Departing director Jaina Moan saw Friends of Gold Butte through its best times — and its worst
The morning of April 26, 2017, Jaina Moan went for a run in the desert, had breakfast with her husband, Ben, showered, pulled on her standard work attire of jeans, boots, and a long-sleeved knit shirt, and headed to the Downtown coworking space where she carried out her duties as Friends of Gold Butte’s executive director. It would’ve been an unremarkable day, were it not for the vague worry nibbling at the edge of her consciousness. Rumors that President Trump was planning to roll back the national monument designations of his predecessor, Barack Obama, were trickling down from Washington, D.C., to people such as Moan, who’d worked to get those public lands protected from development.
Then it happened. A little before lunchtime, Moan got a press release alerting her that Trump had ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the size and scope of more than two dozen national monuments and recommend any alterations — reductions, likely — he deemed necessary. Gold Butte was on the list.
Moan hung up the phone, whisper-shouted an expletive, stood up, paced around distractedly for moment, and walked to the common area for some coffee. She ran into an office-mate who was familiar with her work, so she spent a few minutes venting her frustration. Then she went back to her desk, sat down, pushed up her sleeves, and got back to work. She emailed the bad news to Friends of Gold Butte’s board of directors and staff, contacts from the local Paiute tribes, and members of a coalition encompassing like-minded groups that had pushed for protection.
“It was a moment of discouragement,” she says. “Achieving the designation was a great success, but we had a lot of work to do following that, too, to make sure the cultural and natural resources would be safe. I had been gearing up, writing grants, reconfiguring the organization. We had already adopted a new mission, and I was working on that in our new capacity. Then to have the monument review come up — I knew we’d have to defend it. I knew it would be hard. I’d spent two years asking people to support the monument, sign petitions, testify at hearings, write letters to the editor. And to have to go back to them … to defend the designation we’d achieved, it was discouraging.”
Barely four months since Friends of Gold Butte’s high point, when Obama used the Antiquities Act to declare their beloved land a national monument, they were at an all-time low. But the emotional roller coaster was nothing new. Nor was Moan’s reaction. Apart from those few minutes of pacing and venting, she wasted no time wallowing in disappointment. By the time she went to bed on April 26, a plan for responding to the crisis was in place.
“Trump’s review of the monuments, that was really frustrating for her,” says Jose Witt, both Moan’s close friend and, as Southern Nevada director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a fellow member of the conservation community. “But it never wore her down. At the end of the day, she stayed on course. She was at every meeting. I can’t imagine how many hours she worked. Her passion carried her through everything they threw at her.”
In September, after three years and eight months with Friends of Gold Butte, Moan took her passion to The Nature Conservancy of Nevada, where she now oversees its climate change initiative. She wasn’t looking for a new job, she says; the position just fell in her lap, an unexpected and ideal next step in her career trajectory. For Gold Butte, meanwhile, the drama continues. Zinke’s December 2017 report to Trump recommended scaling back the national monument to the smallest size allowed by the declaration’s stated goal, but the report didn’t specify how to go about that. Without clear guidance — or a budget — the Bureau of Land Management has back-burnered the planning process for the monument. Can Friends of Gold Butte win this game of limbo without the director who saw it through its most tumultuous time? Not surprisingly, Moan had already thought of that.
When Moan was a kid growing up in Arizona, her mom would take her and her sister to the wilderness, sometimes pulling them out of school for it.
“My mom is a great environmentalist,” Moan says. “She instilled in my sister and me from an early age that we are not the only important things on this Earth. There are other plants and animals out there that deserve to be there and are affected by what we do. … I remember we’d go to the Red Rock Crossing area of Sedona. My sister and I would play in the stream, and she would just be in that space, showing us by example why it was important to care for nature. It wasn’t just reading me The Lorax, or giving me a stuffed animal. It was like, ‘Let’s get out there!’ … Seeing my mom sit still in nature, and then emerge from that a happier, calmer mom, it stayed with me.”
Moan’s parents divorced when she was young, but her father stayed involved in his daughters’ lives, and his work ethic also made an impression on the future nonprofit executive. “My dad taught me that it’s important to have integrity, to work hard, and to make sure those you’re working with are supported,” she says.
These experiences were reflected in the way Moan handled her time at Gold Butte. Besides trail running several times a week, she practices yoga, and goes on frequent hiking and backpacking trips, often with her husband. She says the peace she gains from being outdoors and having a calm, nurturing home life allows her to maintain equanimity in the face of challenges, and balance during stressful times at work.
“From Jaina, I learned that to do a job like this, it not only takes knowledge, but it also takes being driven. She’s the hardest-working
person I know, and I can’t keep up,” says Brenda Slocumb, the outings and outreach coordinator for Friends of Gold Butte.
