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‘Place of healing’: Avi Kwa Ame named Nevada’s 4th national monument

Updated March 21, 2023 - 8:15 pm

President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame as Nevada’s fourth national monument Tuesday during the White House Conservation in Action Summit, protecting about 500,000 acres of public land from future development.

Biden’s designation through the Antiquities Act of 1906 will protect 506,814 acres, marking his largest land conservation act thus far and creating one of the largest contiguous areas of protected wildlife habitat in the country, according to the White House. It ties together the protected lands of the Mojave Desert in California with the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and protected areas to the east near the Colorado River.

Avi Kwa Ame, meaning “Spirit Mountain” in Mojave, is an area of cultural significance to nearby Native American tribes and a popular site for outdoor recreation among hikers and campers in southern Nevada.

The public lands are home to unique geological features, Joshua trees and petroglyphs, and it serves as an important migration corridor or habitat for threatened wildlife like the Mojave Desert tortoise and the desert bighorn sheep.

Related: Where the spirit dwells: The wonders of Avi Kwa Ame — PHOTOS

“It’s a place of reverence, it’s a place of spirituality. It’s a place of healing,” Biden said at the summit. “And now it will be recognized for the significance it holds and be preserved forever. I look forward to visiting myself.”

Tribal significance

About a dozen Yuman-speaking tribes have traced their origins to Avi Kwa Ame, which they consider one of the most sacred places on Earth. Members of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, for instance, say their creator placed them on the land to care for it.

“The Mojave people, known as the people by the river, hold Avi Kwa Ame in our hearts,” Fort Mojave Chairman Timothy Williams said at the summit. “Avi Kwa Ame, also known as Spirit Mountain, lays within the vast landscape of the pristine land of Southern Nevada. It is a place we know as our creation. It is the beginning of our traditional songs, and it is the place that Nevada nations throughout the southwest hold sacred.”

For other tribes, while Avi Kwa Ame is not part of a creation story, the area served as an important place in their history. Southern Paiute tribes that live in California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona recorded their “life cycle” in what is called the “salt songs,” which tell the story of the southern Paiute people and their journey through the Colorado Plateau, according to Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada and member of the Avi Kwa Ame Coalition.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who had introduced legislation to make Avi Kwa Ame a national monument and was a staunch advocate in the designation, commended Biden for honoring the promise he made in November to make Avi Kwa Ame a national monument.

“One cannot overstate the importance of the sacred land of Avi Kwa Ame to Southern Nevada’s native tribes,” Titus said in a statement. “And for the Yuman speakers and the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute who place it at the center of all creation, along with every Nevadan who knows the value of our cherished public lands, designating Spirit Mountain as a national monument will protect this treasured space for future generations.”

A long time in the making

The effort to make Avi Kwa Ame a national monument has been about 20 years in the making. The Honor Avi Kwa Ame Coalition, made up of tribes, conservationists and activists, has led the effort and started a public awareness campaign in 2021.

Local governments, such as the Clark County Commission, have urged Congress to designate Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument, although the plans to protect the land received pushback from those looking to build renewable energy projects.

“The President’s action today will safeguard these hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Nevada bearing great cultural, ecological, and economic significance to our state,” the coalition said in a statement. “We are honored and grateful to his leadership and are thrilled to be a part of this historic day.”

In addition to honoring Native American tribes, the national monument designation is expected to boost the local economy, as visitors from Las Vegas pass through small towns to get to the Spirit Mountain landmark.

Spirit Mountain, located off U.S. 95 and down Christmas Tree Pass Road, about a 1½-hour drive from Las Vegas, is already designated as a traditional cultural property on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation will protect the surrounding area, stretching from the Newberry mountains in the east to the New York South McCullough, Castle and Piute mountains in the west.

“Avi Kwa Ame and the surrounding landscape provide native species — including desert bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, and Arizona toads — a space to thrive and adapt amid the pressures of a changing climate,” the White House said in a statement. “The designation also provides protection to an ancient and intact Joshua tree forest that contains Nevada’s largest Joshua tree.”

Changes?

Activities such as hiking, off-road vehicle driving, camping and hunting will still be allowed under the new designation, with trapping, wildlife watching, aerial surveys, wildlife maintenance and a wide range of other wildlife management activities, according to the White House.

Under the national monument designation, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service will manage the land, according to the White House.

The proclamation directs the Interior Department to work with the Nevada Department of Wildlife and tribal nations to develop a memorandum of understanding in operating and maintaining the national monument. Tribes will carry out co-stewardship of the monument and will work with local communities to develop a visitor center and other facilities, according to the White House.

A monument advisory committee will also be formed and will require representation from the sportsmen and sportswomen who have restored wildlife populations in Southern Nevada, according to the White House.

Thwarting green energy projects

While the national monument designation protects the land from development, it does allow for maintenance and upgrades to water infrastructure, water district facilities, transmission lines, pipelines and roads.

But a couple of proposed projects from renewable energy companies are now thwarted, including a solar project proposed by Avantus and a 68 wind-turbine farm called the Kulning Wind Project proposed by Crescent Peak Renewables.

The White House said the designation will not slow the “positive momentum of clean energy development” in Nevada, and the state will continue to lead the way in helping the U.S. meet its goal of permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025.

The Bureau of Land Management has identified more than 9 million acres of public lands in Nevada for possible solar development, according to the White House. There are also more than three dozen proposed renewable energy projects that the Bureau of Land Management is considering. If constructed, those projects would add more than 13 gigawatts of energy.

“Our country’s natural treasures define our identity as a nation,” Biden said. “They’re our birthright. They’re our birthright we have to pass down to generation after generation. They unite us. That’s why our conservation work is so important. It provides a bridge to our past and to our future, not just for today but for all ages.”

Reactions from Nevada’s reps

Nevada’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen and Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., also released statements in celebration of the national monument.

“Today’s designation will preserve and protect an area of great cultural significance to Tribal nations for generations to come,” said Rosen in a statement. “This sacred land is rich with natural beauty, diverse wildlife, and immense ecological importance. As a firm and strong supporter of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, it was an honor to join so many Nevadans to celebrate the permanent protection of this land.”

But Nevada’s Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo was not too pleased.

“Since I took office, the Biden White House has not consulted with my administration about any of the details of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame national monument which, given the size of the proposal, seems badly out of step,” Lombardo said in a statement.

Lombardo said he reached out to the White House to raise several concerns, such as the disruption of mining projects.

“While I’m still waiting for a response, I’m not surprised,” Lombardo said. “This kind of ‘Washington Knows Best’ policy might win plaudits from unaccountable special interests, but it’s going to cost our state jobs and economic opportunity – all while making land more expensive and more difficult to develop for affordable housing and critical infrastructure projects. The federal confiscation of 506,814 acres of Nevada land is a historic mistake that will cost Nevadans for generations to come.”

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on Twitter.

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