TOPICS > Nation

Gold Butte National Monument is controversial for some locals

February 18, 2017 at 4:08 PM EDT
The newly-designated Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada contains fragile wildlife habitat, important sites for native tribes and thousands of ancient rock etchings. While local indigenous tribes, environmental advocacy groups and Democrats cheered former President Obama’s decision to bring the area under federal protection, some longtime residents vehemently opposed it. NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan reports.

By Sam Weber and Laura Fong

HARI SREENIVASAN: Deep in Nevada’s Mojave Desert — 100 miles from the Las Vegas strip — the rocks provide glimpses into the lives of Native Americans who inhabited this area for thousands of years. Hundreds of their petroglyphs, or etchings, are carved on the rocks in this area, now known as Gold Butte.

JAINA MOAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FRIENDS OF GOLD BUTTE: They also can date them by comparing them to other petroglyphs that they’ve seen…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jaina Moan is the executive director of Friends of Gold Butte, a non-profit advocacy group working to protect this stretch of desert.

JAINA MOAN: So on this panel here you see a lot of abstract shapes, so honeycombs and squiggly lines, and then if you look over here on this panel you see more representational forms so humans, sheep…

HARI SREENIVASAN: While petroglyphs have been found all over the world and in other parts of the Southwest, the concentration of images — and this drawing of a man appearing to fall — help make gold butte unique, according to Jim Boone, an ecologist and volunteer with Friends of Gold Butte.

JIM BOONE, FRIENDS OF GOLD BUTTE: I think of the artist who did this as perhaps the Michelangelo of his day…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Boone says unlike the stick figures found nearby, the “Falling Man” petroglyph is more lifelike.

JIM BOONE: So it has real motion to it…and the arm is out as if to brace himself for a fall.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A decade of advocacy by friends of Gold Butte, local Native American tribes like the Moapa Band of Paiutes, and other groups paid off last December, when President Barack Obama, in one his final acts of environmental conservancy, used his executive power to designate Gold Butte –its petroglyphs along with 300,000 surrounding acres of land owned by the federal government — as a national monument.

The President’s proclamation cited Gold Butte’s ancient petroglyphs, and its “vital plant and wildlife habitat, significant geological formations,” and remnants of mining and ranching heritage.

Nestled between Lake Mead in the west and the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona, the designation of Gold Butte permanently limits any commercial development, but doesn’t change existing recreational uses.

JAINA MOAN: It’s assured that we are going to have this land for our enjoyment and for the health of the landscape itself and the plants and animals that live here. There’s no timeline that ends this particular designation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The senior US Senator from Nevada at the time — Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid — had encouraged the President to make the move.

FORMER SENATE MINORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D) NEVADA (APRIL 6, 2015): Is this worth protecting? Is this worth preserving? Of course it is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To protect Gold Butte, President Obama relied on a law from 1906 called the Antiquities Act, a law he used 34 times during his two terms in office, designating 553 million acres of land and sea as national monuments, the most ever by any president.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas law school professor Bret Birdsong served during Obama’s second term as deputy solicitor for land resources at the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, the federal agency tasked with managing Gold Butte.

BRET BIRDSONG, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIV. OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS: President Roosevelt in 1908 protected the Grand Canyon for the first time because it was under threat of miners who were establishing claims there, using the Antiquities Act, and didn’t need to go through what can be a very long and lurching legislative process. And then as we’ve seen, the public support tends to grow around those designations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Birdsong says Obama took action after the Republican-led Congress failed to pass legislation to protect Gold Butte, despite broad public support.

A 2016 poll found 71 percent of Nevada voters supported creating a national monument.

BRET BIRDSONG: What the President was doing is using a lawful power to provide the benefits and the protection for these areas that he thought were warranted, because Congress was really unable to act despite significant support to do so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But there was — and still is — strong local opposition to the national monument designation, and fear it will restrict access to the area.

FORMER REP. CRESENT HARDY, (R) NEVADA: It all sounds great to the public out there. What they don’t understand is it is public lands right now, and it’s public lands for the use of me, my children, other people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Cresent Hardy represented the Gold Butte area in Congress and the state Legislature. A Republican, Hardy calls the designation an overreach.

CRESENT HARDY: If you want to protect the petroglyphs, and you want to designate that as the monument, that’s what the Antiquities Act was set up to do, is protect the minimum possible footprint of that of what you’re trying to designate. Not an extra 300,000 acres on top of the 50-100 acres that you could have protected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The tension over control of federally-owned land has simmered since many western states were formed. The federal government owns almost half of these 11 western states. And no state has a greater percentage of federal land than Nevada, which is 85 percent federally owned. Former Congressman Hardy would like to see states have much more control of their own management.

