The northernmost peak of the McCullough Range, Black Mountain, looms 5’100 feet over a geologically typical Nevada basin 3’000 feet below. The mountain has been popular for a long time: it’s graced with 318 prehistoric rock art panels showing some 1’700 individual petroglyphs. Recently it became part of the 48’000-acre Sloan Canyon National Conservation area; a little less recently the basin below became the fastest growing city in the United States. Most recently, since 2008 and the worst American economic downturn since the Great Depression, Las Vegas has suffered the highest unemployment and home foreclosure rate in the nation. Emptied of people, it has frozen at exactly the point where its aspirational excesses were most baroque and unfettered. Las Vegas is the epicenter of a classically American strain of boom and bust capitalism. Historically the Silver State has always veered between the excess and collapse of the extractive mining industry, but air-conditioning, proximity to California, and the retirement lifestyle have brought another economy to Nevada that operates on the same maniacal principles: the habitation industry. In terms of their physical effect on the land, the extraction and habitation economies are two sides of the same coin.
Vertical topography in desert basin cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas is coveted, and offers a stark look at the economic stratification of the current historical moment. On the southern side of the Las Vegas basin, in the town of Henderson, two developers are in the process of terraforming Black Mountain right up to the precipitous edge of the Sloan Canyon reserve. The MacDonald family shrewdly bought several square miles of the area in the 1980s; their most exclusive development, “Macdonald Highlands,” boasts as a resident Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie, the 106th-wealthiest American with a fortune estimated at $3.8 billion. The most exclusive “guard-gated” community in Las Vegas, however, won’t be habitable for some time. “Ascaya,” a spectacular and unprecedented 664-acre orgy of mountaintop removal above MacDonald Highlands has been dormant since 2008. Owned outright by Hong Kong billionaire and entrepreneur Henry Cheng, who spent $250 million to have the 313 lots blasted out of the mountain with dynamite from 2004 to 2008, the empty lots of “Ascaya” eagerly await Las Vegas’ next upturn, as do its many enthusiasts.