Before Moan, Friends of Gold Butte didn’t have employees like Slocumb. When the board of directors hired Moan in January 2015, hers was the only paid position. Nevertheless, the former (and founding) director, Nancy Hall, and the board had laid a good foundation for growth. The group had a positive bank balance, and Hall had tied up loose ends before leaving, Moan says, so she could hit the ground running. She immediately partnered with other conservation groups and started spending as much time in Gold Butte and nearby Mesquite as possible.
“Jaina took over a fledgling organization and built it into early adulthood,” says Jim Boone, a local wildlife biologist known as the “Bird and Hike guy” after his exhaustive blog. “Nancy (Hall) gathered up a few friends and built it up through the toddler years. Jaina took over and built it up through its adolescence, when everything kind of went berserk, and got it through that.”
Things actually went “berserk” before Moan got there. In August of 2013, Hall’s efforts culminated in a pair of congressional bills that proposed setting aside 350,000 acres as a national conservation area with some wilderness. The plan included a concession for HOVers, whom she’d managed to bring to the table: a transportation plan leaving 500 miles of trails open for motorized recreation.
“I worked on that map constantly starting in 1998,” Hall told Desert Companion in a 2017 interview. “There was input from the tribes, the ATV community, the environmentalists, and the local community.”
As close as she came to winning NCA designation, Hall says, the opposition was always there. When the bills came out, anger among those who opposed closing off the wilderness coalesced. Then came April 2014 and the confrontation between law enforcement and the Bundy family and its armed supporters outside Bunkerville, near Gold Butte. Although no one would admit it on record, the incident spooked almost everyone involved in the conservation effort. By the time Moan arrived in her new job, the BLM hadn’t set foot in Gold Butte for months. Undeterred, she went out on her own, and then with volunteers. They raised awareness and funds; documented damage, such as bullet holes riddling ancient petroglyph rock panels; took groups of activists, elected officials, and reporters out for tours. For two years, they rebuilt the case for federal protection, and in December 2016, with Obama’s national monument designation, they got it.
But it was a bumpy ride. The Bundy standoff galvanized designation proponents just as much as opponents, as did a second pair of NCA bills proposed in 2015. Tension at public hearings grew, culminating in open hostility at a February 2017 meeting in Mesquite that the BLM had called simply to let residents know what to expect now that Gold Butte was a national monument. Through it all, though, Moan stayed calm. She gave everyone a chance to voice their opinion, and listened respectfully.
“Jaina had a mission as part of her responsibilities with Friends of Gold Butte, and I had mine as general manager of the Virgin Valley Water District, and a couple times those two missions clashed,” says Kevin Brown, who believes the monument, as designated, would infringe on his agency’s water rights. “But Jaina was always professional and easy to get along with, and I think we both mutually respected each other.”
If opponents thought Trump’s monument review and Zinke’s downsizing recommendation would make Moan give up, then they don’t know her, Witt says. He tells this story to illustrate her determination:
Jaina wanted to explore the southern end of Gold Butte, as most of the highlights are in the northern part of the monument. The problem was that the cooler seasons were always busy because we’d be hosting tours for groups. So she resolved to go out there in the middle of summer. She recruited me to join her, and, with a massive amount of water, we headed down to explore parts of the area that neither of us had seen. One place we wanted to check out was an old abandoned mine. As we drove toward it, the road got really bad, to the point where we had to get out of the vehicle and walk. It was more than 105 degrees as we hiked toward the mine site that was at least a mile and a half away. Jaina claims she really loves the heat. To emphasize this, she kept her bright-pink, soft-shell jacket on! I remember thinking, ‘How does she not just collapse of heat exhaustion?’ Obviously, we survived, but I’m sure we were one flat tire away from certain death.
This is not a woman who would walk away from Friends of Gold Butte without making sure she’d first done everything in her power to help it reach its goal. She leaves the organization with two full-time and two part-time staff, an office in Mesquite, a rebranding campaign that’s well underway, and a new mission, to promote the responsible enjoyment of Gold Butte National Monument. Moan has uncovered every opportunity to work around the Zinke-induced limbo, securing other funding and collaborating with government agencies on road improvements, sign installations, and restoration projects. She’s confident that the BLM partnership and vast network of volunteers that she’s helped to forge will carry this work forward. (At press time, Friends of Gold Butte was interviewing potential replacements.) She’s excited about her future at The Nature Conservancy, a well-established environmental organization, but it’s bittersweet.
“I loved working for Friends of Gold Butte,” she says. “I hope that people really realize the incredible number of both natural and human antiquities that there are on this landscape. I will always carry Gold Butte in my heart.”