400 feet of NIMBY?

Or is there something essential about Searchlight’s anti-wind-farm sentiment?

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak moderates during a Searchlight Town Hall Meeting about a proposed wind energy project at the Searchlight Community Center Thursday, June 25, 2009.
Photo: Leila Navidi

At Searchlight Community Center on a blazing hot weekday, there’s one car, and it belongs to the woman running the center. “Everybody Welcome” says the sign, but it’s quiet, the kind of quiet that stretches for desert miles. Inside, there’s a handwritten note on the door of UMC’s Searchlight Clinic: “Closed today. Nurse at Laughlin clinic.” I walk into another room and find a museum. Opening the door triggers a voice recording telling me about Searchlight’s mining history; the hollow tone amplifies the emptiness of this place, which makes me love it more.

There is nothing going on here. That’s precisely why, when Duke Energy announced plans to put a $600 million wind-energy project in and around Searchlight, residents gathered to oppose it, saying giant windmills would interfere in their quality of life. The 140 windmills would be 400 feet tall—an army of lumbering turbines screaming out news not only of our green energy future but of a whole busy life beyond the trailers and weeds, buckets and scrap metal, mysterious tarp-covered objects, rusty things and wagon wheels. Lots and lots of yard-ornament wagon wheels.

The quality of life in Searchlight—a town best known as the rags-to-riches home of Sen. Harry Reid—is excellent. It is charmless. It’s anchored by the modest Searchlight Nugget Casino and a standard Terrible Herbst. It’s home to fewer than 1,000 people and is buttressed by hallucination-blah desert on all horizons. It lacks the sidewalks and cafes and tchotchke shops of other historical western towns. In fact, it doesn’t have much in the way of manufactured visual appeal at all, relying instead on the allure of the occasional American flag planted in a dry yard. And yet, the loud NIMBY response to the North Carolina energy company’s plans to change the dominant aesthetic is a delightful reminder that sometimes nothingness is preferred to the flash of progress.

Town Board Member Bill Bodkin, who happened to be standing in the Nugget when I finished a slice of peach pie in the cafe, said, “We like the small-town atmosphere.” He asked me to have a seat at an empty poker table to chat.


From the Archives
There's wind in them thar hills (7/24/09)

“If I thought windmills would be our salvation or lower our electric bills, that’d be one thing—but we won’t even receive the money. What’s it in for Searchlight? Absolutely nothing.” Duke Energy predicts that after a temporary boon in construction jobs, it will only need about a dozen technicians to run the power site.

“And it’s where they’re going to put [the windmills]. Right down the road toward the lake,” he says, shaking his head, no. Lake Mohave is the main recreation site out here. The drive to it is pristine, except for the power lines—which apparently we’ve learned to edit out of our scenery-appreciation (a necessary skill should the project be completed as planned in 2011).

Although Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak and Reid support the proposed project—green energy, development, etc.—the locals, some of them third-generation residents, make an important point about the West by opposing it. Sure, this is land that was settled by the desire for riches and progress. But along with that came an appreciation for a quality of life set in great swaths of nothingness. A place to be away from the din of current events; a place where charm is not based on what outsiders see.

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