Avi Kwa Ame covered in winter snow. (Photo by Alan O’Neill.)
After decades of work by Native American tribes in the Southwest, a culturally significant and sacred swath of land in Nevada finally gained permanent protections Tuesday.
During a White House summit on conservation, President Joe Biden will announce the establishment of Nevada’s fourth national monument: Avi Kwa Ame, fulfilling a commitment he made last year.
For decades, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and other tribes in the Southwest have worked to preserve the Avi Kwa Ame site and protect thousands of acres of culturally significant land that contain artifacts and ancient petroglyphs left by the valley’s original peoples. The site contains vestiges of human presence reaching back more than 10,000 years.
The area is also deeply connected to the tribe’s spiritual ideology and is featured in Mojave creation beliefs by Yuman-speaking peoples, including the Mojave, Hualapai, Yavapai, Havasupai, Quechan, Maricopa, Pai Pai, Halchidhoma, Cocopah and Kumeyaay.
After a long legal battle, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe was able to get Avi Kwa Ame listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property in 1999, but protections for the area from large-scale development were still weak.
While more than 80% of the land within the proposed monument is already federally protected as critical habitat, the designation will connect existing protected landscapes from the East Mojave Desert to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and strengthen protections to the area.
The area is also home to the one of the world’s largest Joshua tree forests, and provides continuous habitat and migration corridors for species such as the desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and Gila monster.
In recent years, the sacred site has been threatened by development, including a proposed wind farm and growing neighboring towns. But a national monument designation for Avi Kwa Ame would permanently protect about 500,000 acres of biologically and culturally significant lands within the Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas from further development.
Under the threat of large-scale development, an unlikely coalition of local governments, tribes, conservation groups, recreation enthusiasts, and business groups secured an agreement from communities across the state to establish the final boundaries of the Nevada proposed monument.
There are two ways national monuments can be designated: either by Congress through legislation or by the president through the Antiquities Act.
During the summit, Biden also announced the designation of the Castner Range National Monument in Texas. Together, these new national monuments protect nearly 514,000 acres of public lands.
Tribes and environmentalists hailed the announcement that would permanently protect nearly thousands of acres of public lands from development and extraction.
Shan Lewis, Vice-Chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe for nearly 20 years, said the tribe has been fighting for the protection of Avi Kwa Ame long before his time in leadership. But over the last two years, support for the protection of Avi Kwa Ame has spread to every corner of Nevada.
“This land is considered sacred to Tribes who trace their creation story to this land and it deserves to be protected and those Tribes have been involved in this effort to protect Avi Kwa Ame for years. This is truly a historic day as it signifies a change in posture towards Indigenous people from the federal government,” said Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada, in a statement. “Of course, there are still many other special places with deep significance to Tribal Nations that deserve the protection Avi Kwa Ame has been given today. But, here in Nevada, we are thrilled to see such a long-fought struggle come to fruition with this new monument.”
Stewardship of the Nevada monument will be split between the Interior Department and Tribal Nations in the Southwest, including the construction of a visitors center and other visitor facilities, according to a White House fact sheet.
“Avi Kwa Ame holds deep spiritual, sacred and historic significance to the Native people who have lived on these lands for generations. I am grateful to President Biden for taking this important step in recognition of the decades of advocacy from Tribes and the scientific community, who are eager to protect the objects within its boundaries,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, in a statement.
The Biden administration said the designations are part of the president’s commitment to protect America’s lands and waters through the administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, which supports locally-led conservation efforts across the country.
“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to honoring Tribal sovereignty, protecting Tribal homelands, and conducting regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations,” the White House statement said.
Nevada’s Democratic congressional delegation also praised the designation of the state’s fourth national monument. U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen both celebrated the announcement, noting they were strong supporters of the monument.
Not all Nevada officials were as welcoming. Nevada’s Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, who’s been in office since January, said he has “several concerns” about the monument’s potential disruption of “rare earth mineral mining projects and long-planned bi-partisan economic development efforts.”
“Since I took office, the Biden White House has not consulted with my administration about any of the details of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame national monument which, given the size of the proposal, seems badly out of step,” Lombardo said in a statement Tuesday. “While I’m still waiting for a response, I’m not surprised. This kind of ‘Washington Knows Best’ policy might win plaudits from unaccountable special interests, but it’s going to cost our state jobs and economic opportunity – all while making land more expensive and more difficult to develop.”
This story was updated to include additional Nevada reactions.
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