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Fate of two Nevada national monuments in flux after long-awaited Interior Department report recommends possible boundary changes, but no monument elimination

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly

The fate of two national monuments in Nevada remained uncertain today as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted a draft report to the president suggesting reductions in size to a little less than two dozen national monuments under review by his department but no complete eliminations.

Zinke today told the Associated Press on Thursday that he would not recommend the elimination of 21 national monuments under review by the federal government, while a “handful” of the sites would have undefined adjustments to their borders. The former Montana congressman declined to say which monuments could have their boundaries changed or downsized, and the full report of recommendations transmitted to the White House isn’t immediately public. Zinke declined to comment on any proposed changes to Nevada’s two new national monuments — Basin and Range and Gold Butte — during a trip to Nevada in July.

According to the Washington Post, Zinke plans to modify the boundaries of at least three monuments — Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.

In a statement, Gov. Brian Sandoval said he spoke with Zinke yesterday and appreciated the “direct outreach” from the secretary on the monument review process, but didn’t mention any potential boundary changes to Nevada’s national monuments.

“I have always said that the Antiquities Act is not the right way to designate national monuments because this process often leaves out input from stakeholders and local and state officials,” he said in a statement. “I am eager to review the final recommendations but believe the Secretary will make recommendations consistent with our previous conversations and based on his extensive review to President Trump, who will then make final decisions on any appropriate changes.”

A report summary released by the department said that the comments received by the department were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the existing monuments and demonstrated a “well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”

It also hinted that presidential use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to create national monuments should not be used as a “substitute” for lack of congressional action on land conservation issues. Former President Barack Obama used the act to create two new national monuments in Nevada late in his second term, a process criticized by many Republicans including Gov. Brian Sandoval as bypassing the input of Congress and the public.

“No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” Zinke said in a statement.

Democratic lawmakers in Nevada have been urging the Trump administration to not eliminate or alter the state’s existing national monuments and listen to the 83,000 comments that specifically mention support for Gold Butte or Basin and Range national monuments. Conservation advocates estimated that more than 2.7 million comments about the national monument review were sent to the Department of the Interior.

The summary noted that opponents of the monuments urged the federal government to protect “traditional multiple use” of the land, including using grazing, timber production, mining, hunting and fishing and motorized recreation.

Basin and Range in Lincoln and Nye Counties and Gold Butte in northeastern Clark County were two of the 27 national monuments originally selected for review after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April directing Zinke to review monuments created over the last 20 years and recommend changes to their boundaries. Both Nevada monuments cover hundreds of thousands of acres and were designated by former President Barrack Obama late in his second term — Basin and Range in July 2015 and Gold Butte in December 2016.

Sandoval worked with Obama and former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to help set the boundaries of the future site for Gold Butte, including setting aside areas claimed by the Virgin Valley Water District, private property and the long-range growth plans of Mesquite. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Interior Department’s summary report.

Officials in Mesquite — the largest population center in proximity to Gold Butte — initially said that they haven’t received word on what the federal government planned to do with the monument site. Mesquite Mayor Allan Litman said in an email that he had no contact with any government people on what he would like for the monument.

“I guess DOI (Department of Interior) does not want my opinion,” he said.

Six national monuments were removed from review prior to the deadline: Craters of the Moon, Hanford Reach, the Upper Missouri River Breaks, Grand Canyon-Parashant, Canyons of the Ancients and Sand to Snow.

In April, President Trump issued an executive order requiring the Interior Department to review all presidential national monument designations since 1996 more than 100,000 acres in size to see if the designations “appropriately balance” preservation with effects on surrounding lands and communities.

Progressive groups, including the Center for Western Priorities, immediately criticized the decision to only release the “detail-free” report summary and called for the full report to be released.

“This secrecy shows the Trump administration knows their attack on national monuments is wildly unpopular,” the group’s executive director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement. “If Secretary Zinke expects Americans to be thankful because he wants to merely erase large chunks of national monuments instead of eliminating them entirely, he is badly mistaken.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit focused on conservation, said Thursday that it filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the department for the full report and called it a “lawless, secretive sham.”

Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen, whose district overlaps both monuments, tweeted Thursday that he was “disappointed” in the lack of specificity in the department’s recommendations.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Dina Titus joined the chorus and derided the administration’s “leak” to the press as antithetical to the stated goals of bringing transparency to the monument review process, and said she filed an amendment on the budget bill for the Interior Department that would prohibit the administration from making changes to designated monument sites.

“Secretary Zinke and President Trump have instead created more questions than answers and are ignoring the years of hard work by thousands advocating for the creation of Gold Butte, Basin and Range, and monuments across the United States,” she said in a statement.

The outdoor recreation economy in Nevada supports 148,000 jobs and creates $14.9 billion in economic value each year, according to figures released from Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s office. Ten Obama-era monuments are estimated to have created $156 million in direct and indirect economic impacts, according to a report from the advocacy group Small Business Majority last year.

Essentially all of the monuments selected for review in the continental 48 states are in the West, with the exception of Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine. The department also reviewed a number of marine national monuments including Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, Rose Atoll in American Samoa and Papahanaumokuakea in Hawaii.


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