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Gold Butte designated a national monument

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Nick Dobric / friends of Gold Butte

A petroglyph panel known as “Newspaper Rock” is among the areas in Gold Butte, near Mesquite, for which conservationists have pushed legislators to pass protections.

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016 | 5:03 p.m.

Gold Butte National Monument

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Gold Butte

A campsite is seen in the Whitney Pockets area of Gold Butte, Aug. 4, 2013. Sandstone rock formations and Joshua trees protect primitive campsites. Launch slideshow »

The future of Gold Butte tipped toward the side of environmentalists today when President Barack Obama designated the desert land as a national monument, but protecting it could prove challenging.

Gold Butte is northeast of Las Vegas, between Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Grand Canyon — Parashant National Monument.

Environmental groups, Native American tribes and some of Nevada’s congressional delegation have worked for more than a decade to obtain federal safeguards for hundreds of thousands of acres famous for their beautiful sandstone formations and ancient petroglyphs.

Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the monument. The most famous usage of the legislation came two years after its passage, when President Theodore Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument, which later would become Grand Canyon National Park.

“I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” Obama said in a statement.

“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” he said.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, tried unsuccessfully to gain National Conservation Area status for Gold Butte through Congress in 2013, introducing a bill that did not pick up momentum. Reid said in August that he anticipated Obama would take action on Gold Butte before both left office.

“After working for decades to protect Gold Butte’s breathtaking landscapes and cultural treasures, I was overjoyed to hear the news today from President Obama,” Reid said in a statement. “The splendor of Gold Butte will now be protected for all of us. It will be enjoyed for generations to come and I appreciate the persistence of the many Nevadans who fought for its protection despite the obstacles.”

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., supports the project, as did her predecessor in Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, Shelley Berkley.

“President Obama heard our cry and took the necessary action to save this natural treasure,” Titus said in a statement. “I am relieved that our glorious piece of the Grand Canyon now has the protection it needs and deserves so its magnificent resources can be preserved for generations to come.”

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Reps. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev. — whose district includes Gold Butte — and Mark Amodei, R-Nev., opposed Obama taking executive action to designate the monument. The Republicans cited a lack of consensus among local, state and federal officials on the issue.

“I am terribly disappointed with today’s news,” Heller said in a statement. “For years, I have urged for all new land designations, especially ones in Nevada, to be considered in an open and public congressional process. Doing so allows for all voices and stakeholders to have an equal opportunity to be heard. Best of all, input from local parties guarantees local needs are addressed. In the future, I will continue to fight for an open process utilizing congressional support to designate new national monuments.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval expressed concern about Obama’s use of executive power to create the national monument, but also met with White House officials prior to the designation to address local issues including water, hunting and off-road activities.

“I believe our Congressional delegation should have had a primary role in working to build consensus as has been accomplished successfully in the past,” Sandoval said in a statement. “At the same time, I recognized the inevitability of this designation and therefore met and talked with leaders from Mesquite, landowners, stakeholders and special user groups on this specific issue to try and address their concerns.”

Local conservation group Friends of Gold Butte wrote in support of a plan to designate the area as a national conservation area, similar to Red Rock National Conservation Area.

“By protecting Gold Butte as a national conservation area with wilderness, we can strike a balance between protecting the most sensitive areas to allow for hiking, hunting and photographing ancient rock art while at the same time ensuring over 500 miles of existing roads remain open for off-road and other vehicles. Nevada can promote Gold Butte as a place where locals and tourists alike can hike, hunt, explore cultural sites, and ride off-highway.”

William Anderson, former chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, thanked Reid and Titus for their work in preserving his ancestry.

“Part of my culture, part of my heritage was being taken away,” Anderson said.

National monument status could offer protection for Gold Butte, but enforcement could be difficult, given the area’s inflammatory background and uncertain funding from a Republican-controlled Congress.

A 2014 standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management drew national attention to the area when federal officials attempted to round up “trespass cattle” belonging to Bundy, who has not paid required grazing fees in more than two decades while claiming the federal government does not have rights on the land in and near Gold Butte.

The BLM backed away from the roundup days later when armed militia joined the Bundy family in protesting the roundup. And federal workers for a time stopped monitoring the area in the aftermath of the standoff after a confrontation with the Bundy family and a later report of shots being fired near the workers.

Ryan Bundy, one of Cliven Bundy’s sons who was arrested and ultimately acquitted at trial in a case related to another standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2015, last month told the Chicago Tribune he supported a similar protest if Obama named Gold Butte a national monument.

“Absolutely! That’s the best thing in the world for [people] to do,” Bundy told the Tribune. “Read the Declaration of Independence. It says right there that if the government becomes abusive, it’s our right and our duty to abolish that government. If the government won’t restrain itself, whatever happens is their own fault.”

Titus sharply rebuked Bundy’s comments, citing a three-hour town hall meeting, public opinion polling, a recent report issued on damage within the area and numerous trips to Gold Butte by Congressional members as proof of significant community engagement on the issue.

“When you have that kind of evidence stacking up … that very much outweighs the concerns of criminals like the Bundys,” Titus said. “Our voices are much louder than one family of Bundys.”

Titus also said that federal funding for patrol and maintenance of Gold Butte remains uncertain.

“It’ll be up to us now to continue the fight,” Titus said.

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