This is how the tenures of Barack Obama and Harry Reid end: not with a whimper or a bang, but with a beaut—that is, a Butte.
Gold Butte National Monument, to be specific: 300,000 acres of sand dunes, petroglyphs and natural beauty, known as “Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon.” Using the 1906 Antiquities Act, Obama declared Gold Butte a national monument after years of pushing from Reid, Congresswoman Dina Titus and environmental and Native American groups. (I am on the board of one such group, and proud to be.) Whether intentionally or not, Obama heeded the late Justice William O. Douglas’ admonition that “before these priceless bits of Americana … are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.”
The surest sign that Obama did the right thing? Douglas would be happy, and Reid, Titus and the groups in question are happy. But the right-wing insurrectionists who believe they are the only ones who have an investment in this land—and reputedly used the petroglyphs for shooting practice—are not. Yet some of the people involved in this issue and the responses to it say a great deal about where Nevada politics has been, and where it is headed.
For Reid, it was a crowning moment. A week before his first election to the Senate in 1986, Great Basin National Park was created, making Nevada the last state in the union to have its own national park. Getting that done required compromise and endless effort—and Reid would do the same to help protect the Sloan Canyon Petroglyph Site, among others. Indeed, Reid has had a hand (and sometimes a fist) in creating almost all of Nevada’s more than 1 million acres of conservation areas.
But Gold Butte differed little from previous fights. The battle to create Great Basin National Park pitted environmental groups against miners and ranchers who insisted that the area would one day produce wealth for them, although it never had in the past. Gold Butte takes its name from the remnants of a mining town that hasn’t been seen or heard from in more than a century. Earlier Nevada officials, including Gov. James Scrugham and Sen. Alan Bible, strained every nerve on behalf of environmental protections, and sometimes paid a political price. Reid leaves undefeated on this score.
“It feels like finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us.”
–Dave Archambault II
When Bible pushed for Great Basin National Park, he had help from the White House, but not from the “People’s House.” Titus was a big help in supporting the conservation designation for Gold Butte. Beyond the usual reasons—a belief in protecting some parts of our environment, for example—there was also the impact of Titus’ scholarly expertise (she belonged to the professoriat before going into more honest work) in atomic testing. She knows more than a little about what we are capable of doing to the land—and to ourselves.
The progressive groups involved worked together. Sometimes these organizations can wind up at cross-purposes, depending on the issue. Gold Butte serves as a reminder of the benefits of unity.
What it came down to was what Aretha Franklin called R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, who fought the pipeline through his lands, said of Obama, “It feels like, finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us.” Gold Butte once was part of the Moapa Reservation, and the area is sacred to Southern Paiutes. Their concerns deserved, and received, respect.
Though not from everybody. Sen. Dean Heller declared himself “terribly disappointed.” The next day, he announced he would run for re-election. Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt, whose decision to run for governor affected Heller’s decision not to, chimed in with criticism of Obama “undermining local control of Nevada’s communities, and damaging our jobs and economy.”
Since Washoe County will give Heller and Laxalt substantial support because of their Northern Nevada connections, those who worked together on Gold Butte would be well advised to remember how they felt about it and perhaps suggest that the community near Gold Butte—Southern Nevadans—would like to have pleasant vistas surrounding them. It’s worth suggesting to them that they supported Cliven Bundy, but apparently don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks about the area. It also might be worth asking them why, when Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose administration saw the designation was coming and worked with the White House on it, has emphasized ecotourism, they are so opposed to having places in Nevada for tourists to visit and marvel at.
Indeed, far better to marvel at the beauty of Gold Butte than the beauts who sought to destroy it.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.