By Las Vegas Sun Staff
President Barack Obama, in collaboration with outgoing Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus, has gift-wrapped an opportunity for the Trump administration’s presumptive secretary of the Interior to make an immediate splash in his new role.
The gift was designating Gold Butte a national monument.
The opportunity it presents the presumptive secretary, Ryan Zinke, is to protect public land and strike a blow against sovereign citizen extremists by working to ensure it receives adequate federal funding.
Gold Butte provided the backdrop in 2014 when rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers became involved in a standoff with federal authorities in nearby Bunkerville.
The feds were there to round up cattle that Bundy, without paying required federal fees, had allowed to graze in the area for years. Bundy, his family and their militia supporters were there to defy government authorities, who in their twisted view had no authority over the land.
As Nevadans remember all too well, the Bundy group won. During a standoff in which militia members pointed weapons at authorities — not just the feds, but Metro Police officers, as well — officials capitulated. They did the right thing in de-escalating the situation, but federal officials bungled the aftermath by failing to pursue and prosecute the individuals who raised arms against duly-sworn law enforcement officials.
Now, the president-elect’s administration and the Republican-controlled House and Senate should send the extremists a clear message that they’re out of bounds by supporting Gold Butte.
That’s where Zinke comes in.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has made several statements indicating he opposes those like the Bundys.
“I will never agree with the transfer or sale of public lands,” Zinke told the Montana Standard in October. “I view our public lands as sacred, and access to our public lands has to be part of it because we’re shutting gates, we’re closing roads and the public is losing access.”
That said, Zinke’s actual voting record has been less than ideal on land issues. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 3 percent rating, and Salon reported that he consistently voted against any regulation that would protect public lands from environmental damage from business interests.
But Gold Butte gives Zinke an opportunity to put his money — or, more accurately, government funding — where his mouth is.
Although Obama’s designation guarantees that the area will receive certain protections, whether it receives the funding to provide proper security, maintenance and enhancement is in the hands of Congress.
That’s where Zinke, with Trump’s endorsement, would come in.
If Zinke is truly a proponent of keeping public lands in the government’s hands, he has a chance to work toward ensuring that Gold Butte gets the support it needs to be protected.
Let’s make no mistake: That’s exactly what he should do. The area is a Nevada environmental and cultural treasure, with its diversity of wildlife and its centuries-old petroglyphs. It should be kept as pristine as possible for future generations to enjoy.
The designation was a Christmas gift to Nevada and the entire nation from Obama, Titus and Reid, albeit one that arrived a few days late.
Now, Zinke should help make sure it’s a gift that keeps on giving.