WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Tuesday he is establishing national monuments on more than half a million acres in Nevada and Texas and creating a marine sanctuary in U.S. waters near the Pacific Remote Islands southwest of Hawaii. The conservation measures are “protecting the heart and soul of our national pride,” Biden said.
Speaking at a White House summit on conservation action, Biden said the new monuments are among the “natural treasures” that “define our identity as a nation. They’re a birthright we have to pass down to generation after generation.”
Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame, a desert mountain in southern Nevada that Native Americans consider sacred, as a national monument, along with the Castner Range in El Paso, Texas. He also moved to create a national marine sanctuary in U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands.
Conservation and tribal groups praised Biden’s actions, but Nevada’s new Republican governor slammed the monument designation as “federal confiscation” of Nevada land and “a historic mistake that will cost Nevadans for generations to come.”
Gov. Joe Lombardo, who unseated the state’s Democratic governor in November, said the White House did not consult with his administration before moving to block clean-energy projects and other development in his state. “This kind of ‘Washington Knows Best’ policy might win plaudits from unaccountable special interests, but it’s going to cost our state jobs and economic opportunity,” Lombardo said in a statement.
“Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world,″ Biden said in a speech at the Interior Department. “They’ve always been and always will be central to our heritage as a people and essential to our identity as a nation.″
The Nevada site spans more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) and includes Spirit Mountain, a peak northwest of Laughlin called Avi Kwa Ame (ah-VEE’ kwa-meh) by the Fort Mojave Tribe and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The rugged landscape near the Arizona and California state lines is home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a large concentration of Joshua trees, some of which are more than 900 years old.
In Texas, the Castner Range designation will protect cultural, scientific and historic objects, honor U.S. veterans and tribal nations, and expand access to outdoor recreation on public lands, Biden said. Located on Fort Bliss, Castner Range served as a training and testing site for the U.S. Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The Army ceased training at the site and closed Castner Range in 1966.
Together, the two new national monuments protect nearly 514,000 acres (208,000 hectares) of public lands. The Avi Kwa Ame landscape is sacred to 12 tribes and is home to rare wildlife and plants, while Castner Range is the ancestral homeland of the Comanche and Apache people, and its cultural ecology is considered sacred to several Indigenous communities.
“To the native people who point to Avi Kwa Ame as their spiritual birthplace, and every Nevadan who knows the value of our cherished public lands: Today is for you,″ tweeted Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, who sponsored a bill to protect the rugged region near the Mojave National Preserve from development, including solar farms and a proposed wind farm.
“Spirit Mountain will now be protected for future generations,″ Titus said.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Avi Kwa Ame “holds deep spiritual, sacred and historic significance to the Native people who have lived on these lands for generations,″ adding that she was grateful to Biden “for taking this important step in recognition of the decades of advocacy from tribes and the scientific community.”
In the Pacific, Biden directed the Commerce Department to initiate a marine sanctuary designation to protect 777,000 square miles around the Pacific Remote Islands. If completed, the new sanctuary would help ensure the U.S. reaches Biden’s goal to conserve at least 30% of ocean waters under U.S. jurisdiction by 2030, the White House said.
The area to be protected is “larger than Alaska and Colorado put together,” Biden said.
Biden’s actions come as he faces sharp criticism from environmental groups and youth activists over his approval of the huge Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.
Biden has made fighting global warming a central part of his agenda and has pledged to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. But the decision on Willow has alienated supporters, particularly young activists skeptical about political compromise at the same time Biden is planning to announce his reelection campaign.
Climate activists gathered outside the Interior Department on Tuesday to condemn what they call Biden’s “climate hypocrisy” and demand the administration change course on Willow. Protesters hung a large yellow banner that said, “Stop the Willow oil project” and chanted “no more drilling, no more drilling, no more drilling on federal land.”
In Texas, the Castner Range monument “will preserve fragile lands already surrounded on three sides by development,” help ensure access to clean water and protect rare and endangered species, said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar.
Fort Mojave Tribe Chairman Timothy Williams, who attended the conservation summit, said tribes throughout the Southwest consider Avi Kwa Ame to be sacred land. Biden’s creation of a new monument demonstrated his “commitment to respect tribal nations and our nation-to-nation relationship.”
Under the leadership of Biden and Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, “We have a seat at the table and we have seen an unprecedented era and opportunity for our tribal communities,” Williams said.
The Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition, which includes tribes, local residents, state lawmakers and conservation groups, said its members were “overjoyed” at the new monument.
Biden designated his first national monument, in Colorado, last year. In 2021, he restored the boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah after they were significantly narrowed by President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Biden announced other steps Tuesday to conserve, restore and expand access to public lands and waters, promote tribal conservation and reduce wildfire risk. The proposals seek to modernize management of America’s public lands, better harness the ocean to help fight climate change and better conserve wildlife corridors, the White House said.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Ken Ritter and Rio Yamat in Las Vegas contributed to this story.