President Barack Obama gave a late Christmas present to environmental protection advocates and Native American tribes by declaring federal land in Nevada and Utah as national monuments.
The Dec. 28 move by the White House covers about 1.64 million acres of Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service land. Included are about 300,000 acres in Nevada and about 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement.
The new Nevada preserve, to be known as Gold Butte National Monument, is in Clark County, northeast of Las Vegas. A fact sheet released by the White House pointed to its importance as a connective corridor between Lake Mead Recreation Area and Grand Canyon-Parishant National Monument in northern Arizona.
Obama, in the formal proclamation creating the national monument, specifically highlighted the area’s Native American artifacts, 19th century ranch buildings, artifacts from the Spanish exploration of the area centuries ago, fossilized dinosaur tracks, and wildlife habitat.
“The Gold Butte area contains an extraordinary variety of diverse and irreplaceable scientific, historic, and prehistoric resources, including vital plant and wildlife habitat, significant geological formations, rare fossils, important sites from the history of Native Americans, and remnants of our Western mining and ranching heritage. The landscape reveals a story of thousands of years of human interaction with this harsh environment and provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Nevada’s first inhabitants, the rich and varied indigenous cultures that followed, and the eventual arrival of Euro-American settlers. Canyons and intricate rock formations are a stunning backdrop to the area’s famously beautiful rock art, and the desert provides critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.”
– Presidential Proclamation: Establishment of the Gold Butte National Monument, Dec. 28, 2016
Among the species that will benefit from the increased restrictions on natural resource use that comes with the national monument designation are Mojave desert tortoise, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep.
The designation of Gold Butte National Monument was pushed for many years by outgoing U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid said in a statement that the new national monument represents what “Nevada once was.”
Gold Butte National Monument is the third one to be designated by Obama in Nevada.
In July 2015 the President designated Basin and Range National Monument there. That preserve includes 704,000 acres in two remote southeastern counties.
In 2014 Obama declared the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, which encompasses 22,650 acres of land containing Ice Age-vintage paleontological artifacts.
The Utah preserve will be known as Bears Ears National Monument.
Named for two buttes that have similar names in several Native American languages, the protection of cultural artifacts the new national monument affords has been avidly sought by the region’s tribes for at least eight decades.
More than two dozen tribes, representing native Americans across the U.S, had asked Obama to preserve about 1.9 million acres in the Bears Ears area.
Long heralded as one of the few remaining unspoiled areas in the West, the region has experienced a significant increase in vandalism and looting of sacred sites. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the U.S. last year, specifically noting that BLM has lacked both funds and staff needed to protect its archaeological resources.
Obama’s proclamation establishing the preserve paid homage to the area’s importance to the country’s indigenous peoples:
“For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribehttps://wordpress.com/post/naturalresourcestoday.org/4571s, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.”
– Presidential Proclamation: Establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument, Dec. 28, 2016
At the core of Bears Ears National Monument is Cedar Mesa, which includes at least 56,000 cultural artifacts, the vistas of Muley Point, and the origin of at least twelve canyons. Some of the native artifacts there date back at least 12,000 years.
In addition to the Bears Ears buttes, the new national monument includes the Abajo Mountains and Elk Ridge, Beef Basin, Chimney Rocks, Comb Ridge, Indian Creek and Harts Draw, Moqui Canyon, Mancos Mesa, Nokai Dome, Red Canyon, Valley of the Gods, White Canyon, and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado rivers.
Obama’s proclamation also gave Native Americans a formal role in management of the new national monument, a first under the Antiquities Act, by establishing a commission of tribal leaders to advise BLM and USDA Forest Service land managers in the region.
Bears Ears National Monument will protect more than cultural assets. The area also includes arches, canyons, hoodoos, and natural bridges, making it geologically unique, as well as fossils that extend from Earth’s Permian period through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras of geologic time.
Environmentalists, too, lauded Obama’s move.
“In preserving the iconic Bears Ears, President Obama has made conservation history,” Rhea Suh, the president of Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “These lands will now be safe from mining, drilling and other threats.”
Opponents of Bears Ears National Monument, including Republicans in the Utah Congressional delegation, promised a fight over the designation.
Rep. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both of whom represent rural regions of the Beehive State, introduced in a bill during the 114th Congress that would have set aside some of the Bears Ears region as wilderness. Native American leaders did not support it, however, after concluding that their perspective was not being considered by the two anti-public land congressmen.
Bishop and Chaffetz incorporated their “Public Lands Initiative” into a bill, H.R. 5780, that cleared the House Natural Resources Committee but did not receive a floor vote. It is not clear whether it could pass the U.S. Senate, though Utah’s two senators have also expressed opposition to Obama’s move.
Deseret News reported Dec. 29 that Chaffetz, in his role as chair of the House Oversight and Government Operations Committee, demanded that the administration turn over documents relating to the designation of both Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument.
The state’s attorney general also announced on Dec. 28 that he would sue in an effort to obtain a federal court order overturning Obama’s action in creating Bears Ears National Monument.
No obvious precedent indicates that such a lawsuit would succeed. The U.S. Supreme Court has, on several occasions, upheld unilateral Presidential authority to designate national monuments, even in cases of large swaths of public land such as the Bears Ears region.
Obama has now designated or increased the size of 29 national monuments that include more than 550 million acres of land or sea. He has made the second-most use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, following only President Franklin D. Roosevelt.