County commission backs Gold Butte designation

Gold Butte would be turned into a national conservation area encompassing 345,000 acres under a resolution passed by Clark County commissioners Tuesday.

The resolution will be sent to Congress as a formal request to designate Gold Butte, a remote area 65 miles northeast of Las Vegas, as a conservation area.

The Bureau of Land Management owns Gold Butte, and Congress must approve any change in its status. There is no proposed federal legislation on the matter yet.

Supporters and critics packed the auditorium Tuesday, with dozens giving impassioned testimony about the county’s efforts to increase regulations on what many view as a regional treasure, rich in history and scenic beauty — a former mining site filled with towering mesas, rocky terrain, colorful flora and diverse wildlife, including the desert tortoise.

Conservationists contend that more oversight is needed to prevent destruction of American Indian petroglyphs and environmentally sensitive areas.

Opponents worry that the designation would close access to off-road vehicles and give federal agencies too much control.

Commissioner Tom Collins, who sponsored the resolution, reminded opponents that the federal government is already in control because it owns Gold Butte.

"Gold Butte is federal land," Collins said. "It’s public land."

Establishing Gold Butte as a conservation area will make it a tourist attraction similar to Red Rock, which draws 1 million visitors a year, he said.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Reps. Dina Titus and Shelley Berkley, all D-Nev., issued statements applauding the resolution and saying they would work with fellow delegates to increase Gold Butte’s protections.

The county resolution calls for honoring valid grazing rights, creating a management plan to "protect the natural and cultural resources" and forming a local advisory committee to work with federal officials.

About 130,000 acres would be set aside as a wilderness area. Other parts would be open to multiple use, such as camping, hunting and hiking. Motorized recreation is mentioned but not listed as a priority.

Off-road enthusiasts expressed concerns that Gold Butte would be put off limits to their pastime the way Red Rock and Sloan Canyon were after they became conservation areas. Several spoke against plans to close some roads. A few described how the physically impaired need motorized transportation to climb rocky terrain.

They said that a few renegades ride in areas where they shouldn’t and that most respect Gold Butte’s beauty.

"We are true believers of stewardship," said Cathy Wiegand, who heads a local ATV club. "We don’t want to see anything trashed. We don’t want to see anything run over."

Wiegand said off-roaders will cruise into areas to pick up trash left by hikers and campers. Without motorized vehicles, the litter patrol would be much harder, she said.

But Howard Booth, a 40-year Las Vegas resident, said Gold Butte’s degradation has accelerated with the advent of off-roading. Many drive their ATVs into wilderness areas, creating new trails that scar the earth, he said.

"People are loving it to death," Booth said.

Nancy Hall, Friends of Red Rock president, said creating a conservation area will make Gold Butte eligible for federal funding to enhance and maintain it.

Her group proposes that all existing roads remain open, she said, adding that off-roaders’ fears are misplaced.

Gold Butte is much more remote than Red Rock and Sloan Canyon, and there’s no need to bar off-road vehicles, she said.

A few conservationists talked of the need for more policing to stop vandals from marring petroglyphs with graffiti and gunshots.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said six officers patrol Red Rock and Sloan Canyon at a cost of $1.3 million a year. Policing would be part of the management plan the agency would craft if Gold Butte becomes a conservation area, she said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose district encompasses Gold Butte, said some residents and town boards have complained that they weren’t given a chance to weigh in.

He suggested holding off on the resolution to let citizens discuss their qualms.

"I would like to see more community input," said Sisolak, who cast the lone "no" vote. "I think we should build a bridge as opposed to building a fence."

Collins, however, said he was puzzled about how anyone who cares about Gold Butte could have missed the talks going on for 12 years.

Commissioner Larry Brown said the resolution will enable local advisory groups to exert some influence on how Gold Butte is managed.

"I think this is the best we can hope for," Brown said.

The fact that the issue bounced around for 12 years shows that factions are polarized and might never compromise, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said.

The resolution will offer public leaders guidance on how to proceed, she added.

"You have to start somewhere," Giunchigliani said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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