Opinion

In Support of Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada

The election results should not deter President Barack Obama from proclaiming a national monument at Gold Butte in Nevada, using executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906. As Angie Bundy, whose husband Ryan awaits trial on charges arising from the 2014 armed standoff over the Bundy family’s refusal to pay for the privilege of using our national public lands to feed their cattle, told The Washington Post in early November, “They should let people who have been protecting this land for generations take care of it.”

Indeed, they should. Of course, the “generations” I’m thinking of are probably not those that Bundy has in mind. I’m thinking of several Indian tribes in the vicinity, including the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe and Moapa Band of Paiute Indians. Present-day federally-recognized tribes have ancestors who have inhabited the Gold Butte landscape, and taken care of it, for many generations before Euro-American settlers arrived. As noted in the Post article, tribes are part of the coalition that supports the national monument proposal.

Proclaiming Gold Butte a national monument would provide a path to enhanced roles for the Paiute tribes in taking care of that landscape, including the thousands of petroglyphs and other archaeological sites. Just last month, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued Secretarial Order No. 3342, which directs land-managing bureaus within the Department to “identify opportunities for cooperative management arrangements and collaborative partnerships with tribes.” Such arrangements may include protection, preservation, and management of culturally significant sites, landscapes, and resources. When a national monument is proclaimed, the land-managing agency is typically directed to engage in a multi-stakeholder process to develop a management plan, which would be an appropriate setting for the Bureau of Land Management to consult with tribes in finding ways for them to help protect and preserve the places that they regard as culturally important.

The Obama administration has been reported as carefully considering which actions to shelve and which to act on, given the political implications of the election. But the urgency to protect Gold Butte supersedes any political considerations. The Post article quotes Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune as saying that the thousands of archaeological sites “currently have no protection.” As a practical matter, that is more or less true. Damaging or destroying archaeological resources, including petroglyphs, on our national public lands is a violation of federal law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Punishment for violators may include prison time as well as fines. Apprehending violators, however, is hard to do. Vandalism of petroglyph sites has been a problem in the Gold Butte area for several years, as has been documented by the tribes and others, including the organization Friends of Gold Butte. Bullet holes here, graffiti there, other damage and destruction.

This vandalism steals from future generations, robs them of the opportunity to learn from the art created by ancient peoples, to appreciate the long-term presence of human beings in the landscape. Maybe through collaborative partnerships between BLM and the tribes, strategies can be fashioned to apprehend violators. Maybe a high-profile conviction or two would help to discourage vandalism.

As with other kinds of criminal activity, however, dealing with the problem requires more than law enforcement. Rather, the activity that is defined as criminal must be seen by the larger society as simply unacceptable. This leads me to think that the most important role that the tribes could perform in a collaborative partnership with BLM may well be to help develop programs to inform the general public about the petroglyphs in the Gold Butte landscape.

There are stories in those petroglyphs, and some of those stories are about how the ancestors of present-day Indian tribes took care of the land and its web of life. Some of those stories have been passed down through the generations. By protecting all of Gold Butte as a national monument and directing BLM to consult with the tribes regarding their involvement in fashioning a management plan, President Obama would be setting the stage for people who have been protecting the land for generations to perform a prominent role in taking care of it.

 

Dean B. Suagee is an attorney with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP, in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, he was motivated to become a lawyer and practice Indian law.  

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