A debate is raging in the inbox of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior about whether President Donald Trump should keep the scenic, ecologically fragile and artifact-rich Gold Butte area in southern Nevada as a national monument.
Comments ranging from “I hope this area will remain protected” to “shut down this monument designation” have been posted in recent weeks about the future of the rugged and arid rangeland covering about 470 square miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Many messages are unsigned. Some only mention Gold Butte among the 27 national monuments under Trump administration review, including the vast Basin and Range region covering 1,100 square miles of central Nevada. About half of the 109,000 public comments as of Friday referred to Bears Ears monument in Utah.
Gold Butte may be best-known as the grazing area at the center of a cattle round-up and armed standoff in April 2014 involving federal land management agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
The remote area is east of the Virgin River, west of the Arizona state line and northeast of the Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam. It was named for an early 1900s tent town built by miners and ranchers. Today, it attracts hikers, campers, all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts and researchers trying to decipher ancient rock art symbols of bighorn sheep, desert plants, hand-crafted weapons and human clans.
“Those lands are part of Nevada’s heritage,” said Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. He fought for years to get support from elected officials, Indian tribes and other groups to protect the area as habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and rare local species of buckwheat and bear poppy.
Mrowka said he planned to submit comments for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review by a July 10 deadline. “Now is not the time to reverse the process and throw open the doors to more development and abuse,” he said.
Proponents including former Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid convinced former President Barack Obama to designate the area a national monument last December. They point to its Native American artifacts, sandstone formations and Joshua tree forests. U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen, a Democrat whose district includes Gold Butte, calls the monument a national treasure.
But Republican members of Nevada’s congressional delegation have been vocal opponents. U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei sponsored a measure this year that would restrict the ability of future presidents to designate monuments without approval from Congress.
“The federal government already controls about 85 percent of Nevada’s public lands,” Heller said in a statement through his spokeswoman, Megan Taylor. It cited “widespread disagreement at the local level” about the designation, and called it “an example of extreme overreach” and a “Washington-knows-best approach.”
The designation generally allows hiking, hunting, fishing and current oil and mining, but it bans new activity. Livestock grazing in Gold Butte has been banned since 1998, under a Clark County law designed to conserve tortoise habitat.
Some writers who identified themselves as local residents said they want the federal government to leave the land alone.
One who said he lives in the nearby town of Bunkerville complained that ranchers were “kicked off their permits or thrown in jail” and miners had lost their claims. Monument designation only makes matters worse, he said.
Another said she feared that the monument designation would draw more tourists to the area.