President Obama has designated two areas in the deserts of southern Nevada and Utah as national monuments, after years of fighting and debate over the management of both areas.
The newly created Bears Ears National Monument will protect roughly 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah from future development. Gold Butte National Monument will give federal protections to roughly 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada, not far from the site where local ranchers and law enforcement had an armed standoff just two years ago.
In a statement, Obama said the designations “protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes.”
Those protections begin immediately, but how long they’ll last is uncertain.
State and local politicians in Utah and Nevada have vowed to fight any federal designations on state land, calling them land grabs and executive overreach — arguments heard in many parts of the rural West.
They may have an advocate in President-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to undo many of Obama’s policies.
Obama has used executive power to establish or expand national monuments 29 times during his tenure, most recently in California, Hawaii and the Atlantic Ocean. But the designations in Nevada and Utah, two largely rural, Republican-held states, could prove to be the most contentious.
The ownership and management of land is one of the biggest issues in both states, for understandable reasons. More than 80 percent of the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government. In Utah, it’s roughly 65 percent. Republican lawmakers and rural constituents have tried for years to get the federal government to give some of that land back to the states, arguing that local governments are better able to manage local resources.
Obama’s move to establish the national monuments does the opposite.
“[This] midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in a statement. “We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution.”
The designation is a win for a number of groups. Environmental activists and Native American tribes have been fighting for protection of both areas for years and are applauding the decision.
The Navajo, Hopi, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni all have ancestral ties to Bears Ears. Under the new designation, they’ll co-manage the national monument with the federal government and will still be allowed to access the land for tribal ceremonies, firewood and herb collection, hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation.
“As a coalition of five sovereign Native American tribes in the region, we are confident that today’s announcement of collaborative management will protect a cultural landscape that we have known since time immemorial,” said Alfred Lomahquahu, vice chairman of Hope Tribe.
Gold Butte is home to the Moapa Band of Paiutes and has a number of archaeological sites, which have seen a recent rise in vandalism as anti-federal-government sentiments have simmered in Nevada.
Until recently, the federal government had stopped managing Gold Butte entirely, owing to safety concerns.
There are concerns that Obama’s designations could add fuel to that fire and call into question the very future of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president the power to establish or expand national monuments.