LAS VEGAS SUN- Monument controversy adds gravity to National Public Lands Day
A leaked Interior Department memo sent to the White House recommends shrinking Gold Butte and several other national monuments, according to the Associated Press.
Early reports on recommendations made to President Donald Trump by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spared Nevada’s Gold Butte and Basin and Range from the alterations and management changes being discussed. But any sighs of relief by local conservationists were choked off Sept. 17, when the memo indicated Gold Butte was among the national monuments Zinke flagged for reduction — along with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and two marine sites in the Pacific.
Trump ordered Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments after suggesting they were “land grabs” by predecessors over the past few decades, notably Barack Obama, who bestowed the protective designation on Basin and Range and Gold Butte in 2015 and 2016, respectively. It’s unclear how the boundary adjustments might affect use of the land cut out of the monuments, but conservationists fear Trump’s general advocacy of domestic mining, logging and drilling for oil and gas. The AP reported that the memo cites “active timber management” and increased public access, which Zinke has stressed in terms of expanding or restoring rights to hunt, fish and graze livestock on the land.
Gold Butte is bordered to the south and west by the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. The monument designation covers roughly 464 square miles in southeastern Nevada, with its northern portion providing critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.
Zinke recommended revising the boundary “through the use of appropriate authority, including lawful exercise of the president’s discretion … to protect historic water rights,” according to the AP. The northern half of Gold Butte also is home to five of the Virgin Valley Water District’s springs in the Virgin Mountains, a study area under the Bureau of Land Management determined to have resources worthy of protection until Congress decides otherwise.
Virgin Valley Water District General Manager Kevin Brown said if the monument boundary couldn’t be changed to exclude the springs, he wanted specific protections added to the monument proclamation. He said the current language left opportunity for interpretation, which could cause problems down the road as people retire and staff rosters change at the water district and BLM.
“We do have access to the springs; however, the language that President Obama put in the proclamation last year was not the language we had requested to Sen. (Harry) Reid,” Brown said. “Ours was more inclusive to allow us to do things.”
According to the water district, the agency has sufficient existing surface water rights to meet annual projections to the year 2080 and beyond. Brown said that included the springs. He added that the district’s long-term plans included developing the surface and spring water to potable standards at an estimated cost of $40 million.
Friends of Gold Butte President Jaina Moan said Obama’s proclamation not only protected existing water rights but also shielded rights of way. She said it recognized the ability of entities like water districts to upgrade, modify and update their equipment and infrastructure. Even if the monument boundary were moved to exclude the springs, she said, the water district would still need to go through an extensive National Environmental Policy Act process before developing in the area.
“We’re ready to challenge this in court if the monument has any reductions or boundary changes per executive order,” she said, noting that only Congress can make changes to national monuments.
The timing of the leaked memo is pointed, as Sept. 30 is National Public Lands Day.
What is National Public Lands Day?
Whether it’s a hiking trip to Yosemite or a daily visit to the playground to swing from the monkey bars, public land use is a common part of the American experience. What’s less common is attaching the words “public land” to those memories. We might go about our lives expecting that green spaces and stunning preserves will always be there when we feel like visiting. But federal policies under consideration put extra emphasis on the observance of National Public Lands Day.
Begun in 1994 by the nonprofit National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), Public Lands Day promotes engagement with and enjoyment of public land, as well as volunteering to restore its beauty. Showing up might not change the fate of Gold Butte, but it’s a way to demonstrate your appreciation for public land and to grasp what goes into the maintenance of even a small park or school garden in the middle of the city (the cost of management is one argument for transferring federal ownership of some public lands to states, which then could sell off pieces to developers, a process the Republican-led Congress made easier through legislation this year).
• National Public Lands Day events are in the works across Southern Nevada. Search for those nearest you at neefusa.org/find-an-event/NV
• Volunteers are needed immediately at Red Rock Canyon to construct fences, reshape trails and pick up trash. Register to volunteer by emailing email@example.com
• Sept. 30 is a “fee-free day,” so with admission waived, you can get into your favorite national park or conservation area gratis and do some good: everything from planting trees to restoring historic structures, depending on the park. There’s also the option to just go enjoy being outside.
• Even if you can’t get to federally managed public land on the day, NEEF offers other ways to participate. The organization points out: “School grounds and community gardens can also participate. There is no limitation on the size or the managing agency of the public land.” Organizing or getting involved in an existing day of clean-up, helping out on a harvest, or pitching in with plant or lawn care at a local park all count as celebrations of National Public Lands Day. Focusing locally is a great way to bring attention to an area in your community that you may have noticed falling by the wayside. Maybe your playground could use a new coat of paint. Events can be registered at neefusa.org/public-lands-day.