This ideology generalizes disparities such as poverty, alcoholism, at-risk students. We have intentionally left out those reasons for low academic achievement of our students out. They play a role, but to emphasize them would propagate stereotypes and labeling.”

The fence surrounding Schurz Elementary School features the school's mascot as seen on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

***

The pandemic, of course, added a new wrinkle in Native leaders’ quest to dramatically improve education. But it wasn’t all bad.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has generally intensified existing disparities, both West and Schurz Elementary School teacher Kellie Harry said the school’s response to the pandemic helped bridge the technology gap, making the learning material more accessible for students and their families. 

“Nobody’s missing anything,” said Harry, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders. 

Prior to the pandemic, 80 percent of households on the Walker River reservation had a computer, but only 60 percent had access to broadband internet service. Now, every single family with a student has a computer or a Chromebook and internet access. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe received more than $20 million from the CARES Act and put some of those funds toward ensuring students would have what they needed to distance learn from home. Tribal members can also apply to receive $1,000 monthly stipends to help cushion the economic blow caused by the pandemic and help pay for the internet service. 

The fiscal cliff — a Dec. 31 deadline for using CARES Act funding — had worried Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. If that money suddenly went away, she wondered how families would be able to maintain internet service during distance learning.

“We don’t have that kind of money lying around to continue to pay for these homes,” she said.

But the news that Congress approved a $900 billion relief bill on Dec. 21 brought some welcome mental relief to Torres and other tribal leaders. Torres described the legislation, which was signed by the president and includes money for expanding broadband services, as “an absolute win for not only Nevada but Indian Country as a whole.”

From a day-to-day learning standpoint, though, Harry said the most challenging part of the pandemic was familiarizing the students and parents to the new technology.

“The hardest transition was just getting everybody on board with the online and feeling comfortable. I think there was a lot of hesitancy and a lot of fear on the home front, like, ‘Wait, how do we get on the internet? How do we use the computer or the online platforms? Or what's the login and what's this?’ I think that was the most difficult part, and then just streamlining that.” 

Several months later, after acclimating to the new learning model, Harry has seen greater academic equity in her classroom.

“Now our students are at an equal playing field. This brought equity to our school, distance learning did — getting everybody on the internet, getting everybody on a Chromebook and having them be required to do the work that other five-star schools or other schools are doing,” she said. 

Schurz Elementary School teacher Kellie Harry instructs fifth and sixth grade students. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The new technology skills, she said, will pay dividends down the road as students enter junior high and beyond. Harry added that she’s not worried about a lag in academic performance among her distance-learning students. 

“The performance is the same. I have a lot of distance learners who are outpacing and keeping up and have made a lot of growth on their math scores and keeping up with all the coursework just as easily as if they were right here,” she said. 

Older students appear to have struggled more with online learning. When students graduate from Schurz Elementary School, which goes through sixth grade, they can choose what neighboring school district to attend for upper grades. For students on the Walker River reservation, that’s typically schools in Hawthorne or Yerington, although some go farther north to Pyramid Lake. 

Yerington High School, which is in the Lyon County School District, employs a college career coach — with the help of a federal grant — who works exclusively with Native students, said Wayne Workman, the district’s superintendent. When the Lyon County School District began the 2020-2021 academic year, only select student groups received in-person instruction five days a week. Those groups included children in kindergarten through second grade as well as students in special-education programs, learning English as a second language or experiencing homelessness. 

The decision boiled down to space constraints while operating under COVID-19 safety guidelines, Workman said. All other students were split into cohorts that rotate between a week of in-person learning followed by a week of online learning. 

But more than a quarter of Lyon County students opted to remain in distance-education mode, giving schools more flexibility to expand in-person instruction, Workman said. So by early October, Yerington High School started welcoming back Native students full time after noticing the hybrid model wasn’t working well for them.

“If they’re here, I can motivate them to continue on a successful path,” said Gerald Hunter, college and career coach at Yerington High School. “If they’re home, I’m competing with TV, food, babysitting duties, other things.”

Yerington High School has 398 students, including 74 who are Native American, in ninth- through 12th-grade. Hunter, who’s in his fourth year serving as the college and career coach, has watched discipline and truancy problems fall among Native students, while seeing their academic achievement improve. Last year, 70 percent of the school’s Native students maintained at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

The majority of Native students chose to return to in-person instruction five days a week, Hunter said, and their grades have improved as a result. Some Native students remain in distance education, though, because of health concerns amid the pandemic.

