Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised Nevada’s record of protecting its special landscapes Wednesday, Apr. 4, during a town hall-style meeting in Las Vegas with Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Harry Reid and State Sen. Stephen Horsford.
The meeting was focused on tourism, and the dignitaries on hand were quick to point out that Nevada’s exceptional geographic areas can be a key economic driver. Salazar highlighted Nevada’s Sloan Canyon and Red Rock Canyon national conservation areas, and noted that the state has an opportunity to expand on those federally protected regions. Horsford, who announced his candidacy for Congress last year, singled out the 350,000-acre Gold Butte area as an example of a special landscape that could help spur the Southern Nevada economy if it were protected.
"We have a jewel in Gold Butte, outside of Mesquite, that we need to recognize and protect," said Horsford.
In March, Salazar, recently appointed to President Obama’s Task Force for Travel and Competitiveness, noted that national parks, wild refuges, cultural and historic sites, monuments and other public lands play a key role in Obama’s efforts to create more jobs and improve the national economy through tourism. The U.S. Department of Commerce last month said tourism spending jumped 8.1 percent in 2011, and Obama wants to build on that momentum by identifying “new ways to raise the profile of our most iconic destinations,” Salazar said.
Last year Salazar included Gold Butte in his “Crown Jewels” report identifying 18 areas that deserve permanent protection by Congress. He said at the time that the 18 areas were selected for their spectacular natural attributes and the fact that they’ve been under consideration for many years with “very little controversy.”
Nevada Wilderness Project Conservation Director John Tull commented at Wednesday’s town hall, praising Sen. Reid’s “incredible legacy” of conserved landscapes in Nevada.
"It is exciting for me to see the level of recognition and enthusiasm for our wildest, most scenic places as a key component of tourism,” Tull said. “We look forward to further protections, including designation of Gold Butte as a National Conservation Area with Wilderness, that will enhance outdoor opportunities to draw and retain tourists to Nevada and the United States."
Located northeast of Las Vegas, Gold Butte is a
treasure trove of rare geologic formations, prehistoric rock art, historical mining districts and sensitive wildlife habitat for desert tortoise and dozens of other plant and animal species. The area contains two small areas of designated wilderness – Lime Canyon and Jumbo Springs – but there are large tracts of sensitive land that also deserve protection before their biological, cultural, scenic and historical qualities are compromised or lost.
While opponents often claim that activities are restricted in federally protect conservation areas, proponents, including the Nevada Wilderness Project, note that conservation areas can be tailor made to fit local desires.
In the case of Gold Butte, the area’s 500 miles of existing roads will remain open, assuring access to all corners of the area. Making it a conservation area would help prevent serious degradation of Gold Butte’s valuable resources – from its ancient rock art to its critical tortoise and bighorn sheep habitat.
Gold Butte protection has been endorsed by prominent local leaders – including Caesars Entertainment Group, the Mesquite City Council and the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians. Businesses large and small are recognizing that Gold Butte provides vital recreation and tourism jobs and is increasingly important to the Southern Nevada economy.
Rep. Joe Heck currently represents the Gold Butte area. He has met with local residents to discuss possible legislation but so far has not introduced a bill creating a National Conservation Area with Wilderness for Gold Butte.
“It’s a false argument to say that Gold Butte would be ‘locked up’ with no public access if it were to become a national conservation area,” Tull said. “The law would guarantee that not a single mile of the 500 miles of roads in Gold Butte would be closed.”
Instead, making the area a National Conservation Area with Wilderness could have the effect of opening up Gold Butte to more admirers, Tull said.
“Instead of rushing past the exit sign on Interstate 15, travelers would be drawn into Mesquite, where a new visitor center would introduce them to the amenities of Gold Butte, educate them about nearby recreational opportunities, and help them plan how to enjoy their exploration of the area,” he said. “Such a visitor center has long been needed for this important corner of Nevada.”