Biden pledges to honor tribes with huge Nevada national monument

Biden pledges to honor tribes with huge Nevada national monument

The Washington Post

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President Biden will pledge to ban development on hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Nevada around Spirit Mountain, a sacred tribal site. A broad coalition supports the move, but renewable energy companies have raised concerns.

The night sky hangs over the Knob Hill area of ​​the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Boulder City, Nevada.
The night sky hangs over the Knob Hill area of ​​the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Boulder City, Nevada (Kyle Grillot)

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

“There is a spiritual connection that makes us Mojaves,” said Tribal Council Chairman Tim Williams. “If it’s not protected, our generation will not have done its 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 preparing a proclamation that could put about 450,000 acres – covering almost the entire triangle at the bottom of the Nevada map – prohibited from development under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

President Biden will pledge at the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Wednesday to protect the area, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not yet public.

The transformation of this 700 square mile wedge between California and Arizona is likely to rank as the biggest land conservation act Biden will undertake this term. The designation has support from tribes, local officials, environmental groups and the rural business community, but has frustrated some renewable energy advocates, who warn it could undermine the country’s climate goals.

Located between Mojave National Preserve on the California side and Lake Mead National Recreation Area along the Nevada and Arizona border, the monument will provide an expanse that will allow desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and dozens of other species to live and migrate. uninterrupted.

“It’s the missing link connecting the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau,” said Neal Desai, senior project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which has worked to protect the area for more than a dozen years.

Wind and solar companies, Desai said, will have to stay on the other side of the monument’s boundaries.

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

In mid-November, nearly 250 people gathered at the Aquarius Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, for a two-hour public hearing with officials from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to discuss the future monument. Just over two months prior, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had visited the area and hosted a roundtable on the topic with Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.).

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

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

Tribes spread along the Colorado River passed resolutions endorsing a monument, including 27 of the 28 tribes in the Nevada Intertribal Council and all 21 in the Arizona Intertribal Association.

Several sent representatives to Laughlin, offering their two-minute testimonies of how the area’s ancient sites are still an active part of their lives. Artists, conservationists, bird watchers, night sky conservators, hunters and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts also showed up to express their support for the monument.

Frank DeRosa, vice president of policy and public affairs at solar energy company Avantus, said he supports the creation of a monument, but asked BLM to consider “a modest request” for one. small map tweak – a “ribbon,” he called it, that “avoids all cultural and ecologically sensitive areas” so renewable energy companies can access transmission infrastructure from a power plant long disused coal mine in Laughlin.

This stretch of Nevada offers some of the best prospects for clean energy development in the country. The canyons here produce strong winds and the sun shines 292 days a year, usually without any cloud cover. The region also has dozens of mining concessions for rare earth elements, now coveted by the cleantech sector.

Four massive solar farms loom along US 95 between Las Vegas and Searchlight. More than 100 wind turbines at the White Hills Wind Farm in Arizona are visible from some of the highest points of the proposed monument.

The Avi Kwa Ame card, as it was drawn, prevents similar projects from innovating. In previous negotiations between the town of Laughlin and Avantus – then called 8minute Solar Energy – the tribes agreed to exclude 23,000 acres from their proposal so that a large solar project at the southern tip of Clark County could proceed. But they wouldn’t make similar concessions for an area abutting California’s Dead Mountains Wilderness, on the grounds that the area is sacred.

Redrawing all parts of the plan now, Williams said, was not an option. “All resolutions, all agreements, were based on this map 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 potential wind power development. The federal government has classified about 83% of the area the tribes have proposed to protect as either wilderness or an “area of ​​critical environmental concern,” as part of an effort to conserve critical habitat for the desert turtles.

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

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Biden officials assured the governor’s office that hunters could continue to maintain artificial water sources, called guzzlers, to attract bighorn sheep, according to the senior administration aide. Officials added that the state would be allowed to access and maintain existing infrastructure — including water resources and power transmission lines — under any monument designation.

Sisolak has not taken a public position on the monument. The Democratic-controlled Nevada Legislature passed a joint resolution in 2021 to support her, and the lieutenant governor, who is also a Democrat, has been championing Avi Kwa Ame’s economic benefits since the spring.

For decades, activists have worked to safeguard key tribal, cultural and ecological lands in this region in piecemeal fashion. But that strategy changed in 2017, when President Donald Trump downsized three national monuments and voiced support for industrial development.

“It was a big change for the whole environmental community,” Desai said. “Not only did the Trump administration have a different view of public land use, but we were seeing site-specific threats.”

In 2018, Crescent Peak Renewables – the US subsidiary of a Swedish wind energy 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-down version of the project. But BLM designated the app as “low priority”, effectively killing it.

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

The Fort Mojave Tribe passed a resolution in September 2019 calling for the protection of their ancestral lands extending far beyond Spirit Mountain into 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 grown to 443,671 acres.

Supporters of the monument received a boost when the Interior presented a 10-year plan of locally-led efforts to restore and conserve the country’s land, water and wildlife in May 2021. The “America the Beautiful” initiative pledged to protect 30% of the country by 2030.

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“Soft economic growth”

That’s when Kim Garrison Means, an artist, curator and university art professor who lives in Searchlight (population 348), started going door to door to talk to residents of the proposed monument and to find out what it would be necessary for them to support this

Garrison Means, who lives a mile from his nearest neighbor, said he spoke to almost everyone in town, saying people who liked their rural way of life should support the measure.

“It was still pretty covid-y back then. Some people hadn’t seen other humans in a while,” Garrison Means said. “We listened a lot”

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

As wind and solar companies promise well-paying construction jobs, Avi Kwa Ame activists say having this national landmark on their doorstep will welcome what Garrison Means calls “smooth economic growth” – businesses related to camping, hunting, bird watching, hiking, stargazing and other forms of outdoor recreation.

“It was amazing how united our community was,” she added. “It didn’t matter what flag they put up in front of their house, people wanted to protect this land.”

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