Salt Lake City: President Barack Obama designated two national monuments at sites in Utah and Nevada that have become key flashpoints over the use of public land in the US West, marking the administration’s latest move to protect environmentally sensitive areas in its final days.
The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region, the White House said. In a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists, the designation protects land that is considered sacred and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
In Nevada, a 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas would protect a scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led in an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered tracks.
The White House and conservationists said both sites were at risk of looting and vandalism.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement yesterday.
His administration has rushed to safeguard vulnerable areas ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. It has blocked new mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park and new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
A coalition of tribes pushed for the creation of Utah’s eighth national monument, though they asked Obama to make it about 500,000 acres larger than the monument he named yesterday.
Tribal members visit the Bears Ears area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called it an exciting day for his tribe and people of all cultures.
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Begaye said.
“The rocks, the winds, the land they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
Tucked between existing national parks and the Navajo reservation, the proposed monument features stunning vistas at every turn, with a mix of cliffs, plateaus, towering rock formations, rivers and canyons across wide expanses covered by sagebrush and juniper trees.
No new mining and oil and gas development will be allowed within the monument boundaries, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Members of Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation had backed a plan to protect about 1.4 million acres at Bears Ears, while opening up other areas of the state for development.