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Preserving These Public Lands as National Monuments to Protect the Past, Present and Future of Our Southwestern Ecosystems

Throughout the Southwest, public lands have become sacrifice zones for grazing, logging, reckless off-road vehicle use, mining, and oil and gas development. Species that once thrived in grasslands, desert landscapes, old-growth forests and rivers are increasingly being pushed to the brink of extinction by industrial and urban development. Climate change–induced droughts put additional stress on these habitats and the animals that depend on them. Sacred American Indian lands and cultural sites remain open to exploitation and destruction.

Fortunately we have a unique opportunity to save some of these precious lands for this and future generations. Under the Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama can designate national monuments, highlighting the unique and distinguishing features of certain areas and ensuring that they remain wild, open spaces for wildlife and humans alike.

The Center for Biological Diversity and our conservation allies have been working for years to protect two especially important ecosystems within the Southwest: the Grand Canyon watershed of the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona and the rocky, desert landscape of Gold Butte in Nevada. Both of these stunning areas provide habitat for endangered species, are home to exceptional archaeological and cultural heritage sites, and are connected to the larger Grand Canyon and Colorado River ecosystems.

Designation of these sites as national monuments would help secure wildlife corridors and water resources that will help vulnerable species survive in the face of climate change.

Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument

In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon a national monument, using his executive power to protect one of America’s greatest natural treasures. The president called on Americans to “let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it.”

Kaibab Ranger District. Photo courtesy Kaibab National Forest.

More than 100 years later, much more of the Grand Canyon ecosystem has been protected through the creation of Grand Canyon National Park and the designation of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. But Roosevelt’s grand vision remains unfulfilled as inappropriate grazing, excessive off-road vehicle use, old-growth logging, and legacy impacts from uranium mining continue unabated on public lands just outside the boundaries of these protected spaces.

Thus the Center is proposing that another monument be designated: the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument. Along with providing habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl and California condor, endemic Kaibab squirrel and majestic northern goshawk, the 1.7 million acres of this proposed monument contain distinctive and unique ecological treasures, including the Kaibab Plateau, with one of the largest southwestern old-growth ponderosa pine forests; House Rock Valley, a remote and wild grassland ecosystem; the Kaibab-Pausaguant Wildlife Corridor, which facilitates migration and survival of large mammals like mule deer and pronghorn; and the life-sustaining waters of Kanab Creek and Grand Canyon’s South Rim springs.

The watershed is also home to lands of great significance to the Kaibab Paiute tribe, as well as the Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai, Havasupai and Navajo — and it was historically home to the Clovis, Basketmaker and Puebloan peoples. More than 3,000 ancient archaeological sites have been documented in the region, dating back to 11,000 BCE, and these represent just a fraction of the human historical record of the region. Designation of this area as a monument would not only protect its ancient tribal heritage — it would also support local tribal economies by further spurring tourism.

Gold Butte National Monument

Northeast of Las Vegas, the 350,000-acre expanse of desert called Gold Butte is public land that provides vital habitat for rare and endangered species like desert tortoises, kit foxes and burrowing owls, and rare native plants. Faced with climate change, urban sprawl and habitat fragmentation, these species are on track to disappear from this land without additional protection. Gold Butte is  a unique, fascinating and fragile combination of wildlands where four ecosystems collide: the Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran deserts and the Colorado Plateau.

Carved rock sculpture at Whitney Pockets, Gold Butte, Nevada. Photo courtesy Flickr/Carl Berger.

While beloved by locals and visitors for its hiking, birdwatching and hunting opportunities, for the past two decades the Gold Butte ecosystem has faced catastrophic damage from  illegal, trespass  cattle grazing and the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to adequately regulate rampant off-road motorized vehicle use. Working with citizen groups in the area, the Center has consistently pushed for greater conservation of Gold Butte and better management for recreation that would provide additional education and interpretation of cultural and historic resources.

Protection of Gold Butte is especially important because of its history as the homeland of many American Indian peoples, including the ancient Fremont and ancestral Puebloa communities, and today the  Moapa band of southern Paiutes .  These cultures have  left a rich treasure trove of rock art and other artifacts. There are also numerous historical sites that document the first European settlers in the area, including Spanish and pioneer mining camps dating back to the 1700s.

Designation of this monument would focus the national spotlight on this underappreciated region and its ecological and cultural values. It would also stimulate the local economy through tourism and ensure that endangered and threatened species recovery in the area is made a priority.



California condor photo courtesy Flickr Commons/Sasha Vasko