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A national monument in east Las Vegas? Some Nevadans hope so

A community effort to secure a national monument in east Las Vegas represents a subtle shift in the way public lands are being preserved.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo
Environment
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Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. I'm Amy Alonzo, the environment reporter for The Indy.

In the late 1990s, my high school had an environmental club. With just a handful of members, we did a yearly cleanup project and wore T-shirts that said things like “save the manatees” — even though I doubt any of us had ever seen one. 

The environmental movement has come a long way since then. I’ve seen 6-year-olds picking up garbage on the street who told me littering “makes the Earth sick.” 

Some people say it’s too much — others say it’s about time. 

Either way, it’s hard not to notice a shift in conservation from the protection of distant objects and places to those that are personal and close to us — such as a geographically important area in east Las Vegas. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email tips to me at amy@thenvindy.com. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

Spring blooms on the Great Unconformity Trail in the proposed the East Las Vegas National Monument encompassing the Frenchman Mountain area on March. 12, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

For decades, national monuments have been set aside by presidential proclamation to expediently protect threatened areas and resources. But that edict-from-on-high mentality is changing, and a community push for a national monument in east Las Vegas highlights that shift.

Community members and conservation groups are rallying to turn roughly 32,000 acres of public land east of Las Vegas into the state’s next national monument, where endangered flowers, geologic features seen in few other places but the Grand Canyon and culturally significant Indigenous sites are threatened by ongoing vandalism. Those pushing for monument status are hoping a federal designation could provide greater protections.

“It’s no longer a matter of the president going and randomly pointing to landscapes and places and designating them,” said Bertha Gutierrez, program director at Conservation Lands Foundation, a group that helped advocate for the formation of Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Southern Nevada. “It’s a way to really manage public lands through what the community and users really want … Hearing the voices in the community saying this place is special, this is our sacred space.”

The push for East Las Vegas National Monument — the unofficial name used by supporters — has the backing of the Clark County Commission and state lawmakers, who passed resolutions in 2021 in support of enhanced protections for the site.

A similar process played out in 2023, leading President Joe Biden to proclaim Avi Kwa Ame National Monument as Nevada’s fourth following a groundswell of support by tribes and conservation groups. Supporters of East Las Vegas, as well as those behind Bahsahwahbee, or Swamp Cedars, in eastern Nevada, are hoping to be numbers five and six.

The odds are in their favor. Biden is on track to set a record for the most public land protected by a recent president during his first term, much of that spurred by a “groundswell” of community and tribal efforts, according to Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities.

“People are paying attention to how much the White House is listening to folks on the ground,” he said.

Vehicles travel along Lake Mead Drive near the proposed East Las Vegas National Monument on March. 12, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘An area that is safe and accessible’

Around the world, there are gaps in geologic layers known as “unconformities.” The most famous of these is the Great Unconformity, where 1.7-billion-year-old rocks abut half-billion-year-old rocks with a geologic gap of 1.2 billion years in between.

The Great Unconformity can be seen by trekking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon — or by taking a short drive to east Las Vegas’ Frenchman Mountain. The mountain is part of the proposed national monument site. 

“There’s a definite connection with the Grand Canyon’s and Frenchman Mountain’s geology,” said Steve Rowland, a former UNLV geology professor and president of Citizens for Active Management of the Sunrise Frenchman Mountain Area, a group that for decades has advocated for the protection of the east Las Vegas region.

“There’s nowhere else in the world that has the spectacular geology as easily exposed as in the Frenchman Mountains and Rainbow Garden area,” he told lawmakers in 2021. “This is really national-park, world-class geology.”

Rowland and other advocates say the Great Unconformity is just one of the many features a national monument designation for the more than 32,600 acres on the border of Lake Mead National Recreation Area would protect.

Much of the area is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the Rainbow Gardens Area of Critical Environmental Concern because of its unique geology and rare plants. It is home to the Las Vegas Bearpoppy, a perennial yellow flower that grows only in Clark County and is listed as “critically endangered” by the state of Nevada, as well as the Gypsum Cave, an important spiritual site for Southern Paiute people. A spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe did not return multiple calls from The Nevada Independent seeking comment.

But BLM management of the site has been minimal, according to Rowland and others, and there’s a long history of illegal dumping in the area.

“There’s a lot of parties, they leave trash behind, illegal shooting with a lot of debris,” Gutierrez said.

