WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden on Tuesday designated two new national monuments in the Southwest, insulating from development a half million acres in Nevada that are revered by Native Americans and 6,600 acres in Texas that were once admired by writer Jack Kerouac.
In southern Nevada, Biden protected a large portion of the Spirit Mountain area, encompassing some of the most biologically diverse and culturally significant lands in the Mojave Desert. Near El Paso, Texas, he established the Castner Range National Monument on a former artillery range along rugged canyons and arroyos that rise out of the desert near the Franklin Mountains.
"This matters, because when we conserve our country's natural gifts, we're not just protecting the livelihoods of people who depend on them," Biden told a conservation summit meeting at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington. "We're protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride. We're protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come."
The Nevada site spans more than 500,000 acres and includes Spirit Mountain, a peak northwest of Laughlin called Avi Kwa Ame [ah-VEE' kwa-meh] by the Fort Mojave Tribe and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The rugged landscape near the Arizona and California state lines is home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a large concentration of Joshua trees, some of which are more than 900 years old.
The Spirit Mountain area is the largest monument that Biden has designated, and only the second national monument created to protect Native history.
Avi Kwa Ame is considered the creation site for Yuman-speaking tribes such as the Fort Mojave, the Cocopah, the Quechan and the Hopi. Native tribes, environmental groups and local and state leaders have been seeking the designation for more than a decade.
"Breathtaking deserts, valleys, mountain ranges, rich in biodiversity, sacred lands that are central to the creation story of so many tribes who have been here since time immemorial," Biden said as advocates cheered. "Look, you know, it's a place of reverence, it's a place of spirituality, it's a place of healing, and now it will be recognized for its significance as a whole and will be preserved forever."
Native groups celebrated the moment and its meaning for preservation of their heritage. "This is truly a historic day as it signifies a change in posture towards Indigenous people from the federal government than that which we are unfortunately used to by now," said Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada.
But Gov. Joe Lombardo of Nevada, a Republican, complained that the White House had not consulted him before the decision and ignored his concerns, including on the disruption of rare earth mineral mining projects and economic development efforts.
"The federal confiscation of 506,814 acres of Nevada land is a historic mistake that will cost Nevadans for generations to come," he said in a statement.
Questioned about his statement at a briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she could not discuss any communications with the governor.
"To the native people who point to Avi Kwa Ame as their spiritual birthplace, and every Nevadan who knows the value of our cherished public lands: Today is for you, tweeted Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, who sponsored a bill to protect the rugged region near the Mojave National Preserve from development, including solar farms and a proposed wind farm.
"Spirit Mountain will now be protected for future generations, Titus said.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Avi Kwa Ame "holds deep spiritual, sacred and historic significance to the Native people who have lived on these lands for generations, adding that she was grateful to Biden "for taking this important step in recognition of the decades of advocacy from tribes and the scientific community."
In the Pacific, Biden directed the Commerce Department to initiate a marine sanctuary designation to protect 777,000 square miles around the Pacific Remote Islands. If completed, the new sanctuary would help ensure the U.S. reaches Biden's goal to conserve at least 30% of ocean waters under U.S. jurisdiction by 2030, the White House said.
The area to be protected is "larger than Alaska and Colorado put together," Biden said.
THE CASTNER RANGE
Castner Range, located at the Army base Fort Bliss, served as a training and testing site for the Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War until it closed in 1966. The range includes archaeological sites, some prehistoric, that feature cave etchings made by Native Americans and stone shelters built by ranchers more than a century ago. The terrain is filled with Mexican yellow poppies, and serves as a habitat for the checkered whiptail lizard, desert cottontail and Western desert tarantula.
It has also been littered with thousands of rounds of unexploded ordnance. Once the area is made safe for public access, Castner Range is intended to expand access to nature for the historically underserved communities bordering the range, according to a White House statement. In the 1950s, Kerouac extolled the view from the range in "The Dharma Bums," writing of seeing "all of Mexico, all of Chihuahua, the entire sand-glittering desert of it, under a late sinking moon that was huge and bright."
Biden noted that this area has been the subject of efforts to guard it for a long time. "The people of El Paso have fought to protect this for 50 years," he said. "Their work has finally paid off."
Biden relied on the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish the monuments. The move comes about a week after the president was excoriated by environmentalists after approving the major Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, in pristine wilderness about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
"The Willow project greenlight devastated the American conservation community," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. "There is more anger at Biden for that than anything else he's done on the environment. So it only makes sense that Biden would try to do something to return to the good graces of the green wing of the Democratic Party."
Climate activists gathered outside the Interior Department on Tuesday to condemn what they call Biden's "climate hypocrisy" and demand the administration change course on Willow. Protesters hung a large yellow banner that said, "Stop the Willow oil project" and chanted "no more drilling, no more drilling, no more drilling on federal land."
About 33,000 acres of the Spirit Mountain area were already protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The newly expanded monument will create a corridor that links the Mojave National Preserve and the Castle Mountains National Monument in California to the Sloan Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas in Nevada and Arizona.
That would ensure a migratory path for desert bighorn sheep and mule deer, and protect critical habitat for the desert tortoises, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, western screech owls and Gila monsters that are native to the region. Some 28 species of native grasses, a number of them rare, also grow there, as well as some of the oldest and largest Joshua trees in the United States.
Together, the two new national monuments protect nearly 514,000 acres of public lands. The Avi Kwa Ame landscape is sacred to 12 tribes and is home to rare wildlife and plants, while Castner Range is the ancestral homeland of the Comanche and Apache people, and its cultural ecology is considered sacred to several Indigenous communities.
Fort Mojave Tribe Chairman Timothy Williams, who attended the conservation summit, said tribes throughout the Southwest consider Avi Kwa Ame to be sacred land. Biden's creation of a new monument demonstrated his "commitment to respect tribal nations and our nation-to-nation relationship."
Under the leadership of Biden and Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, "We have a seat at the table and we have seen an unprecedented era and opportunity for our tribal communities," Williams said.
Biden has also used the Antiquities Act to create a national monument at Camp Hale, Colo., and to restore three monuments that were shrunk by President Donald Trump: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
To date, the Bears Ears National Monument in eastern Utah has been the only national monument to explicitly address its Indigenous roots. Today, the monument is jointly managed by a council made up of delegates from five tribes. The designation of a second one appears designed by the Biden administration to send a message to Indigenous communities that have long fought for a meaningful say in the management of their ancestral lands.
The creation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument could bring pushback from renewable energy companies seeking to gain a foothold in one of the nation's best regions for wind and solar power at a time when Biden has promised to speed up the country's transition to clean energy.
Outside the boundaries for the proposed national monument, the federal government has identified 9 million acres of public lands in Nevada for large-scale solar development and nearly 16.8 million acres of public lands for potential wind development.
Biden announced other steps Tuesday to conserve, restore and expand access to public lands and waters, promote tribal conservation and reduce wildfire risk. The proposals seek to modernize management of America's public lands, better harness the ocean to help fight climate change and better conserve wildlife corridors, the White House said.
Information for this article was contributed by Coral Davenport of The New York Times and by Matthew Daly, Darlene Superville, Ken Ritter and Rio Yamat of The Associated Press.