About 80 miles from the bright lights of Las Vegas, a wealth of ancient cultural artifacts tells the story of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in the boulder-studded desert. Known as Gold Butte, this area has been treasured for generations, but it is also endangered, as looting, reckless off-road vehicle use and vandalism threaten this significant testament to history.
On Dec. 28, President Obama announced that he protected this area in Nevada as Gold Butte National Monument using the Antiquities Act, helping to ensure that Native American cultural sites, wildlife habitat and breathtaking landscape will be preserved for posterity. He protected Bears Ears National Monument in Utah the same day.
Click photo for slideshow; all images by Mason Cummings (TWS)
The designations are all the more significant because of the current political landscape. Anti-conservation zealots in Washington DC are trying to enact a radical agenda that includes making it harder for future presidents to protect landscapes like this. We need to raise our voices right now and ask lawmakers in Washington DC to stand in their way.
"The effort to protect both Bears Ears and Gold Butte extends back decades and today’s designations will ensure that future generations are able to relish in the past while exploring these historical and sensitive regions," said Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement.
Not only is Gold Butte home to thousands of Native American petroglyphs, but it contains historic mining- and pioneer-era artifacts; rare and threatened wildlife such as the Mojave desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep; dramatic rock formations; and fossil track-sites dating back 170 to 180 million years ago. It is also a prime spot for hiking, hunting, birding, camping, off-road vehicle use on designated trails and many other activities.
In recent years, Gold Butte hurt by vandalism
The Wilderness Society has worked with local groups for years to fight for Gold Butte, but the need for permanent protection has become more urgent of late.
A report released by Friends of Gold Butte in August 2016 revealed that the area has "witnessed an increasing level of damage near historic and cultural sites," including dismantled historic corrals and fences, felled Joshua trees and petroglyphs peppered with bullet holes.
Rep. Dina Titus noted that the report made the case for action sooner rather than later: “We cannot wait another year for another (damage) report.”
A former chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes bemoaned the disrespectful behavior illustrated in the report, criticizing what amounts to destruction of cultural heritage. "I want to share that with my son, and hopefully other generations will be able to share that and say, ‘This is our culture; this is our tie to where we’re at,’” he explained.
Monument status was long awaited
For nearly a decade, Sen. Harry Reid advocated for legislation that would have permanently protected Gold Butte, and in 2016 he began to publicly push President Obama to protect it using his authority under the Antiquities Act. Earlier this year, a poll found that 71 percent of Nevadans supported national monument status, further cementing the movement. Wilderness Society supporters and other conservationists nationwide petitioned the White House, too.
Two sections of Gold Butte are already designated federal wilderness, but most of the area was without permanent protection until today. Gold Butte is not as well-known as some other iconic landscapes of the Southwest, but in addition to helping to protect it from harm, its newfound status should help bring it the right kind of attention: more travelers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, enchanted by its awe-inspiring desert landscape and rich archaeological legacy.
Whether you focus on its ancient ruins and other precious cultural resources or its rugged natural beauty, it is clear that Gold Butte is a remarkable example of Our Wild, and precisely the kind of place we work so hard to protect.