STOREY COUNTY, Nev. — You can’t ride the wild mustangs at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center in Nevada, but you’re nearly guaranteed to see bands of them loping over sagebrush in a scene that feels straight out of the 1800s.
At least until the dust clears and Tesla’s 5.3-million-square-foot “Gigafactory” comes into focus.
Welcome to the Silver State, where Elon Musk, a cryptocurrency tycoon and a brothel owner are using a symbol of Americana as a social media recruiting tool.
The water cooler used to be the spot in the office to talk shop. Then came on-site cafes, fitness and yoga studios, rooftop gardens, fire pits and rock-climbing walls.
“The overarching trend of the last five years has been the hotelification of the office,” said Lenny Beaudoin, an executive managing director at CBRE.
For employers, the newest amenities to wow workers are ideological, with environmental commitments topping the list, said Jason H. Somers, president of Crest Real Estate, a Southern California real estate consultancy.
“Health and wellness have become the ultimate luxury,” he said, including access to nature. “Adding value to an employee’s well-being has a significant impact in a compensation package.”
In Nevada, wildlife advocates say efforts to market the wild mustangs to bolster a “green” image are interfering with the space and resources the animals need to survive.
To attract talent, a green message is easy to promise, but hard to fulfill. There has been progress by corporate giants, but most efforts remain so opaque that it is tough to spot greenwashing, the use of sustainability efforts to appear more attractive.
Embracing high environmental standards can be challenging and expensive. Some companies pay others to reduce emissions. Others plant trees, which can take years to grow and rely heavily on water and care.
Protecting large mammals can be even harder. A good example is roaming the Nevada desert.
The Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, a 107,000-acre office park, is home to more than 150 companies with a combined annual payroll of $750 million. Tesla, which broke ground on its battery factory there in 2014, says it will be the biggest building in the world when completed.
Musk has used the wild horses as a selling point to lure workers.
“Come work at the biggest & most advanced factory on Earth! Located by a river near the beautiful Sierra Nevada with wild horses roaming free,” he wrote on Twitter.
Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“They’re all kind of rogues out there in the tech world, but so are the horses,” said Kris Thompson, the office park’s project manager.
But how does a wild horse help productivity in the workplace?
“I think they’re symbolic of what America was, and they’re just beautiful,” said Jeffrey Berns, 58, a former consumer protection lawyer and the CEO of Blockchains, a blockchain software development company. He added that his company’s “DNA cares about the environment, and that includes the animals and wild horses on our land.”
He spends around $300,000 a year on five water tanks and feeding programs for the herds, and maintains that, unlike Tesla, he is not marketing them. The animals support a vision that began with a handshake with Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel and a Storey County commissioner, who bought this land from Gulf Oil in the late 1990s.
“Lance is an old cowboy,” Thompson said. “His word means something. Tech entrepreneurs see that.”
Cheap land, space and transportation corridors were draws for Amazon, Walmart and PetSmart, which turned the vacant land into a fulfillment hub. Tesla used a $1.3 billion state tax break to build its $5 billion factory, tapping into a local workforce still reeling from the Great Recession and ushering in a wave of Silicon Valley heavies. Switch, a technology infrastructure company, set up three data centers, then Google gobbled up 1,200 acres. Blockchains bought 67,000 acres for $170 million in 2018, becoming the park’s biggest tenant.
Berns hoped to transform the expanse into an experimental city run by his encrypted digital systems. He pledged to build 15,000 homes, turning it into a huge innovation zone, with his company overseeing everything from schools to courts, law and water.
“I want this to become the greatest social experiment in the history of the world,” he said. “It’s going to be a cross between Disneyland and the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka.”
He will have to rethink the scope: In March, the county voted against the secession plan.
Berns said he plans to develop around 25,000 of his 67,000 acres, but for now, it will remain an outpost for wild horses.
Nevada is home to more than half of the country’s 95,000 wild horses and burros, descendants of animals brought to the continent by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. Managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management to the tune of about $100 million annually, wild horses live on protected and private land crisscrossed by freeways.
Around 1,000 resident horses in Storey County regularly come down from higher elevations for food and water and face what can be fatal traffic from workers and lookie-loos itching for the perfect picture. With just 15% of the industrial park occupied, and Thompson expecting occupancy to double in five years, it is a far more complicated experiment than advertised.
“We get about five emergency calls a month in the slow season,” said Corenna Vance, founder of Wild Horse Connection, an advocacy group. “Horses in traffic, on the wrong side of fencing, vehicular, train accidents, sick or ill horses.”
Rescues triple once mares start foaling, said Vance, whose annual budget is about $100,000, including small donations from the office park and tenants. She said further expansion would deplete open spaces and decrease grazing areas.
“Horses have migration patterns, and when a development comes in, it cuts that off and there’s more interactions with people,” she said.
One solution is humane horse fertility management so the animals, which can spend up to 16 hours a day eating, do not overpopulate and overgraze.
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the nonprofit American Wild Horse Campaign, has worked with the office park since 2012, spending more than $200,000 on fertility control, water and feeding in the last three years.
“Development displaces wildlife,” she said. Water stations help, she said, as does an underground crossing built by Switch.
But the horses will not offset the park’s overall carbon footprint, said Simon Fischweicher, the North American head of corporations and supply chains at CDP. Tenants like Tesla, whose lithium-ion batteries are costly to mine and nearly impossible to recycle, require a lot of energy.
Switch is installing its own solar panels and there are two green fuel plants on site, but distribution and data centers use large amounts of water for heating and cooling, and “supply chain emissions are on average 11.4 times higher than operational emissions,” Fischweicher said.
Others question the need to use the horses as a lure. Thompson said most of the roughly 25,000 workers at the office park are blue-collar Nevadans living within an hour commute. They are here for jobs, not because of horses.
Growth for the industrial park means luring workers from out of state, expanding limited housing nearby and developing more land — all of which jeopardize the wildlife incentive.
“Quality of food, retail choices and housing are going to shape those decisions more than having wild horses nearby,” Beaudoin of CBRE said. “I would never bet against someone like Elon Musk, but there are other factors to attract workers.”