Sunday, April 19, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Until late last year, environmentalists’ and tourism officials’ dream of Congress bestowing a national monument outside Las Vegas seemed like a long shot.
A bill to protect almost 23,000 acres of prehistoric fossil beds outside North Las Vegas had languished in Congress for several years.
But thanks in part to Sen. Harry Reid’s behind-the-scenes jockeying in 2014, Tule Springs National Monument is becoming a reality.
Now Reid is pushing for two more national monuments in Nevada to protect more than 1 million acres of desert outside Las Vegas.
Three national monuments within a four-hour drive from the Strip would be beyond tourism officials’ wildest dreams. But such a turn of events would be a nightmare for many Nevada Republicans, and they may not be able to stop it from happening.
What is a national monument?
Designation as a national monument offers one of the highest levels of federal protection for a swath of land in America. Congress or the president create monuments to protect land with historical or cultural significance. Examples include Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
National monuments differ slightly from national parks in that the parks, such as the Grand Canyon, are created to protect educational or scenic land.
What does Reid want to protect?
Reid reintroduced a bill in January that would create a conservation area over 350,000 acres of desert scrub near Gold Butte, the mining ghost town northeast of Lake Mead. The area’s colorful rocks, canyons and petroglyphs are popular with hikers, bikers and off-roaders.
Reid also reintroduced a bill that would withdraw 800,000 acres of land in Lincoln and Nye counties from oil and gas drilling. The move would ensure that Nevada artist Michael Heizer could protect “City,” a miles-long Earth sculpture he has carved and built in the desert over decades.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus recently introduced two similar bills in the House of Representatives.
But the bills have almost no chance of advancing in Congress during Reid’s remaining 21 months in office. His next-best option is to convince President Barack Obama to protect the land by designating it part of two new national monuments.
Why is this controversial?
The Republican-controlled Congress is reluctant to hand the federal government control of so much land and close it off to development, particularly energy development in rural Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties.
The Gold Butte proposal is particularly contentious because it covers the land where Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with federal officials last year.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller introduced legislation with Nevada’s three House Republicans to take away the president’s power to create national monuments.
“If it’s something the state government wants, the local government wants, the federal government wants, that’s fine,” Heller said. “I just want things to go through the process.”
But Reid appears to be forging ahead, making his case in public meetings and letters to administration officials. In February, he and Titus invited a high-ranking official from the Department of the Interior to a public meeting in Southern Nevada filled with supporters in favor of protecting the land.
“Legislation has always been Reid’s priority, but he’s not opposed to designations,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.
What will happen?
There’s a very real chance Reid could get his wish and see Obama designate two new national monuments in Southern Nevada before both leave office in January 2017.
Reid has gathered a diverse and powerful group of supporters: the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Nevada Resort Association, wilderness activists, MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren and Barrick Gold Corp.
The president, whose administration has designated 16 national monuments since 2009, tends to choose projects that have strong local support and a clear public input process, said Matt Keller, of the Wilderness Society.
“It’s a challenge to move these things, and lawmakers have to find openings when they have them,” Keller said.
Reid already is credited with creating Northern Nevada’s Great Basin national park and more than 60 protected wilderness areas. Leaving a 30-year career in the U.S. Senate with three national monuments to his name would be the capstone of Reid’s environmental legacy.
“These are our lands,” he told KNPR. “They are federal lands. They belong to everybody in America.”