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Interior secretary recommends shrinking Gold Butte

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday recommended shrinking the boundaries of Gold Butte National Monument in a move that distressed conservationists, who have fought for years to protect the land near Mesquite. Zinke's report came one day after the president slashed the size of two national monuments in Utah, a move that has already sparked a lawsuit.

Compared to the wholesale changes the president approved in Utah, any adjustments to Gold Butte are expected to be minor. But Zinke's recommendations, although similar to a leaked draft in September, carry a symbolic weight for the area. They signal a major reversal of public lands policy that comes almost exactly one year after President Obama designated the nearly 300,000 acres that start about 10 miles from the site of the 2014 Bundy standoff.

With the report's release, no reductions have been made to the Gold Butte footprint. The recommendations now go to the president who makes a final decision about the boundaries. The report came out of a months-long review of all national monuments designated since 1996. Under the Antiquities Act, presidents are given the authority to designate national monuments. Many conservative lawmakers view those proclamations as an example of federal overreach.

Zinke recommended that Obama's proclamation, which created Gold Butte, be amended to consider several conflicts in the area, from existing grazing rights to historic water rights.

"The boundary should be revised through the use of appropriate authority, including lawful exercise of your discretion granted by the Act, to ensure that the monument reservation is limited to the smallest area compatible with the protection of the objects identified (in the proclamation) and protect historic water rights," Zinke wrote in the report.

The Virgin Valley Water District, which supplies water to Bunkerville and a growing population in Mesquite, has rights to five springs that fall within the boundaries of the national monument. The water district met with Zinke in Bunkerville over the summer and requested that the national monument’s northern boundary be redrawn to exclude these springs.

“We requested some fairly specific language to ensure we would have the ability to be able to develop and maintain and do mechanical construction on our spring sources that we have the water rights to,” Kevin Brown, the water district's general manager, told The Nevada Independent in September.

The original proclamation recognized the validity of the water rights, and Gov. Brian Sandoval's administration worked with the Virgin Valley Water District ahead of the monument designation last December. Supporters of the monument designation call their concerns a red herring. But the water district felt that the proclamation language needed to be strengthened.

At the time of the designation, Sandoval said that he believed the use of the Antiquities Act "bypassed Congress and the public," but worked with the Obama administration on the boundaries when it was clear that the administration planned to make the designation.

The report rekindles a fierce debate over public land management in Western states, where the federal government owns 47 percent of all the land, and it prompted sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists, one day after the president shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah by 2 million acres.

"If [Zinke] were interested in the will of Nevadans, Zinke would know that Gold Butte's designation was the product of grassroots advocacy, good-faith negotiations, and the belief that our national treasures should not be subject to the Trump Administration's blatant disregard,"  Rep. Dina Titus said in a statement on Tuesday.

Rep. Jacky Rosen called the monument review process a "sham" and also pledged in a statement Tuesday that she would "fight this reckless decision."

Conservationists remain puzzled by the motivation for shrinking the monument. Jaina Moan, executive director of the Friends of Gold Butte, said there are few active mining claims in the area, little interest in oil, and that the current proclamation already protects water rights.

"There is no benefit removing [land] from the national monument designation," she said.

If the president approves changes to the Gold Butte area, the land would still remain federal land under the Bureau of Land Management. If private interests wanted to develop the land, they would need to undergo extensive permitting because the Gold Butte area contains important habitat for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

When the report was first leaked in September, Sen. Dean Heller called the Obama designation "an example of extreme overreach and the failed Washington-knows-best mentality." On Tuesday, he said the "decision is welcome news for Nevada as it allows the [water district] to access their water rights that were lost under the previous administration."

The designation continues to be contentious locally. At a meeting in February, opponents and monument supporters got into a loud exchange at a public forum about Gold Butte in Mesquite.

Several allies of rancher Cliven Bundy spoke at the meeting. Bundy and his sons are on trial in Las Vegas. They face multiple federal charges related to an armed standoff in 2014 between Bundy and BLM agents. The conflict near Gold Butte was the result of a decades-long dispute between the federal government and Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees.

The report did not suggest any wholesale changes to grazing rights. Grazing in the area has been limited since the late 90s, and Clark County purchased many of the grazing allotments as a way to protect the desert tortoise. Zinke's report noted that the original proclamation failed to recognize four active grazing rights managed by the Arizona BLM. He wrote that Obama's proclamation should be "amended to address inaccuracies related to active grazing allotments."

If Trump decides to shrink the monument, the decision will likely face a court challenge.

"We will fight it in court," Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in an email. "And we will win.”

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