The artist and the senator: One built a desert masterpiece, the other a Nevada legacy

When Sen. Harry Reid heard about a reclusive artist building a massive land sculpture across desolate acres in the Nevada desert, he knew they should meet.

It’s not just that Reid enjoys eccentrics and fighters, which he does. Michael Heizer had found an unusual way to express the majesty — and artistry — of the same lonely Nevada landscape that formed Reid’s childhood, when he would escape the dismal, rugged conditions of tiny Searchlight to play in the desert’s hidden springs and abandoned fortresses.

Both men discovered in Nevada what many outsiders miss. Far from seeing a nuclear wasteland, a dumping site or even a playground for gamblers, they drew inspiration from Nevada’s quiet beauty.

Heizer created an American masterpiece — a mile-long complex of dirt, rock and cement rising from the desert floor like modern-day pyramids or the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.

For Reid, his appreciation for Nevada’s unique landscape became a cornerstone of one of the most lasting yet less-familiar piecesof his political legacy.

The senator ends his lengthy career in Congress known mostly as the crusty Democratic leader who helped broker President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishments and established a new standard for the partisan brawls of Washington.

Back home, Reid will be remembered for literally rewriting of the map of Nevada, fostering a public lands conservation movement that has helped redefine the Silver State.

Not surprisingly, the senator orchestrated the preservation of Heizer’s stunning land art, “City,” personally appealing to Obama to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim the installation and 700,000 surrounding acres protected as a national monument.

“What Michael Heizer has done is about as visionary as anything that one can imagine,” Reid said recently. “It’ll be there for a long time. It’s going to be there forever.”

But also on Reid’s watch, Nevada’s protected public lands have grown from 67,000 acres of wilderness at the start of his career to more than 4 million acres of new parks, wilderness areas and open spaces today.

Shortly after Reid was elected to Congress in 1982, the small state was on track to become the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

As he prepares to leave Jan. 2, the dump site 90 miles north of Las Vegas is a shuttered hole in the mountain thanks to Reid’s advocacy, and the state has instead become a laboratory for solar, wind and geothermal energy development.

And the senator is not finished yet. Reid has asked Obama to set aside one more swath in Nevada – the 350,000 acres of rugged Gold Butte, situated between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon —  for protection.

Obama could announce the new national monument at Gold Butte, not far from renegade rancher Cliven Bundy’s land, before he leaves office.

“His mark permanently will be visible,” said Neil Kornze, a Nevada native and former Reid aide whom the senator helped elevate to director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “We’ll always have his efforts with us.”

Reid’s public lands agenda unfolded slowly and methodically over the decades, but had its start when he was a child in desolate, dusty Searchlight.