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Avi Kwa Ame monument protects 500,000 acres sacred to 12 Nevada tribes

Spirit Mountain behind a Joshua tree forest
Honor Avi Kwa Ame

Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument.

At more than 500,000 acres, it’s home to native rock art, the world’s largest Joshua tree forest and the driving force for its designation — it’s sacred to 12 Indigenous tribes.

"It's the source of life and place of origin for 10 Yuman-speaking tribes of the Mojave, Hualapai, Yavapai, Havasupai, Quechan, Maricopa, Pai Pai, Halchidhoma, Cocopah, and Kumeyaay," says the monument's official website. "It's sacred land to the Hopi and Southern Paiute people."

The designation didn’t come without critics. Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo said the president sidestepped state and local government feedback. He also claimed the area, which is in a very mountainous region, would stymie economic development.

Will Pregman, of Protect Avi Kwa Ame and Battle Born Progress, spoke with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann about the effort, along with Clark County's Marci Henson and Republican state Senator Jeff Stone.

On why the designation matters

PREGMAN: The designation is important for like the reasons you stated the fact that it's sacred to Yuman-speaking Indigenous tribes in the region who've really been organizing for this for a very long time … It also has more contemporary cultural artifacts like Walking Box Ranch, which was a famous movie studio owned by actual former Nevada official Rex Bell, and Clara Bow, who, of course, folks might recognize as the inspiration for Betty Boop, the cartoon character back from the silent film era. But there's also immense ecological importance, habitat for bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, a lot of keystone species that are considered to be landmarks of our desert ecosystem. And it's also home to one of the largest Joshua tree forest, actually in the world. … We also believe that this is a economic boon for the state.

On Governor Lombardo's reaction

PREGMAN: We did press conferences and other sorts of media availability. Secretary of the Interior Deb Holland was here this past summer, and we had public meetings out in Laughlin back in November. And this is something that's been going on for a long time. … I believe the governor is vastly misinterpreting, and I think obfuscating, what actually occurred here, which is that this is something that tribal governments, grassroots supporters, local residents of towns like Searchlight, outdoor recreationists, and the like, artists, everything, were calling for the federal government to do, and it was a great deal of effort of building that grassroots support of doing that outreach and education. And we're sorry that the governor missed that boat, I guess.

On how much of the land was already protected

HENSON: The county led an effort with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid- to late 1990s to see much of this region designated administratively as an area of critical environmental concern. And we did that to set these acres aside for conservation primarily of the desert tortoise that had just been listed. So in that regard, those acres were already off limits. There are existing wilderness areas that are part of the designated monument as well. Those are congressionally acted on, they can only be designated by Congress. That's the highest level of conservation. So largely, again, development off limits. So what we're talking about here is the advocates feeling like they were closing up some pockets that were still available for threat and development, if you will, but on a very limited basis.

On how the designation overlaps with Clark County's plans

HENSON: It fits right in. So as I mentioned, the county has long understood the conservation value of much of this area, particularly, it's importance to desert tortoise habitat. The counties invested $6 million in conservation projects in this area, in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And so we certainly recognize the need to make sure that we're balancing an increasing population with needs to conserve these very precious areas.

On why Lombardo was disappointed

STONE: I'm disappointed that there wasn't any kind of respect for our new governor, in discussing some of the concerns with regard to the expansion of solar plants, the expansion of wind energy, expansion of housing. I mean, we have a housing shortage in Nevada, we have a commercial property, industrial property shortage in Nevada. Why? Because the federal government has been very slow to convert some of our nationally-owned lands into private ownership, which they usually do in one or two-year cycles. So I think this has kind of upset a lot of industries that were looking to come here in Southern Nevada and generate the kind of energy that the President and his administration have been raising the fear about, that we got this global warming crisis, and we got to get away from fossil fuels, and yet they take a big splotch of Nevada and say it's off limits now, which is unfortunate.

On if the designation was needed for environmental tourism

STONE: I don't think it needed to be designated a national monument in order to have tourism there, people are already going there and hiking and looking at the beautiful sites that are there. So I think just being designated as a national monument does nothing more than just, you know, advertise the fact that we have a beautiful area … But I think designated as a national monument is not the … step to garnering an environmental tourism business here in Nevada. We got a lot of beautiful places in Nevada, but 500,000 acres, this is half the size of one of our states on the East Coast. And it's just such a huge area that I can understand that they're sacred areas for the tribes that we probably should have respected and maybe preserved. But I think that half a million acres is a little excessive.

Guests: Will Pregman, spokesman, Battle Born Progress; Jeff Stone, state Senate representative, Nevada's 20th District; Marci Henson, director, Clark County Department of Environment and Sustainability

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.
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