By Paul Rogers, The Mercury News
U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced he’ll establish a new national monument across a vast landscape on southern Nevada’s border with California to protect an area sacred to 12 Native American tribes and rich with big horn sheep, Joshua tree forests, desert tortoises, ancient petroglyphs and other unique features.
The 450,000-acre monument will be located on federally owned property overseen by Bureau of Land Management Land in Clark County, Nevada, including most of the point in Nevada’s southern shape.
Covering an area 15 times the size of the city of San Francisco, it will connect multiple wilderness areas, preserves and parks in California and Nevada, including Mojave National Preserve to the west and Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the east.
The largest national monument that Biden has established so far during his presidency, the area will be named the Avi Kwa Ame, which in the Mojave language means “Spirit Mountain.”
“Look, there’s so much more, there’s so much more that we’re going to do to protect the treasured tribal lands,” Biden told a group of tribal leaders at the White House Wednesday for a tribal nations summit. “When it comes to Spirit Mountain and surrounding ridges and canyons in southern Nevada, I’m committed to protecting this sacred place that is central to the creation story of so many tribes that are here today.”
More than 20 tribes, including the Hopi, Paiute and Mojave, along with tourism and environmental leaders, and the Nevada Legislature, have pushed for the monument.
Some solar energy companies have asked that the final borders be adjusted to allow for solar projects in the area. Monument designation does not ban existing uses, including hiking, camping, hunting, and driving on existing roads. It will prohibit new development such as mining operations, solar farms, wind farms or oil and gas drilling.
Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to reduce looting and theft of Indian pottery and other artifacts in New Mexico and other areas, presidents can establish national monuments by proclamation, without approval from Congress.
Nearly every president has used the law to establish monuments, which in many cases Congress has eventually upgraded to national parks. Roosevelt used it to set aside the Grand Canyon and Pinnacles in San Benito County; Herbert Hoover used it to protect Arches in Utah and Death Valley in California; Bill Clinton set aside Sequoia National Monument and George W. Bush used it to protect expansive areas of the remote Pacific Ocean, including the world’s deepest location, the Marianas Trench.
“Knowing our future generations will have the freedom to continue our cultural and religious practices as we have since time immemorial is a signal of the respect President’s Biden spoke of during his announcement,” said Tim Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Tribal Council, which is located in Needles, California, and whose land extends into Nevada.
Some questions remained to be answered Wednesday, specifically, when Biden will sign the legal documents formally establishing the monument, and what its exact boundaries will be.
Tribal leaders and other supporters testified two weeks ago at a federal hearing in Laughlin, Nevada, and pushed for the full boundaries they support, without carve-outs for development.
Since becoming president nearly two years ago, Biden has taken several steps to expand protections on public lands.
He has blocked plans for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and in new offshore areas off California’s coast, reversing a Trump administration policy. Last year, Biden also restored the original boundaries of of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah after Trump shrank them at the request of Utah Republican leaders. In October he signed a proclamation establishing the 53,804-acre Camp Hale—Continental Divide National Monument on national forest land in Colorado to commemorate the training area for the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division of World War II, and the ancestral homelands of the Ute Tribe.
Efforts to protect native cultural sites and desert wildlife habitat for struggling species like desert tortoises and big horn sheep have in recent years clashed at times with plans for large solar and wind farms on remote desert areas.
There are no solar or wind farms operating now within the Nevada monument’s expected boundaries. A large wind farm sits nearby. Plans for another within the boundaries were rejected during the Trump administration. A Swedish company proposing the plans, Eolus Vind AB, has resubmitted them, but Biden administration officials have not made them a priority.
Decades ago, Congress established at 33,000-acre wilderness area at Spirit Mountain and much of the area around it has been left out of federal plans for renewable energy as too culturally or environmentally sensitive. Large solar farms have cropped up in other areas of the Mojave Desert in California and in Nevada.
At a hearing two weeks ago in Laughlin, a San Francisco company, Avantus Energy, that is proposing to build a solar farm outside the monument boundaries asked for a minor boundary adjustment affecting about 2,000 acres to allow the use of existing transmission lines and roads near a shuttered coal plant near the town of Laughlin.
Many of the advocates for the monument opposes such changes from boundaries that the tribes and local leaders have supported.
“We’re thrilled and excited,” said Will Pregman, a spokesman for the Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition, a group of environmentalists, tribes and tourism groups advocating for the new monument. “But we are still waiting to see what the final proclamation is.”
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