President Biden on Tuesday proclaimed two vast swaths of land — Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada, and Castner Range in West Texas — as national monuments, a designation that preserves a total of more than 500,000 acres of land from new development.
"We're protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride. We're protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come," Biden said at a conservation summit.
Biden had pledged to conserve more land when he took office. But lately, he has come under intense criticism from environmental groups for approving a new oil drilling project in Alaska. Some environmentalists argued the Willow project violated the administration's climate and conservation goals, even though the administration also announced it will prevent or limit oil drilling in 16 million acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
Biden's first new national monument was Camp Hale - Continental Divide, which he designated in Colorado in October.
In Nevada, the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument — also known as Spirit Mountain — is considered sacred by a dozen tribes. There are petroglyphs and other artifacts that show how people traveled through the area for more than 10,000 years. Advocates say the desigation will help preserve ancestral native lands.
More than 506,000 acres in size, the mountains and valleys are home to one of the world's largest Joshua tree forests, and provides habitat for desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, migratory birds, endangered bats and Gila monster lizards.
"It's a place of reverence, its a place of spirituality, and it's a place of healing, and now it will be recognized for the significance it holds and be preserved forever," Biden said.
@POTUS @JoeBiden is expected to designate #AviKwaAme a national monument. Today on @180099Native, we get an update on the sacred space also known as Spirit Mountain with Alan O'Neill from @NPCA and Taylor Patterson from @nva_nevada.https://t.co/wTbIQKXNop pic.twitter.com/4NZIFZJ2d0— nativeamericacalling (@180099native) March 13, 2023
Indigenous groups and state and local leaders applauded the move.
"This land is considered sacred to tribes who trace their creation story to this land and it deserves to be protected and those tribes have been involved in this effort to protect Avi Kwa Ame for years," said Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada.
But Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo, who took office in January, complained that he was not consulted, calling the monument a "historic mistake." He said the protections would put rare earth mineral projects and other long-planned development at risk.
The White House said it reached out to Lombardo's office in January and said the Interior Department held public and private meetings and consultations in the state ahead of the announcement.
Since I took office, the Biden White House has not consulted with my administration about any of the details of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame national monument which, given the size of the proposal, seems badly out of step. My full statement on the designation below. pic.twitter.com/lwlrDUyy3J— Governor Joe Lombardo (@JosephMLombardo) March 21, 2023
In Texas, Biden will preserve the Castner Range National Monument, which comprises about 6,600 acres of land within the city limits of El Paso. It is part of Fort Bliss, and was a training site until 1966.
It's known for waves of yellow and orange poppies in the spring. "When you see it, it's just breathtaking," Biden said. "The people of El Paso have fought to protect this for 50 years. Their work has finally paid off."
The site has ancient rock art, cultural deposits and historic military locations. The land needs to be remediated because of unexploded munitions.
Advocates pushing to make Castner Range a national monument have argued it would increase access to nature for underserved communities nearby.
"Once it is safe for public access following remediation of military munitions ... Castner Range will become a natural classroom offering unique opportunities to experience, explore, and learn from nature in a unique setting that is close to a major urban center," Biden said in his official proclamation for the monument.
Biden also started the process to designate a new marine sanctuary he said would be the largest on the planet around the Pacific islands southwest of Hawaii. The sanctuary will protect 777,000 square miles of islands, reefs and diverse marine life — an area he said was three times the size of Texas.
The president also said the White House will release its first United States Ocean Climate Action Plan. The plan includes offshore wind farming, land and water conservation and a strategy for reducing international shipping emissions.