As Utah’s attorney general works with county, state and federal leaders to craft a lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s Wednesday declaration of monument protection for a Four Corners area land tract, Nevadans opposed to the president’s similar declaration of a monument south of Mesquite are waging a more uphill battle without high-profile government officials by their side.
A few dozen people, most of whom were family members or friends of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, staged a quiet rally Saturday at the state Route 170 access to the Gold Butte land falling under the monument declaration near Bundy’s home.
The demonstrators rang out the year under cloudy skies as they held signs that decried Obama’s authority to restrict access and called on President-elect Donald Trump for help, but throughout the morning hours they primarily visited with each other while watching an occasional vehicle pass.
Margaret Houston, a younger sister of Cliven who lives in Logandale, reminisced about an encounter with the officers that took place a few feet from where the
group was gathered Saturday.
Houston says she was thrown down on the ground by an officer who approached her from behind without warning or provocation, and that he subsequently said he was trying to help get her out of harm’s way as government vehicles approached with water system implements removed from the Bureau of Land Management-administered area.
“Once they threw me down, then it piped up a little. People were upset. … But we just told them to get out of here,” she said.
“Who were the aggressors?” Carol asked rhetorically. “They showed up first with their army – with their guns, with their snipers on the hill with their communication equipment.”
A trial is scheduled in three phases for the 17 defendants arrested in connection with the incident, based on a motion by the Bundys relating to witness challenges.
The “Tier 3” defendants regarded as the least culpable “follower gunmen” are set for trial Feb. 6 in Las Vegas, followed by the Tier 1 leaders and organizers, including Cliven and his sons Ryan and Ammon, 30 days after the end of the Tier 3 trial.
The Tier 2 “mid-level leaders and organizers and follower-gunmen” are set for trial 30 days after the end of the Tier 1 trial.
“But this isn’t even about that,” Houston said. “This is about them coming in and thinking that they can just say this is a monument and take all this land away and people won’t be using it.”
The 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument declaration is a fraction of the 1.35 million acres given monument status at Bears Ears in Utah, or the 1.9 million acres set aside as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah in 1996.
But Gold Butte abuts the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Northern Arizona, which set aside 1 million acres in 2000. Environmentalists, including the Friends of Gold Butte organization, and some Native Americans have applauded the monument declarations as a way to preserve scenic desert vistas and archaeological finds while preventing mineral exploration and residential development.
The Associated Press reported Friday that Arizona environmentalists are hopeful that the two new monument designations will be followed by another declaration of monument restrictions north and south of the Grand Canyon, where they have proposed a 1.7 million-acre reservation that would stop uranium mining that has already been banned through 2032.
"It's something that we hope the president will do despite the fact there are a very few very loud naysayers out there," Sierra Club chapter Director Sandy Bahr said. "Monuments have been established by presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, and you don't hear people saying that was a mistake."
Outgoing Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who ends 34 years of Congressional service this month, was a proponent of the Gold Butte monument and issued a statement Wednesday praising the “splendor of Gold Butte” that will be protected for generations to come.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval expressed his dismay that Obama’s decision “bypassed Congress and the public” in a statement Wednesday but, considering the designation inevitable, said he had focused on discussions with local and White House leaders to ensure Mesquite can continue to grow, water will continue to be available to residents, and outdoor recreation will still be accessible.
The handful of Bundy demonstrators were skeptical, however, as they watched a number of vehicles pulling trailers with off-road vehicles pass en route to the soon-to-be-protected area Saturday.
“There are a lot of people who come down here and ride,” Houston said.
“These are the people that are using this land. These are the people that are going to get hurt,” Carol Bundy said. “They are also the people that aren’t here picketing because they don’t understand that they won’t be able to go where they want to go.”
She noted that the monument declaration states “pre-existing rights” will be preserved, but that it also says there will be no grazing on the land.
“My rights of pre-eminent rights established way before the BLM, that’s a state right that’s pre-existing,” she argued.
Cane Beds resident Jeanette Finicum, the widow of the Arizona Strip rancher who died last January in a confrontation with armed law enforcement officers during a standoff on Oregon federal land, said she also has been barred by the BLM from turning her cattle out to graze because the agency does not regard her as the heir to her husband’s legal permits.
The Tri-State Livestock News reported last week that the BLM says it is negotiating with Finicum’s attorneys over fees assessed against her as a consequence of her cattle’s summer grazing following her husband LaVoy’s death.
“The states should be in control of these lands,” she said Saturday. “We should not be allowing the federal government to just come in and steal the West, because that’s what’s happening. … This really stems from the lands not being given back to the state in the West.”
Cliven’s nephew Josey Spencer of Alamo, Nevada, who has been helping his uncle’s family gather in calves for sale this week, said the group is hopeful Trump will reverse Obama’s end-of-term monument declaration after Trump takes office.
“I think he’s in a position to do some good. I really do,” Spencer said. “We can only hope for the best, but we won’t know until he gets in and starts going to work.”
Follow reporter Kevin Jenkins on Twitter, @SpectrumJenkins. Contact him at 435-674-6253.