Our national monuments are special places, and the Antiquities Act, which was used to designate them, is an important tool to get the right thing done when unreasonable politics get in the way.
In Nevada, the Antiquities Act was used to designate Basin and Range National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument. Both of these places were supported by the vast majority of Nevadans, but obstructionist Republican politics, having vowed to ensure that our first black president would suffer a failed administration, stymied the will of the people in these and many other cases.
After years of work by many individuals, organizations, and coalitions, and after repeatedly introducing legislation over several years, the people of Nevada asked the president to use authority, granted by congress to the president under the Antiquities Act, to declare Basin and Range and Gold Butte as national monuments.
These were not some random patches of desert real estate chosen by environmentalist to lock out industry. These places are special areas with specific reasons for conserving them.
Basin and Range National Monument, established in 2015, set aside two large valley basins and all or parts of eight surrounding mountain ranges. This is the Basin and Range Province, the iconic landscape of Nevada, and just like many other states have conserved parts of their iconic landscapes, Nevada has now conserved a part of its iconic landscape. Think of Arizona conserving the Grand Canyon National Park, California conserving Yosemite, and Utah conserving Zion National Park. In this respect, Nevada is now on par with surrounding states.
Basin and Range National Monument conserves some of the last unspoiled basins in Nevada, which is to say that it conserves some of the Basin and Range ecosystem. This helps protect habitat for plants and wildlife unique to this area, and it ensures that outdoor enthusiasts have places to experience these habitats in their primeval state for off-highway driving, camping, and hunting. Conservation of this area also protects the sheep and cattle ranching lifestyle, and the land-art sculpture “City,” from encroachment by industry.
Basin and Range also protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and the native people lived in the area for many generations left their marks. The area also protects some of the earliest (1860s) mining history in southern Nevada, which also tells important stories of conflicts between competing cultures.
Gold Butte National Monument, established in 2016, sets aside stunning landscapes and the long history of human use of the land. Like the well-known Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Gold Butte sets aside red-and-white sandstone crags and towering limestone mountains for recreation, but Gold Butte also includes geologically interesting metamorphic mountains (where rock hounds have searched for semiprecious stones over the years) and granite mountains reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park or the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold Butte even has its own volcano. Except for the metamorphic mountains, these are the same rock layers that make up the Grand Canyon, and Gold Butte truly is Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon, the difference is that ours is all jumbled up.
Gold Butte protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and native people used the area and left their marks in several areas. Gold Butte also protects early (1880s) ranching and mining history in southern Nevada, and includes stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Gold Butte long has been designated for the conservation of Desert Bighorn Sheep and Desert Tortoise, and it provides habitat for other rare and sensitive plant and animal species.
Using the Antiquities Act to set aside conservation areas cuts through congressional inabilities to get the right thing done. In doing so, we the people are saying that these are among the last remaining special places in Nevada and now is the time to think carefully about our future. While some few would like to develop these area and use them up now and forever, the rest of us are saying that we should save some places where future generations can decide what to do with them. It is a bit like tithing to the church or saving for retirement. We are taking something we have today and setting it aside for higher purposes. Future generation can decide to do something else, but we are preserving for them the option to decide.
I grew up in Los Angeles. I remember playing outdoors in the orange and avocado groves. I’ve seen cities expand and take over the landscape as my favorite outdoor spaces were developed for housing and industry. Conservationists are doing the same thing cities and states are doing: long range, large scale, land-use planning. It is time to use all land-use planning tools, including the Antiquities Act, to plan a future that works for everyone: industrial lands where industry is good, housing lands where housing is good, and recreation lands where recreation is good.