President Joe Biden on Tuesday designated two landscapes — Nevada’s Spirit Mountain, an area that is sacred to a dozen Native American tribes, and Castner Range, a former military weapon testing facility in West Texas — as America’s newest national monuments.
“Our country’s natural wonders define our identity as a nation,” Biden said while highlighting these and other recent conservation actions during a Conservation in Action Summit on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a birthright to pass down from generation to generation. They unite us. That’s why our conservation work is so important — it provides a bridge to our past and to our future, not just for today but for all ages.”
The move will bring more than half a million federal acres under a new set of protections that bar new mining, drilling and other development. It comes as Biden remains under fire over last week’s decision to approve a massive and extremely controversial fossil fuel drilling project on federal land in the Alaskan Arctic.
A White House official called Tuesday’s actions Biden’s “boldest steps to date to protect the power and promise of America’s extraordinary national wonders.” Along with establishing the two monuments, Biden will direct Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to consider establishing a new marine sanctuary protecting all U.S. waters surrounding Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.
Located in the southernmost corner of Nevada, Avi Kwa Ame — meaning “Spirit Mountain” in the Mojave language — is the tallest peak in its namesake Spirit Mountain Wilderness. Tribes, environmentalists and public land advocates have aggressively lobbied the Biden administration to grant Spirit Mountain monument status, and Biden signaled he planned to do so in November. The area is rich in cultural, natural and historical resources.
“It’s a place of reverence, it’s a place of spirituality, it’s a place of healing,” Biden said Tuesday. “Now it will be recognized for the significance it holds and be preserved forever.”
The Avi Kwa Ame National Monument will span about 506,000 acres, more than the 450,000 acres that tribes and environmental organizations had called for. The White House said the monument designation “creates one of the largest contiguous areas of protected wildlife habitat in the United States, tying together the protected lands of the Mojave Desert in California to the southwest with the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and other protected areas to the east near the Colorado River.”
“This designation will honor Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples by protecting this sacred Nevada landscape and its historically and scientifically important features, while conserving our public lands and growing America’s
outdoor recreation economy,” according to a White House fact sheet on the decision.
The new Castner Range National Monument will consist of about 6,600 acres. The landscape is home to archaeological sites and a diversity of rare and at-risk wildlife but is off-limits to the public due to unexploded ordnance from years of military testing.
“The people of El Paso have fought to protect this for 50 years,” Biden said Tuesday. “Their work has finally paid off.”
“Once the area is sufficiently remediated to be safe for public access, Castner Range will offer unique opportunities for the El Paso community to experience, explore, and learn from nature,” the White House wrote in its fact sheet.
These will be the second and third monument designations of Biden’s presidency. In October, he created the 50,000-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado, which includes the historic Camp Hale, a World War II-era military training site, and the nearby Tenmile Range.
Biden previously reversed former President Donald Trump’s rollbacks of three national monuments, two in Utah and a third off the East Coast.
Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Antiquities Act authorizes presidents to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”
Seventeen presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have used it to create more than 150 monuments since 1906, including many sites that later became national parks.
Conservation groups that have lobbied for years for the sites to receive monument status applauded Tuesday’s news.
“The President’s action today will safeguard hundreds of thousands of acres of cultural sites, desert habitats, and natural resources in southern Nevada, which bear great cultural, ecological, and economic significance to our state,” the Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition, which is made up of tribes, conservation groups and area residents, said in a statement.
Janaé Field, executive director of El Paso-based conservation nonprofit Frontera Land Alliance, said the new Texas monument “will honor the 52 years of El Pasoans, Texans and people around the country fighting for the conservation of Castner Range.”
“Preserving Castner Range is about equity through open space preservation and respect for the residents of El Paso, and we are thankful that Castner Range will now be protected for generations of El Pasoans.”