A conversation with Nevada’s 29th governor.


Photo: Guy Clifton

Brian Edward Sandoval was elected Nevada’s 29th governor in 2010. Due to term limitations, he will re­enter the private sector when the state’s soon-to-be-elected 30th governor takes office in January 2019.

It may shock some folks to know that Governor Sandoval was not born in Nevada, for as soon as you meet him, you recognize he is the quintessential Nevadan. Fiercely loyal and proud of the state he says he’ll live in forever, Governor Sandoval has forgotten more about Nevada history than most of us will ever learn. He’s covered just about every inch of this state, most of it before he ever became our governor. He graduated from Bishop Manogue High School in Reno; earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno; and has been a public servant in Nevada since 1994.

Governor Sandoval and I sat down for an interview in September, but the formality of the meeting slipped away as the governor started reminiscing about his time in office.

Photo: Guy Clifton

“I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to serve as governor,” he says. “This is a really unique position where you can influence public policy on a daily basis in education, tourism, wildlife, energy, infrastructure, health care, education…I could go on and on.”

The topics of economic development and diversifying our economy came up quickly; Sandoval took office as Nevada was feeling the brunt of the recession, and the issues have been mainstays of his administration. Tourism has been one of the state’s leading revenue drivers and Sandoval promoted its diversification, something that came naturally to him.

“I love the outdoors, and I love museums. I’ve always been a student of history. It was unimaginable to me that given we were in the most difficult economic situation our state has ever been in, we had closed state parks and we had limited museum hours. To me, museums and outdoor opportunities are the underpinnings of a great state and a great society,” he says.

“When I came on,” he continues, “one of the first new hires was [former tourism director] Claudia Vecchio, and I really give her a lot of credit for developing and building the “Don’t Fence Me In” campaign. I really think it captured the essence of Nevada.”

Photo: Guy Clifton

“‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is the embodiment of that Nevada spirit and how we enjoy our freedom in the outdoors and the ability to explore. It’s not only part of my personal love for the state but also had a lot to do with my initiative to visit all the state parks. No other governor has done that,” he says, proudly. “It was also a real inspiration for me to develop the two new state parks.”

The governor had just opened Ice Age Fossils State Park (formerly called Tule Springs) in Las Vegas, and would the next day attend the opening of the Walker River State Recreation Area, so he eagerly shared what makes each place so unique.

“When you come to Las Vegas, you wouldn’t imagine that there’s a place that’s so accessible—I mean it’s across the street from Shadow Ridge High School—that has the fossils of saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves, wooly mammoths, buffalos, horses, and more,” he says of Ice Age Fossils State Park.

“The park really captures what’s out there and makes it more attractive for people to come and visit. When you first look at it, you don’t see it,” he says of the area. “Now it’s going to be interpreted; there’s going to be a visitor center, and there’s going to be walking paths. It will have life-size structures of the animals so you can get an idea of the scale of those animals at the time. I really believe it’s going to be a destination for people who come to Las Vegas.”

When asked what was so important about the Walker River State Recreation Area, the governor takes a moment before answering.

“I suppose I don’t have words. I’m overwhelmed about the opportunity for the people of this state and for generations to come, and I’ve said this publicly; you would have basically had to be [explorer] John C. Fremont to have access to that area,” he says, referring to the land that was privately owned before the state acquired it last year. “Now you have access to 32 miles of the east fork of the Walker River where you can canoe, paddleboard, fish, access campsites from the river and nowhere else, and you have three historic ranches to enjoy.”

Photo: Kippy S. Spilker

“My staff laughs at me when I say this, but you’ll essentially have a free-range zoo where you can see antelope, deer, and turkey. I’ve seen petroglyphs, too. Probably my favorite part of it all is the home that was occupied for a short time by Mark Twain. That is the visitor’s center. It’s being restored as we speak. There’s so many great things about the park, but the solitude out there, where if you want to be alone with your thoughts, you can do that as well.”

Governor Sandoval’s travels outside Nevada offered him the opportunity to talk up some of his favorite subjects.

“I’ve had the privilege of leading 15 trade missions so I’ve been to every continent but Antarctica, and of course wherever you go, everyone knows about Las Vegas, and most everyone knows about Lake Tahoe,” he says. “But what I really like to talk about when I’m on the road is the authenticity of Nevada—the Native Americans, the cowboys, the ranchers, the miners, and the people who live in rural Nevada. That’s one reason it was so important to me to invest in Stewart Indian School. There’s a really important history out there—and not always a proud one—but it’s important.”

