There is a word for what President Obama did this past week in declaring Gold Butte a national monument: dictatorial.
In just more than a year Obama has unilaterally declared off-limits to productive economic uses 1 million acres of Nevada land — first the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument straddling the border between Lincoln and Nye counties and now the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in rural northeast Clark County.
This brings Obama’s total protected acreage to 550 million — more than any predecessor and twice that set aside by Teddy Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act of 1906 — though much of Obama’s designations are underwater.
Obama’s designation of both Nevada national monuments completely ignored local elected officials and nearby residents, even though the Federal Land Policy Act of 1976 (flippantly know by the acronym Flip Ma) and the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) require environmental reviews and public comments.
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt called Obama’s action a unilateral land grab. “Although I am not surprised by the president’s actions, I am deeply disappointed at his last minute attempt to cement his environmental legacy by undermining local control of Nevada’s communities, and damaging our jobs and economy,” Laxalt stated in a press release.
Sen. Dean Heller said he was terribly disappointed by Obama’s action, saying such action should be conducted in an open public process with congressional input.
Retiring Sen. Harry Reid urged Obama to declare Gold Butte a monument before leaving office no matter what the local residents thought, and his hand-picked successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, sent out a tweet about Obama’s action saying, “We have an obligation to protect places like Gold Butte. I’m grateful for President Obama’s dedication to preserving our public lands.
The area’s newly elected Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen was all for the designation. “As a Nevadan I couldn’t be more thrilled that President Obama decided recently to give Gold Butte, Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon, the full protection it deserves,” Kihuen said in a statement. “This newest national monument designation in Nevada means that we now have the tools to properly safeguard Gold Butte’s thousands of awe-inspiring rock formations, ancient petroglyphs, and rare wildlife for all Nevadans to enjoy.”
Though resigned to the probability of the Gold Butte designation, Gov. Brian Sandoval said he worked to assure the local communities would continue to have access to water resources. He said he met with the White House and his staff held follow-up meetings.
“We also worked with the White House and Department of Interior to ensure Nevada water law is adhered to and that the Virgin Valley Water District would have access to its water infrastructure for continued development and maintenance,” the governor related.
In the official presidential declaration there is language referring to “existing” water rights, meaning that it is unlikely any new water resources could be developed for future needs since “no new rights-of-way shall be authorized within the monument.”
Additionally, the proclamation says no grazing rights have been permitted on the land since 1998 and no grazing permits will be allowed within the monument.
Sandoval tried to be hopeful, ““My priority was to mitigate any disruption a potential designation may cause the surrounding private land owners, communities and recreationists. We all share a common goal of enacting smart conservation measures which help preserve our lands for the use and enjoyment of all Nevadans. My strong preference is for a more collaborative process when making such an important designation. I firmly believe our ranchers, environmentalists, and community stakeholders are the best experts in ensuring Nevada’s lands are preserved, protected and accessible. I also believe that with this designation comes duties, responsibilities and an expectation that the BLM will properly manage the area and commit the funds necessary to do so.”
Though the White House blatantly declared that President-elect Donald Trump cannot undo the creation of this and other monuments, the Congressional Review Act allows a simple majority of each house of Congress to revoke such decisions. It has rarely been successfully used since the president who issued the decision can veto an act of Congress and that takes two-thirds to override. The difference this time is that Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
Also Trump could simply rescind the monument designation, but he has been waffling on whether locals should have more say on federal land issues.
Also, the Nevada Washington delegation is now two-thirds Democrats, who are beholding only to urban Las Vegas.
A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.