In the 1990s, Rowland and other volunteers worked with the BLM to construct interpretive panels at Frenchman Mountain and the Great Unconformity. Former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt attended the dedication ceremony.

The interpretive panels were destroyed by vandals and ultimately removed. In 2018, the body of a homicide victim was found near Frenchman Mountain Road.

The area needs better management, Gutierrez said. It also needs more buy-in from the local community.

“It needs us to be a little more responsible in picking up after ourselves and not doing the damage,” she said. That’s why advocates of the national monument are pushing for community and tribal support of the project — raising awareness with locals about the value of the area and the importance of it being accessible. 

“If you see a map of the Vegas valley, everybody has free accessible public lands except for the east side,” Gutierrez said.

Henderson backs up to Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. Summerlin is just a stone’s throw from Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The north side of Las Vegas is flanked by the Spring Mountains, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument and the new Ice Age Fossils State Park. 

“You get to the east side, and you don’t have an area that is safe and accessible,” she said. 

In 2021, both the Clark County Commission and Nevada lawmakers passed resolutions calling for enhanced management and protection of the site.

But a resolution isn’t enough, Rowland said.

“We need to get our elected officials properly engaged,” he said. 

A vandalized sign in the proposed East Las Vegas National Monument on March. 12, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘A sense of urgency’

Congress has the authority to designate any type of national park, from historic sites and battlefields to seashores to national monuments, by passing legislation. But only the president can use the 1906 Antiquities Act to go around that process and quickly protect sensitive resources by creating a national monument.

In the century since it was passed, more than 130 national monuments have been designated under the Antiquities Act, and just how they are set aside has become a politically divisive issue.

Some monuments are less than 1 acre in size — Stonewall National Monument in New York is just 0.12 acres — while others span hundreds of millions of acres, such as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which protects 372.9 million acres of waterways.

Other presidents have used their monument power to undo or expand on the actions of presidents before them — on his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order calling for a review of boundaries and management conditions on three monuments that were altered by former President Donald Trump, including two in Utah. 

Thus far, Biden has designated five new national monuments, securing protections for more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including the nearly 507,000-acre Avi Kwa Ame monument in Southern Nevada. 

The monument centers around Avi Kwa Ame, or “Spirit Mountain,” and is among the most sacred places for the Mojave, Chemehuevi and some Southern Paiute people. It is also home to Joshua tree forests and provides an important habitat for desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise and Gila monster.  

It became Nevada’s fourth national monument and its first in nearly a decade. 

In response to Avi Kwa Ame’s designation, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo complained that the Biden administration had not consulted with his administration after he took office in 2023 and that the new monument was a “federal confiscation” that conflicts with “long-planned, bipartisan economic development efforts.”

Read more: Officials: Error led to routing planned transmission line through national monument

Over the past few years, support has also swelled for the creation of Bahsahwahbee National Monument in eastern Nevada. The site, also known as Swamp Cedars, is sacred to the Shoshone and Goshute communities. The proposed monument encompasses a grove of Rocky Mountain juniper trees in White Pine County that tribal history marks as the site of three massacres.

In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution calling for protection of Bahsahwahbee through the Antiquities Act.

Now, the work is to continue garnering local support for protection of Nevada’s lands.

“With the East Las Vegas effort, we still have a lot of ground to cover and more conversations to be had,” Gutierrez said.

Republican lawmakers are challenging the presidential power granted through the Antiquities Act, although the bills have little chance of success with a Democratic Senate majority. The bills would require congressional approval of any site designated by the act within six months of its designation; without approval, the site will be ineligible for protection for 25 years. 

Efforts to gather community support are challenged by the need to expediently address the climate crisis and preserve ecosystems and cultural spaces before they are gone. 

“There’s a sense of urgency,” Weiss said.

The Great Unconformity, a unique geologic feature, will be included in the proposed the East Las Vegas National Monument encompassing the Frenchman Mountain area. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m reading this week: 

My co-worker Tabitha Mueller recaps a request by Gov. Joe Lombardo seeking a streamlined process to make federal land available for affordable housing, and High Country News also takes a look at housing and public land. 

Los Angeles pipes water from the Eastern Sierra. For decades, Las Vegas sought approval to pipe water from eastern Nevada. Now, California is one step closer to moving forward with its Delta Conveyance Project, which would move water across the state in a tunnel. The L.A. Times has more. 

A proposed Southern Nevada solar field would threaten prime desert tortoise habitat, according to the Nevada Current

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