Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who died on Tuesday at the age of 82, is remembered for his pugnacious political style and for backing Democratic causes over the years. A lesser-known part of his legacy—one that’s arguably just as enduring as his political feats—is his campaign to preserve Nevada land that is host to a famed Michael Heizer Land artwork.
After more than 40 years in limbo, Heizer finished his magnum opus, City, in the Nevada desert in 2020 with Reid’s help. Spanning more than a mile and a half long and formatted in style of pre-Columbian ceremonial metropolises, City is a totemic structure composed of rocks and debris mined from the site’s Garden Valley. Heizer envisioned the work as something that could outlast human intervention in the surrounding environment and become something like an archaeological site for the future generations.
One of the most influential artists of the Land art movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Heizer started working on City in 1972 while still in his 20s. Like his colleagues Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, Heizer often harnessed the potential of sprawling vacant spaces in the American West and sought to create minimal structures on a maximal scale. He was fascinated by immensity of the Nevada desert, where Reid had found solace while growing up in the remote town of Searchlight.
Located near an Air Force base and a nuclear test site, in an area that had long been eyed by developers, City faced an uncertain future. Heizer bought up acres in the Garden Valley to build the imagined complex in the 1970s, but construction eventually stalled out when funding for the project ran low. In the1990s, art world figures got involved, with Michael Govan, then the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, campaigning to raise a majority of the $17 million needed to complete City. It was clear, however, that Heizer was going to have to search elsewhere, too, for help.
Meanwhile, threats to the land on which City was already sited were looming. In the early ’00s, lawmakers introduced a plan to use the land surrounding the artwork to build a rail line termed the “Glow Train.” Trains running along the line were to transport nuclear waste to a repository at the nearby Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas. The government also considered using the area as a launch site for the Peacekeeper, an experimental missile that was scuttled amid disarmament treaties in 2005.
An advocate for preserving the Garden and Coal Valleys, Reid was a noted opponent of the “Glow Train” plan, which would allow the empty areas between Nye and Lincoln Counties, where City was to be located, to potentially become a waste site. After becoming aware of Heizer’s project and visiting it in 2007, Reid was enthralled by Heizer’s embrace of the Nevada landscape’s unaltered majesty. It was, for the Democratic senator, an antidote to the idea of the valley as an untapped ground for the military and developers.
In 2015, Reid helped usher in a landmark proclamation issued by President Barack Obama that protected more than 700,000 acres of the land surrounding City. The law, decried by some Republican lawmakers, made City a part of the Basin and Range National Monument. It protected the artwork from ever being destroyed and ended proposed attempts to building a nuclear rail line in its place. By the end of Reid’s political tenure, during which he also supported more conservative-leaning pro-life and pro-gun policies, around 85 percent of Nevada’s land became federally owned, ensuring that it would be protected from oil drilling and mining.
City was not the only significant work that Reid helped protect—Native American works, including rock art at the Shooting Gallery, where prehistoric rock carvings are still visible, were also saved. But Reid always spoke most highly of Heizer’s contribution to the Nevada landscape. In 2015, Reid described City as a feat “as visionary as anything that one can imagine.”