By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
Residents and elected officials in Lincoln County were outraged last week as news came in that President Barack Obama had signed a proclamation designating a new 704,000-acre national monument right in their backyard. Obama signed the document at a White House ceremony held on Friday which included Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), the sponsors of past failed legislation to set aside the same Basin and Range Area.
The new Basin and Range National Monument comprises 1,100 square miles of desert land straddling Lincoln County and Nye County in Nevada. It covers Garden Valley, Coal Valley, White River Valley as well as the Golden Gate Range, Mount Irish Range, Seaman Range and Worthington Mountains.
The area has been targeted for a long time by environmental groups, and championed by Reid, because of its unspoiled landscape, habitat for sensitive plant and animal species and ancient petroglyphs.
Also hidden away in this vast landscape is the massive earthen artwork known as “City” by sculptor Michael Heizer. Heizer, who is also the creator of Double Negative, an earth sculpture near Overton, was also present at the signing. He has spent the past several decades in the remote desert area of Lincoln County creating a complex of sculpted berms and plazas that run a mile and a half long and 900 feet wide.
The President’s action infuriated Lincoln County residents who said that their input was never sought and their wishes never heeded in the proposal. In an interview on Friday, Lincoln County Commission Chairman Kevin Phillips said that no public comment sessions had ever been held in the communities of Lincoln County on the subject; and no presentations had ever been made to the Commission.
Rather, consideration of the new monument seemed to have taken place largely in secret until a copy of a draft proclamation was leaked in May and was made public by Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) who represents Lincoln County in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We asked Reid and his people whether they had talked to anybody local about this,” Phillips said. “We got word from one of their stool pigeon consultants in the project that they had consulted ‘the jerky lady.’ We asked, ‘Who is the jerky lady?’ It’s that lady who sells jerky at the junction of 318 and 93 above Hiko, they said. Great! They consulted the Alien Jerky lady. They may as well have consulted the aliens because they are all space cases in my mind! But apparently that was the extent of the consulting that was done in Lincoln County.”
Phillips said that, in reality, they didn’t need to especially consult Lincoln County to find out what was wanted by the locals. He said that the Board of Commissioners had sent at least a dozen letters in recent months expressing opposition to federal designation of the area.
“Our position against this matter has always been clear!” he said. “We are adamantly, completely and totally opposed to this. It is loathsome. We hate it! And we hate the dictator mentality of emperor Obama and his prime minister Reid. This is not right in America. We don’t have these kinds of positions where they can just mandate over the wishes of the people. We thought this country was about The People. But we don’t have a republic anymore. We have a bureaucratic administrative state.”
Phillips said that the Commission had worked hard in opposition to an earlier Reid-Titus bill which was proposed in Congress. The bill would have designated the area through a Congressional action.
“We were able to block that bill,” Phillips said. “So, of course, he (Reid) turns to the emperor (Obama) and the Antiquities Act to get it done. Talk about loathsome!”
Phillips said that the new monument would have significant economic impacts on Lincoln County, a small rural jurisdiction that has traditionally struggled to make ends meet.
The preserved area will be withdrawn from most economic activity including mining and energy leasing.
“Oil and gas was just discovered in Garden Valley,” Phillips said. “This designation kills that economic development opportunity for Lincoln County and the state of Nevada. And who knows what other mineral resources are out there.”
Another economic opportunity that will be affected is possible rail corridors. The designation will block a future rail line that would be used for nuclear waste shipments to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.
“Yucca Mountain is kind of a sidebar in this issue; but probably not in the great schemer’s mind of Harry Reid,” Phillips said. “The rail that was approved would now be blocked. It locks out the development of that approved corridor so that section would have to take a different route.”
Connie Simkins, who serves as Program Coordinator for the Lincoln County Nuclear Oversite Program, said that she had asked Reid staffers whether Yucca Mountain had been an impetus for driving this designation through. She was told simply that it was not.
“Maybe not,” she said. “But it sure doesn’t hurt his (Reid) political position on that issue.”
Perhaps the biggest concern of Lincoln County officials is the effect that the designation will have on grazing. While some have described the designated area as just wide, empty space, there is actually a lot that has been going on there for generations, said Simkins who also serves as Secretary to the N4 State Grazing Board which covers 137 ranching families in Lincoln and White Pine Counties.
“There are 24 valleys throughout that area with 20 different families who have been ranching there for generations,” Simkins said. “They have been taking care of that land and managing it for all that time. They have been paying their grazing fees as well as doing water improvements, piping springs to allow water access to cattle and wildlife, range improvements, corrals and more. It is true, that land is special. But it is only special today because of the work and efforts of those ranching families. They are what have kept it special, not any federal designation.”
