[This multi-part series is intended to explore the controversial Gold Butte issue from several points of view. It's intended to be a combination of analysis, opinion and some news reporting.]
It's one of those issues where it doesn't matter what you say, someone is going to be mad.
Want to clear a room real quick? Just say two words, Gold Butte.
In an effort to better understand local issues and opinions with Gold Butte, I spent three hours talking to Nancy Hall, President of the local Friends of Gold Butte. I also spent three hours talking to lifelong Moapa Valley resident Elise McAllister, Director of the Partners in Conservation. I also spent three more hours on the phone with rancher and business owner, Met Johnson.
I intentionally stayed away from federal government organizations and nationally-based advocacy groups on purpose. You can criticize that if you want. But my intention in doing so was to keep a 'local' face on the subject because, after all, Gold Butte is in our backyard.
More from and about the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) role will come at a later date.
What I learned in my conversations with these three people, and a few others, is that passions run high, extremely high. There is no black and white; no easy answers. And, very little of the controversy with Gold Butte will be settled locally - probably the saddest part of the whole issue.
Right now the whole area is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) with a couple small parcels designated as "Wilderness." Some groups want it established as a "National Conservation Area with Wilderness." Other groups contend that by changing from ACEC to a stricter designation will disallow any form of motorized vehicles, as in ATVs, and even bicycles.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."
One thing I learned, especially talking to Johnson, is that there are so many players and interests in the outcome of what to do with Gold Butte that if you put all of them together, the 300,000 plus acres involved probably wouldn't be big enough to hold all of them.
Most of the controversy I've heard about is between those who want to limit certain kinds of recreational uses in Gold Butte versus those who don't want that many restrictions.
But, there's one part of the Gold Butte discussions I've hardly heard much about in all the years I've been in Mesquite; the interests of the longtime ranchers, farmers, and families who've lived here virtually their whole lives and used the Gold Butte area as their backyard playground.
Let's leave Cliven Bundy out of the discussion for now. He's the Bunkerville rancher who recently had a dust up with the Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing in the area. We'll get to him later.
Johnson bought and sold cattle throughout parts of Southern Nevada and Utah for 33 years. Until recently, he spent 15 years living in Mesquite and probably knows every rancher and farmer that ever lived in these parts.
He's also been involved in land issues throughout the Southwest area most of his life.
Johnson contends the Gold Butte area is federally designated as multiple use. That means the land is not just for one type of user or one particular interest group. "Therefore, there are multiple stakeholders," he explained. "They have legal standing. They have rights, they have privileges, and they have potential investment, all for the good of Gold Butte. All of these stakeholders must have a part in any process that might change the multiple-use to any other federal designation, particularly wilderness." Johnson explained that a wilderness designation for the area would exclude all of the stakeholders' use in Gold Butte.
He listed all of the stakeholders in the Gold Butte controversy as he sees them. Fourteen in all, not in any particular order: municipal water users; agricultural water users; homesteading done by communities; recreation; oil and gas exploration; mining; commercial mineral rights; energy potential like wind and solar; grazing; hunting; fishing; boating; and environmental concerns from two standpoints - people not being allowed to go into an area and the concerns of people in the local, small communities.
That's a lot of pieces of the pie.
Johnson contends that many of these stakeholders have been intentionally ignored.
He referenced R.S. 2477 that designates rights-of-way through BLM lands. "They can be trails or two-track roads, highways, or even minuscule tracks into areas. Under a wilderness designation, R.S. 2477 can be cancelled and those roads closed. Even though no closures have taken place in the last few years, that designation has a very inhibiting stature. R.S. 2477 guarantees public access to these public lands but it can be cancelled under 'wilderness,'" he said.
One of his greatest concerns is the loss of local management and control of an area once it is designated as wilderness. "It becomes illegal to repair bridges or maintain trails," Johnson explained. "Whatever Mother Nature does, you don't fix it. It creates its own environment that prohibits you from going to an area if you can't repair those things."
Johnson believes that "the wilderness designation is beyond the necessity that Nevada has already accomplished. Nevada satisfied its wilderness designation years ago when the state sold its trust land to the Federal government. To get one more piece of land into a wilderness designation is ridiculous. Any more wilderness designations in Nevada just won't fly."
"To change this multiple-use concept by only one of 14 entities is ludicrous and totally unfounded. All of these entities need to be at the table. If any opinion surveys go out, they can't be sponsored and promoted by one entity," Johnson said. "All the people involved in any change of use have to be involved in the wording of the survey."
Johnson also contends the Mesquite City Council should not be involved in public land issues. "Their role is in public safety and roads and not in public lands use unless all the players are involved. This is not an issue to deal with lightly and all these players have an issue with this at some time and some where. The City Council needs to represent all the people, all the time."
Johnson feels that the ranchers, farmers, and families that trace their heritage back to the original settlers have been good stewards of the land. "If they tended it well for 120 years or more, should the government take control of it now? Should there be more control by the federal government? If that happens, then local control is gone. They just want to take the land away. Having the government in charge won't work. It has never worked."
[On Tuesday this series will explore the economic impact of leaving Gold Butte as an ACEC or designating it as an NCA with or without "Wilderness.]