While Hunter’s presence has helped boost academic achievement levels among Native students, Workman said, it hasn’t been a cure-all. Providing extra supports simply doesn’t reverse history and longstanding inequities that have led to Native students trailing their peers academically.

“We could talk for hours as to reasons why that might be the case,” he said. “For goodness sakes — how we treated our Native populations forever in our history has led to a lot of distrust.”

Back on the reservation, Harry is hoping Schurz Elementary School can preserve its pandemic-triggered 1-to-1 technology ratio for students that’s proven to help ensure the quality of education for her students. The great unknown, though, is how the school, like others across the state, will fare during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. 

“It’s just keeping what we have,” Principal West said, "especially with the budget cuts coming.”

***

Schurz Elementary School fifth-grade student Suiti Sanchez watches a video during class on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Despite the grim circumstances caused by the pandemic and an already slashed state education budget, West isn’t limiting his goals and vision for the future of Native education. 

When he created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group, West had four goals — to boost education awareness among the community, advocate for Indigenous education professionals, enhance recruitment and mentorship for Indigenous educators and revitalize and preserve Native language.

The 2020 Indigenous Educators Empowerment report offers recommendations for how to get there, such as advocating for more funding, bolster tribal and state leader involvement in efforts to improve education and establish scholarships for tribal members interested in becoming teachers.

But West said everything hinges on more data and recordkeeping.  

Native students belong to what Native leaders call the “Asterisk Nation,” because of the population’s small sample size, American Indians are commonly left out of research and data collection. 

“The data is lacking,” said West. “How do you expect us to address education and seek that improvement that has never ever really been a focus if we don’t have accurate information?” 

Armed with more reliable data, Native leaders such as West can provide benchmarks and guidance for state and federal agencies in regards to allocating funding and other resources for Native students. Increased data will also make Native students, their communities and the issues they face more visible.

Long-term goals also include efforts to exercise educational sovereignty, specifically, by establishing a tribal charter school on the reservation, beginning with younger children and eventually expanding to serve students through high school. With a charter school, the tribe and educational leaders could take full ownership and control of what their students learn and how they learn it — sovereignty. 

The other goal is to establish “Indian Education for All” as state law, meaning the state would require Native history and culture to be included in the curriculum for all grades in public schools. 

A poster featuring a Native woman and a list of verbs translated from English to Paiute hang on the cabinets of a classroom in Schurz Elementary School. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

West has already started down that path at Schurz Elementary School, where the curriculum includes more Nevada Native history, to ensure the students learn about their identity in a positive and empowering way. He’s also made it a point to recruit more Native educators to build the representation for the Native students. 

“Our Indian kids here need to see more of themselves reflected in the classroom and they need to see Native teachers,” West said. 

West recruited Harry, who was previously teaching in the Washoe County School District at Depoali Middle School in South Reno, two years ago. Harry is an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe as well, but half of her family grew up on the Walker River reservation. Now, a majority of the school’s teachers are Native. 

“If there's a chance to get back and contribute, that's what I think our life's journey is about,” Harry said. “Our purpose, mine anyways, as teachers, we want to give back and contribute. So that's what brought me here to Schurz.” 

Less than 1 percent of educators nationwide and in Nevada are American Indian or Alaskan Native. Harry said the representation she provides for her students helps create a sense of safety in the classroom. 

“I think that it's beyond words and beyond impactful for the students to have a Native teacher. And that's why I did not hesitate to come out here. It was really hard to leave where I was, I had to move my family and my kids, but I would not have ever second-guessed coming here because of the unique situation and what I'm able to provide and contribute.” 

Kellie Harry and her two students, Suiti Sanchez and Kameron Gonzales, stand outside their classroom on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

In the last two quarters, Harry has incorporated lessons about the history of voting rights for Native people, Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day and what it means to her students to be Native American. Her curriculum is more timely and relevant than the Native American history and imagery in textbooks, which usually focus on events prior to 1900, according to a 2015 study, thus contributing to the erasure of the modern presence of Native communities. 

Harry recently asked her students to complete a written exercise exploring their Native identity. Their responses, submitted in late November, highlighted Native language, traditional dress, ceremonial events, such as pine-nut gathering, hunting and basket-weaving. 

But the students didn’t just write about these things in the past tense — and, as far as tribal leaders are concerned, that’s evidence of educational progress.

“We are proud people by showing respect to family and friends,” wrote one student, Suiti Sanchez, 10. “We honor our ancestors by keeping our traditions alive. We respect elders by learning our language and by passing our traditions to others.”

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Updated on Jan. 11, 2021 at 9:07 p.m. to correct the amount Walker River Paiute tribal members could apply to receive monthly.