The language in the proclamation states that current ranch uses on the land, as well as current water rights ownership and access, shall be allowed and preserved. But Simkins said that the ranchers have heard promises like that before.
“I believe that Senator Reid might believe that those uses will be able to continue,” she said. “But I don’t believe it, myself. And that’s because of our past experience with federal land managers.”
Simkins said that similar promises were made by Reid in the mid 1980s when proposals were being made to establish the Great Basin National Park. At that time, Simkins recalled that Reid had sat across the table from Dean Baker who was the last rancher running cattle in the area of Great Basin National Park.
“He (Reid) promised Dean that he would be able to keep his cows there, and I think that he meant that promise,” Simkins said. “But within two years the Park Manager had made the regulations so strict that he was no longer able to do it. Yes, he was technically allowed to run his cows there. But he couldn’t keep up with the amount of time and money that it took to follow the interpretations of the federal land manager of the regulations over that park. They wanted him to move his cows from one canyon to another every few days. He couldn’t keep up with it. It was just one thing after another and he finally gave it up. That is where things always fall apart and it will happen again here.”
In a statement to the Review Journal last week, Reid said that the benefits in eco-tourism that would come to the areas from the designation would far outweigh the losses being perceived by the counties and their residents.
“What I say to the people in Nye and Lincoln counties is, don’t worry about this,” he said. “This is going to be great for you. This is going to be an attraction. It is going to be world famous. World famous!”
That statement came as small comfort for Phillips.
“World famous — in whose world?” Phillips said. “Maybe in Reid’s world, in his mind, it might be world famous. But it isn’t going to be anything of the kind. Heaven’s sakes, he has already given us seven or eight wilderness areas in Lincoln county where his eco-tourism should be thriving. That’s 800,000 acres and here comes another 700,000 acres. I honestly can’t think of one positive thing that this does.”
Phillips wonders why the desert ecosystem in the middle of Nevada; an area that hasn’t brought many people out before; is suddenly going to bring the number of tourists that would make a significant difference to the economy and make up for the rich opportunities that will be lost to the county and the state by this designation.
“All of a sudden, these hoards of people are supposed to appear, just because they have designated this as a national monument?” Phillips asked. “Who is going to come and what are they going to do once they are here? Where will they stay? Are they going to drive to Caliente and stay? It’s 80 miles over bumpy dirt roads to Caliente; that is if you can find your way. And there isn’t an eco-tourist worth his salt that wouldn’t get lost out there.”
Lincoln county’s representative in Congress, Cresent Hardy, agrees with this sentiment completely. He has been in adamant opposition to the proposal since it was revealed earlier in the spring. And Hardy was similarly outraged by Reid’s remarks last week.
“To tell those folks in Lincoln and Nye counties to just sit back and relax, this is going to be great for you; well, that’s just big government again telling us locals that we don’t know anything that we are talking about,” Hardy said in an interview on Friday. “It’s the same old line of ‘We know what’s best for you, just sit back and let us take care of it.’ And isn’t that a real sweet thing!”
Hardy pointed out that the Antiquities Act of 1906, allowing the President to take these types of actions, was designed to protect the minimum footprint of that which is being preserved. “If it is that artist’s rendition of a “City,” or if it is the petroglyphs, then fine; let’s go ahead and protect those areas. But why do we have to overreach it onto an expanse of land that is the size of the state of Rhode Island for heaven’s sake?”
Hardy said that several weeks ago, as soon as he had heard that this action was afoot, he had begun drafting language that would empower local communities most affected by these types of unilateral executive actions.
“I tried to increase the transparency in what’s going on and allow the people to at least have a part in the process,” Hardy said.
On Wednesday, the House voted 222-206 for Hardy’s amendment which was attached as a rider to an appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The measure forbids federal money from being spent on presidential proclamations creating monuments in certain counties where there has been vocal opposition to similar declarations of National Monuments. These were counties in the states of California, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado as well as Nevada. Clark County is one of the entities specifically named in the provision.
Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) both voted for Hardy’ measure. Titus voted against it.
Phillips said that the predominant feeling right now in Lincoln county is one of extreme frustration. He admits that some have even stated in exasperation that they are about ready to take up arms.
“Of course, that’s not a serious threat,” he said. “But it is an expression of extreme disgust. And when you get right down to it, what other options are there? These are the things that drove our forefathers to do the same thing. You don’t have to be a history professor to see that this is exactly what made them so mad that they said ‘Hey! we are cutting our ties…period.’ I don’t know how to get that done in today’s society.”