“We’re going to have a visitor center at Stewart Indian School and a cultural center. We basically put a new roof on the old gym and it’s my intention to put it in the budget to completely restore that gym so it can be more of a conference center for big groups.”

“To have Stewart Indian School, which is literally a one of a kind—that is that accessible and preserved—is another special opportunity for Nevada.”

Surprisingly in all his travels, the governor still has items on his Nevada roadtrip bucket list.

“I want to go to Angel Lake. I’ve never been there. And I want to go back to Wheeler Peak, because we almost made it to the top but it was too windy. One of my favorite things to do is to camp up there, and to see the stars at night because there’s no light pollution. But I want to complete that hike,” he says, laughing.

“I’ve really made a concerted effort,” he continues talking about the places he’s most fond of. “The vehicle that I have, we’ve put more than 200,000 miles on it in seven years. I intentionally drive because we like to stop in the small towns.”

Nevada’s pride is a recurring theme with the governor. From Nevada Day to our almost-pathological need to correct people’s pronunciation, Nevadans are fiercely proud, and Governor Sandoval is no exception.

Photo: Kippy S. Spilker

“This is a special place, and Nevadans are tough, and they’re diverse, and they’re very proud. It was a hardscrabble beginning and I think that’s something that’s stayed with us, and we’ve had to fight for everything we get. We punch well above our weight,” he says, with a very broad smile.

“I think people respect that, and they respect what we’ve done here. When you have a state that is 86 percent federal land,” he trails off, smiling. “We’ve really made the most out of what we have.”

“When you see 40,000 or 50,000 people lining the streets on Nevada Day for the parade or when we have an open house at the governor’s mansion where everyone can go upstairs and downstairs, and there are 2,000-3,000 people lined up for that,” he continues, citing examples of Nevadan pride. “Nevada is just unique that way.”

“No matter where you are you always hear an audible groan if someone says it [Nevada] wrong. When I was a federal judge, and I would have out-of-state attorneys say Nev-AH-da, I would tell them if you say that during trial, you’re going to lose this jury immediately. The local attorneys were like, ‘why did you tell them that!’” he says, laughing.

“It’s an attitude, but it’s a good attitude. We’re just really fiercely proud.”

“Being governor has made me love Nevada even more. I love the people, I love the landscape, I love the spirit, the personality, the diversity. For us to have what we have, to have in northern Nevada—Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Lake Tahoe; then to have Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world, and Red Rock, and Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead; and then you have the rurals which have a personality all their own, it is really a special place.”

Asked what he’d tell people who might not know much about the Silver State, Governor Sandoval doesn’t hesitate.

“I would encourage people to visit our state parks, because some of them are in such remote places. You go to Berlin [Ichthyosaur State Park]—where I go cut my Christmas tree is not far from there—and really enjoy that solitude. And drive Highway 50, and stop at the Toiyabe Café in Austin; and go to the Hotel Nevada in Ely; and go to Cave Lake and to the Ward Charcoal Ovens. It’s just an experience you can’t get anywhere else.”

His time in office may be almost over, but don’t expect Governor Sandoval to do a disappearing act anytime soon.

Photo: Sholeh Brooks/Nevada Department of Transportation

“I’ll stay in Nevada. I love Nevada. I’m proud of this state, and this is where I went to grade school, high school, and where I went to university. It’s where I’ve spent my professional life, where I’ve raised my family, it’s where I’m going to die.”

“I’m going to take a little time for myself,” he says. “I’ve still got two kids in college and one in high school, so I will find something to do. I will be teaching part-time at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas law school, so I’m looking forward to that, but otherwise I’m still trying to sort out what I’m going to do next.”

As he wraps up the interview, thoughts of more things he loves about Nevada pop up.

“I’d tell people…I love the smell of sagebrush after it rains. It’s just unlike anything. And the hospitality of the people in Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko,” he trails off for just a second.

“I guess if there are any regrets, I wish I had more time to get out there to all those places. But it’s a big state. I’m just thankful and grateful for the opportunity to serve as the 29th governor of this great state. Not a day goes by that I don’t walk into this room and think of what a gift it was to serve as governor of such an amazing, wonderful state.”

Photo: Megg Mueller
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