By ABIGAIL SNOW
Moapa Valley Progress
The Mesquite City Council Chamber was filled to capacity on Thursday night for an Informational Meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management. On the agenda was an open discussion about the future of the newly designated Gold Butte National Monument.
The crowd was so large that an overflow room had to be opened elsewhere in the building in order to accommodate all the people.
Discussion went on for nearly two hours with members of the public giving comments for about 90 minutes of that time.
The tone was often tense in the meeting. Emotions ran high in the audience where there was a clear divide between supporters of the controversial monument designation and those who see it as yet another federal incursion upon local access to public lands.
The 300,000 acre Gold Butte complex was designated as a National Monument in a bitterly controversial proclamation by President Barack Obama signed on Dec. 28.
In a brief presentation, acting Gold Butte Monument manager Lee Kirk, of the BLM, summarized key details in the presidential proclamation.
For example, the document had specified that designated roads currently open would remain open to motorized travel. Kirk explained that a travel management plan was completed in 2008 which involved a broad based effort from members of the public. This plan had identified 600 miles of roads open to the public for motorized use.
“Those routes are part of the designation and they don’t change,” Kirk said. “The proclamation does call out that motorized vehicle use and mountain bikes are limited to those designated routes.”
Some members of the public at the meeting demanded an assurance that none of the 600 miles of road would ever be closed to the public. But BLM Las Vegas Field Office Manager Gayle Marrs-Smith responded that no such promises could be made in perpetuity.
“What I can tell you is that if we ever have to make a change to the roads, we will do that,” Marrs-Smith said. “We might have to add some roads to make sense out there. But if we are going to modify a road, we will bring it back to the people and let them have their input, assistance, and knowledge.”
In his presentation, Kirk stressed that valid existing rights such as water rights, mining claims and rights of way would remain in place. For example, the water rights held by the Virgin Valley Water District would remain in tact.
Marrs-Smith added that work had already been done with the district to ensure access to those rights.
“I have confidence that this proclamation is flexible to allow the BLM to work with our partners, and particularly the Virgin Valley Water District, in permitting the needed water conveyance infrastructure from their water rights to construct, develop and maintain those facilities,” Marrs-Smith said.
BLM Southern Nevada District Office manager Tim Smith spoke about the process of drafting a management plan for the monument. He explained that the proclamation calls for a citizen advisory committee to be formed with 12-15 members of the public to assist in that process. These people would include a variety of stakeholders and groups with interest in the monument’s management, Smith said.
“This advisory group would assist us in the development of any land use plan that we do,” Smith said. “And it would be that advisory group that would help us with the management as we go along.”
Smith could not give a specific time frame when the advisory committee would be established. But he expected that public notice would be given of open spots on that committee in the coming months.
During the lengthy public comment period which followed the BLM presentation, the viewpoints expressed became heated and sometimes combative. Many audience members stated their fears that the BLM would gradually cut off access to the land by closing roads and restricting use in the name of protection.
The timing of the meeting only contributed to the hostility in the air. The meeting was held during the same week that the criminal trial was getting underway, in Las Vegas federal court, to consider the case of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy in connection with his 2014 standoff with BLM.
Many of Bundy’s relatives and supporters were in attendance at at the Mesquite meeting. Some spoke vehemently, questioning the Constitutional authority of the federal agency in making management decisions on lands that they felt ought to be under state control.
This viewpoint was vigorously opposed by attendees who were in favor of the added federal protection which they felt that the monument would bring.
Soon, the room was aswirl with angry comments and interruptions going back and forth on both sides.
In an interview following the meeting, Partners in Conservation (PIC) Administrator Elise McAllister expressed regret that the dialogue had been allowed to descend to such a level.
“There were a lot of us there who were hoping to ask some questions and get some details about the planning process,” McAllister said. “Unfortunately that wasn’t really possible in this meeting. No matter what you said up there, you were going to be attacked viciously by one side or another. So I think a lot of the more moderate and measured people in attendance didn’t get to be heard. That is unfortunate.”