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Biden designates sacred tribal land as national monument

The national monument protects innumerable objects of historic and scientific interest, including its namesake Avi Kwa Ame – or Spirit Mountain – and the surrounding arid valleys and mountain ranges that are historically important and sacred places for several Tribal Nations. Taken on January 26, 2020.
U.S. Department of the Interior
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Flickr
Avi Kwa Ame, otherwise known as Spirit Mountain, in Nevada on January 26, 2020.

President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame, a mountainous area in Nevada that’s revered by many tribes, as a national monument Tuesday, putting him closer to achieving his America the Beautiful Initiative. Biden's initiative aims to protect at least 30 percent of the United States’ lands and waters by 2030. Tuesday's designation will protect over 500,000 acres of land from mining or energy development projects.

Otherwise known as Spirit Mountain, the area is sacred to 10 Yuman speaking tribes and other Indigenous peoples. It is also home to one of the largest Joshua tree forests and provides habitats for species like bighorn sheep andthedesert tortoise.

Biden’s speech was greeted with loud cheers as he talked about the importance of the land to Indigenous peoples.

“It's a place of reverence. It's a place of spirituality. It's a place of healing,” he said. “And now we recognize it for the significance it holds and be preserved forever.”

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Conservation in Action Summit at the Department of the Interior, Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP
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AP
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Conservation in Action Summit at the Department of the Interior, Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Washington.

Biden also emphasized that this designation protects the land for many farming communities, outdoor recreation businesses and generations of people to come.

“We're the United States of America,” he said, “and we owe to our children and our grandchildren and our great, great grandchildren and all to come, what we have and what we can preserve.”

Taylor Patterson, a member of the Bishop Paiute tribe, attended the meeting and was excited to watch a tribally-led project get pushed forward.

“We waited over a hundred days and so it felt like the day was never going to get here,” said Patterson, who is also the executive director of the Native Voters Alliance of Nevada. “So it was amazing to see it finally happening…I think it's just such a turn of events really, and I hope there's more to come.”

Before this designation, Spirit Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, the mountain and the area surrounding it are protected.

Patterson said the Southern Paiute tribe was happy to see the protection of the Salt Song trail, a route that was used for trading and extends through Utah, Arizona and California.

“We still had a sort of donut hole … that lacked any formal protection at all,” she said. “So this helps create continuity between all of the protected places and also really just formalizes the protection of everything surrounding Spirit Mountain itself.”

Patterson said this effort could not have succeeded without multiple organizations and tribes coming together.

I hope that the public really looks at this and doesn't take it as like, ‘Oh, this was some overreaching federal land grab,’” she said. “This was something that was very grassroots and done from the communities that were involved.”

Many environmental groups applauded Biden’s efforts.

“Today is a great day for Western public lands,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center For Western Priorities. “I'm just really pleased to see him follow through on his commitment today. It's been years in the making as local leaders in Nevada really push to have this area protected.”

Other environmental groups are skeptical of Biden’s approach to the environment. Some groups protested outside the Interior Department’s headquarters during the meeting as a response to the approval of the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

Demonstraters protest against the Biden administration's approval of the Willow oil-drilling project before a scheduled speech by Biden at the Department of the Interior in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/AP
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AP
Demonstrators protest against the Biden administration's approval of the Willow oil-drilling project before a scheduled speech by Biden at the Department of the Interior in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2023.

Yet, Rokala supports the president’s actions.

“I think the president's commitment to protecting and conserving public lands and waters is real,” she said. “The Willow decision is unfortunate, but I think today's announcement is a big day to celebrate.”

She added that this could lead Biden to protect other public and tribal lands in the West.

“We've seen that in poll after poll that there is broad bipartisan support for the protection of more public lands as national parks, national monuments and national wildlife refuges,” Rokala said.

Patterson noted that Biden was influential in taking the first step to restore Bears Ears National Monument in 2021 after former President Donald Trump reduced the monument by 1.1 million acres. She has high hopes that Avi Kwa Ame will not be the last designation.

“I hope this is just the next step in a long line of tribally led projects and hopefully more management and stewardship,” she said.

The president also designated Texas’ Castner Range, a former World War II Army training site, as a national monument.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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