President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada on March 21, 2023. Located at the confluence of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, the national monument protects innumerable objects of historic and scientific interest. (U.S. Department of the Interior)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden stressed that his administration’s efforts to conserve the nation’s land and waters are an expression of fundamental American values at the White House Conservation In Action summit Tuesday afternoon.
Biden also announced the designation of two new national monuments in his address, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada, and the Castner Range National Monument in west Texas. He further introduced a series of policy initiatives designed to protect the nation’s public lands and waters.
“This matters because when we conserve our country’s natural gifts, we’re not just protecting the livelihoods of people who depend on them,” Biden said. “We’re protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride. We are protecting pieces of history. We are telling our story that will be told for generations and generations to come.”
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The president’s comments come after the administration approved a controversial ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in Alaska on March 13, angering climate advocates and supporters who accused him of breaking his promise on no new drilling for oil and gas developments. Climate advocates protested outside the Interior Department on Tuesday during Biden’s remarks.
Biden said that unprecedented investment in conservation — more than $10 billion through the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act — is helping the nation protect outdoor spaces and historical sites while adapting to climate change.
Biden touted that his administration has conserved more public land and waters in its first two years than any president since John F. Kennedy.
He spoke of major accomplishments in establishing federal protections for the Tongass National Forest and Bristol Bay in Alaska, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off coastal Massachusetts.
Biden also said federal investments in farmer-led efforts have conserved 50 million acres of private land through the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program.
“Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world,” Biden said. “They have always been — and always will be — essential to our heritage as a people, and essential to our identity as a nation.”
New national monuments
The two new national monuments that Biden designated Tuesday mark the second and third sites Biden has designated as president under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The first was Biden’s designation of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado last October.
Avi Kwa Ame, also known as Spirit Mountain, is a sacred ancestral site among 10 regional Yuman-speaking tribes along with the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute tribes. The 500,000-plus acre site is sacred in several Indigenous creation stories, and serves as habitat to species like the desert bighorn sheep and Gila monster.
The president’s decision to protect the site follows extensive petitioning by organizers in the area last year, and a summit with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last November. He credited U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, and U.S. Reps. Susie Lee and Dana Titus, all Nevada Democrats, for their work on the designation.
“Nevada has beautiful landscapes and ties together one of the largest contiguous wildlife corridors in the United States,” Biden said.
“It’s a place of reverence. It’s a place of spirituality. It’s a place of healing. And now will be recognized for the significance it holds, and be preserved forever.”
The Castner Range National Monument consists of roughly 7,000 acres of high desert mountains, and makes up the southern component of the Franklin Mountain range outside of El Paso, Texas. It is also a former Army training ground, along with being ancestral lands for the Apache, Pueblo, Comanche, Hopi, and Kiowa tribes.
Together, these new national monuments will protect nearly 514,000 acres of public lands, according to a White House release.
Ocean climate initiatives
Biden also announced a memorandum directing Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to consider establishing sanctuary protections for waters surrounding the Pacific Remote Islands within the next 30 days.
The Pacific Remote Islands lie southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, and include Wake, Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.
The decision to establish sanctuary protections would conserve 777,000 square miles of waters, including the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, according to a White House release.
Biden added that the protections he is proposing would make it the largest ocean area on the planet with the “highest level of protection.”
The administration said in a statement that establishing the new sanctuary “would ensure the U.S. will reach the President’s goal” of conserving at least 30% of ocean waters under American jurisdiction by 2030, as part of an administration initiative.
Biden also announced the administration is releasing the “first-ever” United States Ocean Climate Action Plan, a roadmap to using America’s ocean resources to sequester carbon dioxide, generate renewable energy and increase community resilience to climate change.
Moreover, the president said he would work with Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Republican Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, to restore healthy salmon runs in the Colorado River.
“Our country’s national treasures define our identity as a nation,” Biden said. “They’re a birthright we have to pass down generation to generation. They unite us. That’s why our conservation work is so important.”
Praise and protests
Biden’s announcements drew a mixed response from leaders outside Washington.
Several regional organizations celebrated the developments, noting progress undertaken to conserve the historical significance and local economies of storied places.
“Together, we will honor Avi Kwa Ame today — from its rich Indigenous history, to its vast & diverse plant and wildlife, to the outdoor recreation opportunities created for local cities and towns in southern Nevada by a new gorgeous monument right in their backyard,” said a statement from the Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition.
The coalition is made up of “tribes, local Searchlight, Boulder City and Laughlin residents, the Nevada Legislature, conservation groups, (and) recreation interests,” according to the release.
Janaé Reneaud Field, executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance, said in a Tuesday release that the designation from Biden will honor 52 years of people nationwide fighting for the conservation of the Castner Range.
“To say we’re excited is an understatement,” Field added.
Yet some environmental advocates say that the Biden administration has not done enough to conserve the nation’s natural resources.
A coalition of more than five climate advocacy organizations protested outside the Department of the Interior during Biden’s speech Tuesday, condemning the president’s March 14 decision to sign off on the ConocoPhillips Willow Project in Alaska.
They demanded on Twitter that the president revoke his “reckless decision” in light of Monday’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which finds that current consumption patterns will push the planet beyond the 1.5 degree-Celsius threshold for significant environmental harm.
The Willow project will generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide per year.
“Can you believe Biden has the audacity to host a ‘Conservation in Action Summit’ a week after approving the Willow project and a day after the release of the new IPCC report,” said a tweet from the Climate Justice Alliance. “The hypocrisy is blaring but we will not let him get away with it.”
“Preserving public lands and waters — like Avi Kwa Ame, Castner Range, and Rapid Creek — can be a nature-based solution to taking on climate change,” said Chris Hill, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, in a Tuesday statement. “But we cannot save more nature if the government continues to approve destructive oil and gas operations like the Willow project.”
“The President’s actions today show that he is listening to communities and Tribal nations that have been calling for the protection of natural and cultural resources and for safe, equitable access to more public lands. But he still has a long way to go to reach the 30×30 goal,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.
The 30×30 initiative is a Biden administration project established via executive order to conserve 30% of America’s public lands and waters by 2030.
White House officials have acknowledged frustration over the Willow project but say that oil giant ConocoPhillips has held leases in that area of Alaska for decades, which strengthens the company’s legal right to drill.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:57 p.m., March 21, 2023, to correct the location of Bears Ears National Monument. It is located in Utah, not Arizona.
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