My life’s journey has taken me to places I never imagined. I was born in a rural village in the state of Guanajuato, México. At the age of eight, I began the backbreaking work of a migrant worker.
Riding in the back of a pickup truck early in the morning on the way to a job site, I remember looking out through the slats and seeing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I wondered what it would be like to touch those beautiful mountains. Compared to the miserable migrant camps where I lived, I thought that the Sierra Nevada must be what heaven is like.
Against all odds, I went from being a migrant farm worker to graduating from high school, to working as a salesman, to getting my first job at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1984. This was where I found my life’s work: helping to manage America’s public lands. I served at the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 30 years and ended my career in Utah as the BLM’s State Director.
I’m still passionate about raising awareness of the opportunities we have to protect and care for our public lands. I am particularly excited about a bill authored by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Representative Dina Titus: the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act. This legislation is the largest conservation bill in Nevada’s history and would protect over two million acres of public lands.
It would expand Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by over 50,000 acres, a place beloved by Nevadans. These public lands are just a few miles west of Las Vegas. Visitors are often amazed that - so close to an urban city - they can quickly become immersed in a Joshua tree and Yucca forest. And once you’re there, you can check out the over two dozen trails and opportunities for hiking, biking, climbing, camping, photography, and more.
The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act would also permanently protect the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge outside of Alaska. Have you explored these special lands yet? At 1.6 million acres, the Refuge could cover Rhode Island twice - and still have enough room left over for 250,000 Allegiant Stadium football fields! It includes everything from mountain ranges to desert woodlands and coniferous forests, and these lands are critically important for wildlife like the Desert Tortoise.
The bill would also designate and permanently protect the Mount Stirling area, public lands with canyons, ridges and forests located west of Las Vegas and near the very popular Mount Charleston Wilderness. Visitors can see spectacular views from Mount Stirling as well as fossil formations and petroglyph sites.
I’ve found that many people do not know that the mountains around Las Vegas are public lands for everyone to enjoy. After all, I did not know this until I was almost 30! But through my work with the USFS and the BLM, I learned how important these places are; they provide a place for families and children to picnic or relax under the shade of a tree, for friends to reconnect during a hike, for veterans to experience the healing powers of spending time in nature.
Also important is the habitat that these lands provide to the many animals and plants that live in these deserts and mountains. The Desert National Wildlife Refuge, for example, is full of life. These lands are home to 500 plant species, 320 bird species, and 53 mammal species, including the iconic desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and collared lizards. Many animals also call Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area home - from Cooper’s Hawk, to Sagebrush Lizards, Mule Deer, Grey Foxes and more.
Only in America could a migrant boy from Mexico grow up to manage the far-off mountains I admired from the tomato fields where I worked. America’s public lands have changed my life and I continue to pass the torch and legacy of public land stewardship to my children and grandchildren. Together, all of us can pass the largest conservation bill in Nevada’s history, preserving a public land heritage for generations to come.
Perhaps there is a young Nevadan looking out towards the Las Vegas mountains right now and thinking how beautiful they look. I want our public lands to be protected for the next generation to experience and be inspired by. With the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act we can make that happen.
Juan Palma is the former State Director for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah