Gold Butte preserved

Tribes win presidential action

Shown here are petroglyphs at Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.

Shown here are petroglyphs at Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.

President Obama last week designated in Nevada a “nationally significant cultural, historic and natural treasure” (the Moapa tribe), “Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon” (Nevada Coservation League), “an amazing place home to multiple uses” (Battle Born Progress), “awe-inspiring rock formations, ancient petroglyphs and rare wildlife” (U.S. House member-elect Ruben Kihuen) as a national monument, thereby leaving some “terribly disappointed” (U.S. Sen. Dean Heller) that Obama poses “the greatest threat to those who use and enjoy Nevada’s vast open spaces” (billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper).

The Dec. 28 action was either a victory for environmental protection or another round in an ongoing battle between Congress and presidents. Or both.

“For years, I have urged for all new land designations, especially ones in Nevada, to be considered in an open and public congressional process,” Heller said in a prepared statement. “Doing so allows for all voices and stakeholders to have an equal opportunity to be heard. Best of all, input from local parties guarantees local needs are addressed. In the future, I will continue to fight for an open process utilizing Congressional support to designate new national monuments.”

The problem is that the law—enacted by Congress—authorizes presidents to act as Obama did, without congressional input. The 1906 Antiquities Act allows presidents to protect tribal sites of archaeological importance or tribal religious meaning. It can also be used for wildlife habitats, and hiking and hunting sites.

The Gold Butte designation protects 300,000 acres of scenic and ecologically fragile area near the site where rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 over Bundy’s unpaid bills. The monument, with petroglyphs, artifacts, fossils and newly found dinosaur prints, still allows existing oil and mining operations while banning new such activities. Multiple uses, including grazing, hiking, hunting and fishing will still be allowed.

Heller and other members of Congress have complained about similar Obama actions in the past but have not amended the Antiquities Act.

President Obama issued a statement that was headed, “Statement by the President on the Designation of Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument.” The statement made it appear Gold Butte was an afterthought to the president’s simultaneous creation of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The only place the Gold Butte monument was mentioned was in the headline. Nevada was not mentioned at all: “Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection. We also have worked to ensure that tribes and local communities can continue to access and benefit from these lands for generations to come.”

“But many state lawmakers disagree, arguing that this decision puts vast pieces of land into the hands of the federal government alone, removing power from state lawmakers and thus removing control from the people of Utah and Nevada,” said a commentary in National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. “These new monuments aren’t the first occasion for such concerns to surface, especially in the western part of the country. The federal government controls 25 percent of all land in the U.S., 50 percent of land west of the Rocky Mountains, and 85 percent of the land in Nevada.”

The reaction of local government officials was not a surprise. They want more federal lands that they can put into development, generating more property taxes. More development—particularly outside existing communities, thus creating sprawl—is exactly what environmentalists want to curb.

Tribes in both Utah and Nevada requested the national monument designations.

Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal editorialized, “The federal government controls far more land in this country—particularly in the West—than it can possibly manage to any effective degree. That includes more than 85 percent of the property within Nevada’s borders. Yet greens and conservationists argue that shifting some of these vast tracts over to private or state control would be an egregious affront threatening access to cherished vistas.”

In fact, many Western state governments are in no position to manage public lands because of the limited sizes and tight budgets of their state agencies. Moreover, Nevada’s experience managing the four million acres of land it was given at statehood to hold in trust for school costs does not inspire confidence—all but 3,000 acres has been lost, sold, used for improper purposes, or purchased in land sales of dubious legality.

There have been suggestions that President-designate Donald Trump may try to reverse the actions, but past U.S. Supreme Court rulings have indicated that once a president designates a monument, the presidential power over the monument is exhausted. Congress must then act. Even so, Navajo Nation lawmaker Davis Filfred told the Voice of America, “Now is not the time to bash him [Trump], because I need him.”

This is Obama’s second creation of a national monument in Nevada. In 2015, he designated Basin and Range, about 704,000 acres in Garden Valley and Coal Valley, which are in Nye and Lincoln counties. The beautiful, remote area contains evidence of human activities from thousands of years ago, including petroglyphs and prehistoric rock art panels. Leviathan Cave contains rim pools, stalagmites, stalactites and other features. Basin and Range also surrounds but does not include “City,” a massive sculpture that has drawn criticism from environmentalists for its despoliation of the land.

Gold Butte is Nevada’s fourth national monument. The Lehman cavern was the first, later incorporated into Great Basin National Park. Then came part of Death Valley National Monument, also upgraded to a national park.