WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stepped into a swirling land-use controversy in Nevada on Wednesday and declared a swath of desert known as Gold Butte a national monument.
The declaration places 300,000 acres of land under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management. Obama used the Antiquities Act to shelter land between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon.
In addition, Obama declared the Bears Ears region of Utah a national monument under the same law.
“I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
The president said his “actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., had urged the president to designate the Gold Butte land in Nevada as a national monument, which provides greater protection and restrictions on land use. The area is known for rock formations and Native American artifacts.
Reid said Gold Butte “is quintessential Nevada.”
He thanked Obama and said the designation is a critical link to the state’s culture and history. “Gold Butte is a glimpse of what Nevada once was.”
Titus attended a news conference in Las Vegas following the president’s announcement. She said the beauty and history behind Gold Butte necessitated the designation as a national monument.
“Those are things you just can’t copy. You have to save,” Titus said. “And those are the things that are so precious to Nevada, to the planet and to future generations.”
Gold Butte is near the ranch of Cliven Bundy, who along with local farmers and ranchers has sought to keep the property available for agricultural use.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., urged Obama not to designate the land as a national monument because of concerns by local constituents.
Heller said he was disappointed by the president’s action.
The senator said he has urged “all new land designations, especially ones in Nevada, to be considered in an open and public Congressional process.”
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said he objected to the use of the Antiquities Act in designating Gold Butte as a national monument because it bypassed Congress and the public.
“We all share a common goal of enacting smart conservation measures which help preserve our lands for the use and enjoyment of all Nevadans,” Sandoval said. “My strong preference is for a more collaborative process when making such an important designation. I firmly believe our ranchers, environmentalists, and community stakeholders are the best experts in ensuring Nevada’s lands are preserved, protected and accessible.”
Conservatives have voiced concern about the lack of input in designations.
Those concerns resulted in an armed standoff with Bundy, his sons and their supporters, including militia and patriot groups that had gathered on the family’s Bunkerville ranch in April 2014.
Bureau of Land Management officials left the property following the standoff and did not return until 2016. A White House official downplayed any safety concerns and said there is no elevated enforcement status at Gold Butte.
Bundy faces criminal charges in federal court over the confrontation. He has claimed ancestral rights to the Gold Butte property.
The Bundy family, in a statement, said to Obama that “we are saddened, but not surprised, by your decision to make our ranch and home a national monument.”
Saying they have no problem with threatened wildlife or fees, the Bundy family said their fight “has always been about the constitutional limits on the federal government’s authority.”
EARLIER NATIONAL MONUMENT
This marks the second time Obama has used his authority to designate a monument in Nevada over the objections of rural officials and Nevada Republicans in Congress.
In July 2015, also with strong encouragement from Reid, the president established Basin and Range National Monument on 704,000 acres in remote Lincoln and Nye counties.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld previous actions by presidents, despite controversy over the use of the Antiquities Act to set aside public lands for conservation and to save artifacts.
No national monument declaration has been overturned by another president. Any repeal would take congressional action.
Conservationists and Native American tribes have long sought the protection of the Gold Butte area.
Gold Butte is filled with ancient rock art, sweeping desert vistas and twisted pastel-colored sandstone formations.
The area has suffered a great deal of damage from vandals and off-road vehicles since 2014, according to the Friends of Gold Butte, a local nonprofit group whose members monitor the area and advocate on its behalf.
“It’s a great day,” said Jaina Moan, executive director of Friends of Gold Butte. “We’re thrilled about the proclamation.”
The designation will help the Paiute tribes better protect the lands by allowing them to work hand-in-hand with the federal government, according to William Anderson, former chairman for the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
Anderson said the tribe members can provide expertise on what is culturally sensitive in the area while the federal government brings better protection and upkeep to the historic area.
“It allows so much potential for us to go ahead and closely monitor and closely protect the land that was originally ours,” he said.
Las Vegas conservationist Alan O’Neill has some experience with both Gold Butte and the Antiquities Act.
During his 13-year stint as superintendent for Lake Mead National Recreation Area, he dealt with Bundy’s rogue cattle at the northern end of the lake and helped set up Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument just across the Arizona border from Gold Butte after President Bill Clinton designated the area in 2000.
FILLING THE VOID
O’Neill said Obama’s action Wednesday fills in the “void” between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon, granting well-deserved protection for what he called “one of the greatest landscapes we have in the West.”
The monument will serve as a connection between Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, protecting a wildlife corridor for desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
According to the White House, the designation also will protect early 20th century ranching heritage and sites associated with Spanish explorers from the late 18th century.
In addition to Gold Butte, Obama designated 1.35 million acres in Utah as Bears Ears National Monument. The region includes cliff dwellings and land considered sacred to Native Americans. The designation also sets up a commission to ensure tribal expertise in management decisions.
Utah’s attorney general vowed to sue.
Since the Antiquities Act was passed, 16 presidents have designated 152 national monuments using the legislative authority, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has urged Congress to repeal the law, citing Obama’s use to set aside land in Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois as abuse of legislation originally passed to protect against the looting of archeological sites.
The Heritage Foundation said recent declarations have thwarted economic opportunity and removed states and private citizens from decisions made on land use.
Staff Writer Colton Lochhead contributed to this story.