This is Part IV of a multi-part series examining the issues surrounding the Gold Butte controversy that's been going on for several years in the region. It is based on conversations with Nancy Hall, President of Friends of Gold Butte, and Elise McAllister, Director of Partners in Conservation, both 501(c) non-profit groups. Information based on conversations with Met Johnson, a long-time area resident and business owner, is also included in the series. This series is part essay, part opinion, and part news reporting.
See Mesquite Citizen Journal stories Modern Day Range Wars-Part I Modern Day Range Wars-Part II-Economic Impact and Modern Day Range Wars-Part III-Managing the Land
Don’t even think about joking around about road and trail closures when you discuss Gold Butte. Both sides of the issue tend to get a little touchy about that.
“For two years I’ve been advocating for 500 miles of roads to be legislated because that was a compromise [with the other side]. Then it would take an act of Congress to close any roads after that,” Hall said. “The lines for the citizen-proposed Wilderness were drawn around the roads designations. Any of the roads open right now would continue to be open.”
Hall contends that ATVs should not be allowed off the designated roads because of potential damage to the desert tortoise habitat and cryptobiotic soils.
“People are required to stay on the designated roads and trails and they have to keep their dogs on a lease. I understand it was different in the 1960s and different again in the 1980s. But those are the rules today,” she said.
That sounds reasonable until you consider past practices.
“Sloan Canyon [near Las Vegas] was supposed to have two roads left open on the back side of it,” McAllister explained when I asked her about the subject. “But, when the management plan came down, it said no off-highway vehicles. A lot of people in Vegas believed those roads would be left open but they weren’t. Now there aren’t any OHV roads there,” McAllister cautioned.
“NCA designations are for protection. They aren’t for multiple use. Every time there’s a step up in the designation, things get removed. We are fast becoming a ‘no multiple use’ land,” she added. “They’ve closed 47 miles of roads already. At one time, they proposed closing 25 percent of the roads in the ACEC.”
“Cherry stemming the roads around the wilderness designations like they have doesn’t mean the area has true wilderness characteristics,” McAllister said. “Cherry stemming seems disingenuous to me.”
“Plus,” she says, “you can be on a BLM road and not get a ticket. Then all of a sudden, you’re in a Park Service Wilderness area and you get a ticket. No one knows where that line is drawn. It makes it hard for people who want to do the right thing to actually do the right thing.”
“I don’t know how they can write the environmental assessment [regarding roads] into the NCA designation law because it contradicts BLM’s mandates that says BLM can close roads and areas if resources are impacted negatively,” McAllister continued. “Traditionally-used roads that were open before 1998 should still be open.”
The National Park Service did in fact close two very popular roads to motorized vehicles when it designated 91,000-plus acres near Lake Mead as a Wilderness.
That apparently is where serious doubts and disbeliefs enter into the picture on the part of those who want to leave the region as open as possible. People advocating keeping areas open to multiple uses feel that government agencies and conservation groups can’t be trusted to keep their original word.
"It's evident to me there's a big matter of trust through the years about what has been promised to this valley and what has really happened," Doug Reath, a Mesquite resident and avid ATV-er, said at the Mesquite City Council Technical Review when he spoke as a private citizen about the issue. He also serves as the government liaison for the Mesquite Chamber of Commerce.
"Once certain groups get a bite of the apple, they continue to go. The places I used to go to [in California] as a kid are absolutely shut down. I think negotiations have to take place to assure the community that that's not going to happen.
How Big is Gold Butte
The Gold Butte region can be one small tiny little area miles southwest of Bunkerville or it can be as far as the eye can see when you look at the mountain range and desert plateau south of Mesquite. How much is already designated wilderness and how much do conservation groups want to establish as a wilderness area?
Here are some
quick numbers to help put this into perspective – or not. It depends on who you talk to and which side of the fence they’re on.
Gold Butte proper is a tiny little area that was settled as a mining town around the late 1800s and early 1900s. McAllister related that it used to be “the place everyone from St. Thomas went to get gossip.” The town was on the Arrowhead Trail, an early road that led settlers and pioneers to and from California.
Now, most references to Gold Butte as a region encompass an area of over 300,000 acres, stretching from the south edge of Bunkerville clear over to Lake Mead and south to the Arizona border.
Hall says that “In the Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002, 451,915 acres were designated as Wilderness. The Nevada Wilderness Coalition Citizen Proposal recognized more than 300,000 acres of wilderness quality lands in the Gold Butte area. Gold Butte received a fraction of this at less than 28,000 acres designated as Wilderness and 12,000 acres of Wilderness Study Area (WSA) released.”
Had the original request been met, the entire area would have, in effect, been shut down to all motorized vehicles, with only two feet as the authorized means of transportation. No improvements, changes or repairs to current structures would have been authorized in the entire area.
“The conservation advocates say they have already compromised because they revised their desired wilderness designation downward. We don’t want any wilderness but we’re already got some, so that’s our compromise,” McAllister remarked.
There are currently two locations designated as wilderness areas: Lime Canyon with 24,037 acres and Jumbo Springs with 4,631 acres. Million Hills WSA holds 22,579 acres with additions of 2,239.
Hall’s group, Friends of Gold Butte, and the Nevada Wilderness Coalition revised the wilderness request down to 107,013 under the “Citizen Proposed Wilderness.” The National Park Service has requested another 91,963 acres under its wilderness proposal. The Gold Butte NCA proposal includes a total of 348,515 acres according to Hall’s documents.
“If everything is declared ‘wilderness’ doesn’t ‘wilderness’ lose a special value,” McAllister asks.
A Clark County Commission resolution signed in May 2010 calls for 345,000 acres in the NCA and that 130,000 acres within that be designated as Wilderness. That’s in addition to the National Park Service Wilderness designation. Interestingly, neither resolution passed by the Mesquite City Council, one in 2009 and a replacement in 2010, designated a specific acreage for the NCA designation nor wilderness set asides.
Stewards of the land
Everyone agrees on one point. The Gold Butte tract is a beautiful area and requires stewardship on the part of everyone. Defining how that is carried out is where opinions differ.
Conservationists contend that protection at the federal level is the only way to protect the area. Other groups advocating to leave Gold Butte as an ACEC say it would allow more local control and input.
“We much prefer to have the local BLM office manage the area as an ACEC like it is now. Then we can sit down with them and work out conflicts rather than having laws written in Washington D.C.” McAllister commented.
“Site stewardship programs that were used in other areas in Clark County are gone after they were designated an NCA. Now there’s no real local control,” she added.
Johnson contends that the land is best cared for by those who have lived, worked, and played in the area their whole lives. He says that multiple uses of the area are the most important priority.
Longtime residents of Bunkerville and Mesquite also spoke out at the recent Mesquite City Council advocating for local control and stewardship saying they have been taking care of the area their whole lives. Others at the Council meeting disputed that citing the recent vandalism in the area.
One thing is for sure. The modern day range war raging over the Gold Butte area isn’t going away soon. Nevada’s Congressional delegation has promised to take up federal legislation that will surely displease one or both groups.
Hall has lived in Mesquite for 18 years and has worked with the Nevada Wilderness Project and other conservation groups for the last eight years. Friends of Gold Butte originated in Las Vegas in 2003 and was brought to Mesquite in 2006 when Hall became President. "After receiving my own grants in 2011, I became Executive Director," Hall explained. "We spun off from the Nevada Wilderness Project then."
Elise McAllister has lived in the Gold Butte region her whole life. She is the Director of Partners in Conservation and works on Gold Butte issues "when I have time." She is a 5th Generation resident of the Moapa Valley.
For more information about Gold Butte issues access these Web sites: