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Biden commits to honoring tribes by protecting public lands in Nevada

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/30/2022 Dan Michalski

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev. — From the highway, Spirit Mountain — a 5,642-foot-high peak — appears gray. But, at times, it glows a majestic pink. For the Fort Mojave and 11 other tribes, these mystical rocks are the site from which their ancestors emerged.

“There’s a spiritual connection that makes us Mojave people,” said Tim Williams, chair of the tribal council. “If it’s not protected, our generation will not have done our job.”

Two decades ago, Congress preserved the mountain — called Avi Kwa Ame (ah-VEE-kwah-may) in Mojave — and 33,000 acres around it as wilderness. Now the Biden administration is readying a proclamation that could put roughly 450,000 acres — spanning almost the entire triangle at the bottom of the Nevada map — off limits to development under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

When finalized, it will probably rank as the largest act of land conservation that President Biden will undertake this term, in a spot within comfortable driving distance of Las Vegas. And although tribes have often been pressured to make concessions in the past, this marks a rare instance in which they have driven the process — bolstered by the support of environmental groups, lawmakers and the rural business community.

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At the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Wednesday, Biden committed to conserving the area and noted that he had invoked the Antiquities Act last year to restore protections to three national monuments.

“Look, there’s so much more, there’s so much more that we’re going to do to protect the treasured tribal lands,” he told the group of tribal leaders. “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.”

“And I look forward to being able to visit Spirit Mountain and experience it with you as soon as I can,” he added.

A view from the northwestern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame national monument in Boulder City. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A view from the northwestern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame national monument in Boulder City. Joshua trees are seen near the western edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame monument. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Joshua trees are seen near the western edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame monument. The Avi Kwa Ame region. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post The Avi Kwa Ame region.

Sitting between the Mojave National Preserve on the California side and Lake Mead National Recreation Area along the border of Nevada and Arizona, this 700-square-mile expanse will allow desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and dozens of other species to live and migrate uninterrupted.

“This is the missing link connecting the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau,” said Neal Desai, a senior project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association who has been working for more than a dozen years to protect the area.

Some renewable energy advocates warn it could undercut the nation’s climate goals. But wind and solar companies, Desai said, will have to stay on the other side of the monument boundaries.

When it comes to having a chance to protect this much land, he added, “this really doesn’t happen very often. Not at this scale.”

A large solar field north of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Boulder City. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A large solar field north of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Boulder City.

Squeezing out solar?

In mid-November, nearly 250 people gathered at the Aquarius casino resort in Laughlin, Nev., for a two-hour public hearing with officials from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to discuss the prospective monument. A little more than two months before, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had visited the area and held a roundtable on the topic with Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.).

Amid a standing-room-only crowd at the casino, only about half of the monument’s backers got time to speak.

“Today is special,” Williams said. “We’ve established a map. It’s been a collaboration of a lot of different people, a lot of organizations. … This is something that you don’t see every day, especially in this day and age, in this type of political environment. You don’t see this type of collaboration, and it’s here, and it’s now.”

A view of Spirit Mountain in Laughlin, Nev. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A view of Spirit Mountain in Laughlin, Nev. Coyotes scavenge near a gas station in Searchlight, Nev. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Coyotes scavenge near a gas station in Searchlight, Nev. Fort Mojave Tribal Chairman Tim Williams delivers remarks during the public hearing to urge the Bureau of Land Management to designate the area Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Laughlin. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Fort Mojave Tribal Chairman Tim Williams delivers remarks during the public hearing to urge the Bureau of Land Management to designate the area Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Laughlin.

Tribes spread out along the Colorado River have adopted resolutions endorsing a monument, including 27 of 28 tribes in the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and all 21 in the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona.

Several sent representatives to Laughlin, offering their two-minute testimonies about how ancient sites in the area are still an active part of their lives. Artists, environmentalists, birdwatchers, dark night-sky preservationists, hunters and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts also showed up to voice support for the monument.

Frank DeRosa, vice president for policy and public affairs for the solar energy firm Avantus, said he supported the creation of a monument but asked BLM to consider “a modest request” for a small adjustment to the map: a “sliver,” he called it, that “avoids all cultural and environmentally sensitive areas,” so renewable energy companies can access transmission infrastructure from a long-decommissioned coal-fired plant in Laughlin.

Drusilla Burns, right, an elder from the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, listens as remarks are given during the public hearing to urge the Bureau of Land Management to designate the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Drusilla Burns, right, an elder from the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, listens as remarks are given during the public hearing to urge the Bureau of Land Management to designate the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.

This expanse of Nevada offers some of the best prospects for clean energy development in the country. The canyons here produce tremendous wind, and the sun shines 292 days per year, usually without any cloud cover. The area also boasts dozens of mining claims for rare earth elements, now coveted by the clean tech sector.

Four massive solar farms loom along U.S. 95 between Las Vegas and Searchlight. More than 100 turbines from the White Hills wind farm in Arizona are visible from some of the higher points within the proposed monument.

The Avi Kwa Ame map, as it has been drawn, prevents similar projects from breaking ground. In previous negotiations with the town of Laughlin, the tribes agreed to exclude 23,000 acres from their proposal so a large solar project at the southern tip of Clark County could continue. But they would not make similar concessions for an area abutting California’s Dead Mountains Wilderness, on the grounds that the area is sacred.

