Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today said he’ll coax President Obama to designate hundreds of thousands of acres of scenic Nevada desert surrounding Cliven Bundy’s ranch as a national monument, a move Reid said is now possible thanks to the rancher’s recent arrest.
Reid has previously pushed legislation to designate a 350,000-acre Gold Butte National Conservation Area as well as 220,000 acres of wilderness protections within it, but it has stalled without the support of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
"Because of this legislation and now the fact that the Bundys are all in jail, I’m going to reach out to the White House, no guarantee we’ll get it done, that’s for sure, to see if President Obama will protect this area," Reid said in a speech this morning on the Senate floor.
Gold Butte, an arid mesa of Joshua trees, creosote bushes and Native American petroglyphs, is a favorite spot for hikers and campers thanks to its proximity to Las Vegas about 80 miles to the southwest.
Bundy for decades has used the lands to graze hundreds of cattle without a permit, stifling government restoration efforts and scientific research. When the Bureau of Land Management tried to remove the cattle two years ago, Bundy enlisted hundreds of supporters — scores of them armed — to force the agency to retreat.
Conservation groups, including the footwear company Keen, have been prodding Obama to protect the area using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Reid’s involvement is notable, given his sway in the Oval Office. Reid took credit for prodding Obama last summer to designate the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada, a sweeping expanse of rugged mountains and sagebrush valleys that encompasses artist Michael Heizer’s massive "City" project.
Last summer, Reid, who is set to retire at the end of this session, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he was taking a break from pushing executive protections and would let the Gold Butte proposal "work its way through the system."
It appears that with the FBI’s arrest of Bundy on Feb. 10 in Portland, Ore., and separate arrests of four of his sons, his bodyguard and roughly a dozen others involved in the 2014 Gold Butte standoff, Reid has changed his stance.
The monument proposal is clearly on the White House’s radar. In February 2015, Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor attended a public meeting in Las Vegas with Reid and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) to discuss their proposals to protect Nevada’s public lands, including Gold Butte.
Such a designation would be controversial given Republican opposition to the president’s use of the Antiquities Act, and particularly given Gold Butte’s symbolism as a rallying point for anti-government activists.
Heller today said a designation would be "the perfect example of federal overreach."
"I continue to support an inclusive approach where local parties affected by the designation have a seat at the table to voice their opinion," he said in an emailed statement. "These are the stakeholders most affected by any federal action on this matter. Again, if any action is to be taken on the matter, it should be by Congress reflecting the will of the affected communities."
Heller in summer 2014 warned in a letter to Obama that a designation would "escalate anger and frustrations with the Department of the Interior government in a region of our state where tensions are already presently high."
Republicans are trying to include language in this year’s spending bills that would restrict Obama’s ability to ban energy development and mining under the act.
Reid this morning argued protections are needed to preserve Gold Butte’s tribal sites and its "stunning" Joshua trees. He displayed photos of petroglyphs he said had been drawn over, shot at and stolen.
Obama "has the authority, as any president does, to stop this sort of destruction and stop it now," Reid said. "Congress created the Antiquities Act to empower the president to protect our culture, our historic and natural resources when and where Congress cannot or will not."
Monument designations do not appropriate more money to federal lands agencies, but they do tend to give protected lands higher priority when agencies allocate funding and personnel like law enforcement.
Obama has used the act 22 times to set aside 265 million acres of federally administered lands and waters, more than any other president. Excluding his ocean monuments, Obama has protected nearly 4 million acres of Western land, more than all other presidents except Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Reid yesterday touted a report commissioned by the Small Business Majority, a left-leaning advocacy group, that highlighted the local economic benefits of national monuments designated by Obama (Greenwire, April 6).
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Reid guaranteed a Gold Butte monument would be designated. According to Reid’s office, the senator said there is "no guarantee" President Obama will act on the proposal.