CRESENT HARDY: Give us the money that you spend out there across the country on every state, and let us manage our land. Let us do our planning processes instead of going to this heavy bureaucracy where you duplicate the same thing Nevada does, the federal government does and takes longer doing it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Conflicts over federal land have also boiled over in this corner of Nevada and made national news.

JUDY WOODRUFF (April 18, 2014): … where a standoff between the federal government and a local cattle rancher involving an armed militia almost turned violent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just north of Gold Butte, rancher Cliven Bundy, his two sons, and hundreds of their supporters engaged an armed confrontation with federal officials over cattle grazing fees in 2014.

While Bundy and his sons are facing federal charges over the incident, since the stand-off, there has been almost no federal presence in the area

Since then Friends of Gold Butte has worked to document existing and new damage — including illegal water tanks and vandalism of petroglyphs, even a few bullet holes.

JAINA MOAN: We don’t want to see those continuing degrading effects impact the land and erase all of these wonderful treasures that we have out here. I mean when a petroglyph is shot, that’s it, it’s there forever.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Boone says off-highway vehicles frequently damage habitat by veering off the more than 300 miles of designated trails. These fresh tracks during our visit marked where a vehicle drove around a fence meant to protect a plant species found only in this part of Nevada.

JIM BOONE: So everybody gets their piece of the desert to do what they want, but people can’t go everywhere and do everything.

BOB ADAMS, PRESIDENT, KOKOPELLI ATV CLUB: If there ain’t a road; I’m not going there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bob Adams is the president of a local all-terrain vehicle club. He’s ridden thousands of miles in and around Gold Butte in his “side by side” ATV, and says the area is generally respected by people that use it.

BOB ADAMS: If you got a network of roads already that goes to those places, why would you want to go over and travel on something like that, just to say you did?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The designation does not rollback driving in off-road vehicles, camping, hiking, or hunting, but Adams worries conservationists will exploit the rare acts of vandalism to put future limits on recreational access.

BOB ADAMS: Why did they feel they needed to designate it as a national monument? Unless they then use that to, you know, put restrictions on it in some way, shape, or form.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Native American tribes like the Moapa Band of Paiutes consider Gold Butte to be sacred land and see the national monument declaration as an important step to preserve their cultural legacy. William Anderson is the tribe’s former chairman

WILLIAM ANDERSON, FORMER CHAIRMAN, MOAPA BAND OF PAIUTES: Every attempt we tried to go ahead and preserve the land failed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last April, he helped organize an 11-mile “culture walk” through Gold Butte to raise awareness of the damage to petroglyphs and appeal to President Obama to grant monument status to the area.

WILLIAM ANDERSON: Now that it’s a national monument, we’re able to go ahead and show them how important it is to our people and to go ahead and see what else we could do to provide more funding.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, no new federal funding comes with national monument status. And the BLM had a maintenance backlog of about $600 million dollars in 2016.

Former Congressman Hardy wants the Trump administration and Congress to reexamine the Gold Butte declaration.

CRESENT HARDY: I would sure hope that this administration would look at that, shrinking the size, or let’s designate the area that needs protecting. But almost every president that’s gone through has abused the Antiquities Act in a manner that’s way beyond protecting that which is designed for the Antiquities Act. So I hope Congress looks at it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Past presidents have only amended the size of a predecessor’s monument designation.

BRET BIRDSONG: No president has ever tried to undo a national monument designation. The Antiquities Act says the president has the authority to designate national monuments. It is silent as to any un-designation of national monuments.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In his confirmation hearings to become Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke said he’ll review the Gold Butte decision, but not before visiting the area himself. BLM’s Las Vegas field manager, Gayle Marrs-Smith, tells Newshour Weekend officials have started outreach on how the monument will be managed.

GAYLE MARRS-SMITH, LAS VEGAS OFFICE FIELD MANAGER, BLM: This plan is to be developed with extensive public participation….We would want to take their input, their concerns and build that into the planning process.The more the merrier at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Boone, of Friends of Gold Butte, is participating in the process, and pushing for this land to be protected.

JIM BOONE: There’ll be more people. There’ll probably be more designated trails. There might be some kind of barriers to keep people from actually walking up and touching the petroglyphs. But by and large, the landscape, the geology, the big views, all of that stuff is going to be the same virtually forever.