Redrawing any portions of the plan now, Williams said, was not an option. “All the resolutions, all the agreements, were based on that map being presented as final.”

The BLM has identified more than 9 million acres of its land in the state for potential large-scale solar projects, according to Interior, and an additional 16.8 million acres for possible wind energy development. The federal government has classified roughly 83 percent of the area the tribes have proposed protecting as either wilderness or “areas of critical environmental concern” as part of an effort to conserve critical desert tortoise habitat.

Joshua trees near the western edge of the proposed monument near Castle Mountains in Juan, Nev. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Joshua trees near the western edge of the proposed monument near Castle Mountains in Juan, Nev. A tarantula walks in Hiko Springs Canyon, a creek with cultural significance to the tribes of the area, in Laughlin. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A tarantula walks in Hiko Springs Canyon, a creek with cultural significance to the tribes of the area, in Laughlin. An aerial view of a large solar field north of the proposed national monument in Boulder City. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post An aerial view of a large solar field north of the proposed national monument in Boulder City.

A week ago, according to an individual familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, the chief of staff to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) met with an official from the White House Council on Environmental Quality to discuss the coming proclamation. Sisolak’s aide raised concerns about whether hunters had sufficient input into the process, this person said, and what effects the designation would have on renewable energy development.

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Biden officials assured the governor’s office that hunters could continue to sustain artificial water sources, known as guzzlers, to attract bighorn sheep, according to the individual. The officials added that the state would be allowed to access and maintain existing infrastructure — including water resources and electric transmission lines — under any monument designation.

On Wednesday, Sisolak endorsed the idea in a Twitter thread, in which he thanked Biden and Interior officials for working with the state and other groups on the designation.

“Designating the sacred Tribal site of Spirit Mountain and the surrounding Mojave Desert as a national monument and providing for appropriate management will ensure we will continue to preserve our rich cultural history and protect our rare and threatened wildlife,” he tweeted.

Political climate change

For decades, activists had been working to safeguard key tribal, cultural and ecological lands in this region in a piecemeal fashion. But that strategy changed in 2017, when President Donald Trump scaled back three national monuments and voiced his support for industrial development.

“This was a big shift for the whole environmental community,” Desai said. “Not only did the Trump administration have a different outlook on public lands use, but we were seeing site-specific threats.”

Retired Lake Mead National Recreation Area superintendent Alan O’Neil, and Neal Desai, Senior Director of Field Operations at the National Parks Conservation Association, talk near Castle Mountains National Monument. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Retired Lake Mead National Recreation Area superintendent Alan O’Neil, and Neal Desai, Senior Director of Field Operations at the National Parks Conservation Association, talk near Castle Mountains National Monument. A view of a distant wind farm from the northeastern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A view of a distant wind farm from the northeastern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.

In 2018, Crescent Peak Renewables — the American subsidiary of a Swedish wind power company, Eolus Vind AV — sought to build 248 wind turbines on 32,500 acres of BLM land in southern Clark County. Trump administration officials rejected the proposal, dubbed the Kulning Wind Energy Project.

Crescent Peak tried again last year, seeking access to just 9,300 acres to erect 68 turbines in a scaled-back version of the project. But BLM designated the application as “low priority,” effectively killing it.

“If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose this landscape,” said Alan O’Neill, a retired former superintendent for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area who consults for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The Fort Mojave tribe passed a resolution in September 2019 calling for protections of their ancestral lands extending far beyond Spirit Mountain, in a 381,300-acre national monument. By the time Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) introduced a bill supporting the plan this year, the proposed size had expanded to 443,671 acres.

Monument supporters got a boost when Interior laid out a 10-year plan for locally led efforts to restore and conserve the country’s lands, water and wildlife in May 2021. The “America the Beautiful” initiative promised to protect 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

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‘Gentle economic growth’

That’s when Kim Garrison Means, an artist, curator and college art instructor who lives in Searchlight (population 348), began going door to door to talk to residents about the proposed monument and to find out what it would take for them to support it.

Garrison Means, who lives a mile away from her nearest neighbor, said she talked to nearly everyone in town, making the case that people who loved their rural way of life needed to support this measure.

A view from the northwestern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post A view from the northwestern edge of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. Kim Garrison Means with The Mystery Ranch stands on her property in Searchlight. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Kim Garrison Means with The Mystery Ranch stands on her property in Searchlight. Petroglyphs in Hiko Springs Canyon, a creek with cultural significance to the tribes of the area, are seen near Laughlin. © Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post Petroglyphs in Hiko Springs Canyon, a creek with cultural significance to the tribes of the area, are seen near Laughlin.

“It was still pretty covid-y at the time. Some people hadn’t seen other humans for quite some time,” Garrison Means said. “We did a lot of listening.”

She said she found strong support for protecting the land around Searchlight from industrial development. “You don’t appreciate what you have until people want to make changes to it.”

Although wind and solar companies promise good-paying construction jobs, the Avi Kwa Ame activists contend that having this national monument on their doorstep will welcome what Garrison Means calls “gentle economic growth”: businesses related to camping, hunting, birding, hiking, stargazing and other forms of outdoor recreation.

“It was surprising how together our community was,” she added. “It didn’t matter what flag they were flying outside their house. People wanted to protect this land.”

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