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Rocks in a hard place
Story by Andrew Kiraly and
Photography by Christopher Smith
A bill that would preserve Gold Butte has opened up a debate about conservation and community values
Nancy Hall is unfazed by the rattling, the shaking, the jarring, the relentless kabump-kachunk-kabump that is turning her dusty Toyota Tacoma into some demonic carnival ride on this Saturday morning. If you were sitting next to her as she navigates this merciless Gold Butte back road, you’d marvel, too — because look at you: You’re instinctively gripping the seat, the arm rest, the oh-Jesus handle — anything — while also clenching your jaw lest your molars fly out of your mouth. You’re not used to roads like this. Nancy Hall is. She’s got some inner gyroscopic stabilization system that, for her, turns an epically rough ride into a quick jaunt to the corner store. Then again, Gold Butte is her backyard.
“I grew up in Orlando before The Mouse — before Mickey,” says Hall, the executive director of Friends of Gold Butte. “And I experienced a huge sense of loss in the ’80s, when the orange groves died and Disney became more and more of a thing. The dirt roads we used to ride on, the orange groves where we used to get in trouble … they’re all shopping malls now.” Now, she considers the sandstone cliffs and outcroppings looming around us like otherworldly chess pieces; nearby Mesquite has been her home since 1994. “I take my grandkids out here in Gold Butte — they scramble in the red rocks, they look at the petroglyphs and talk about what they mean. It’s priceless, and I need them to be able to have that with their kids.”
We stop next to a high rock ridge hugging the road, and step out of the truck. Today, we’ve come to consider not just the wonders of nature, but the work of humans. In this case, we’ve stopped to ponder their work in two forms: One, an ancient agave roasting pit, where Paiutes and other tribes would slow-cook cactus hearts, then push out the ash and waste. Over generations of use, the agave roasting pit has come to resemble a giant speckled donut rising from beneath the earth. It’s strangely pedestrian — this was, essentially, the Paiutes’ microwave oven — which, just as strangely, makes it an inspiring remnant of an ancient way of life. What’s not inspiring is the other form of man’s work: the fact that an ad hoc road, likely formed by waves of off-roaders, runs over a portion of it. Nearby in the shade of the ridge is an alcove that houses an old midden, with castoff chips of Native American pottery and slivers of rock from stonecrafting tools.
“It’s like a prehistoric trash pile,” explains George Phillips, another longtime preservation activist. “Potsherds, flakes from stone tools — but it’s been pretty well dug up. None of this has been protected.” The greedy collectors then sell these bits of history online or keep it for their personal hoard.
This land is whose land?
You see a lot of that in Gold Butte: convergences of desert beauty, ancient artifacts and modern humans’ more troublesome footprint. They appear throughout the 348,000-acre spread of BLM land about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. In one turn, you’ll see a craggy leviathan of geology jumbled with ancient petroglyphs that seem to dance on the rocks — snakes and swirls, sheep and shamans — next to teens’ scrawlings and shotgun blast marks pitting the stone. Nancy Hall has seen it get worse over the years, and that’s why she’s been the moving force behind a federal bill that would turn Gold Butte into a national conservation area. Sen. Harry Reid introduced the bill in the Senate in May, but it’s too soon to tell its future.
The bill sounds simple and benign enough: It would formalize protections for the land and boost its profile for a better shot at federal funding. So what’s not to like? The catch is that Hall and Friends of Gold Butte are facing polite but entrenched opposition. Not by big industry or developers or the usual villains in this kind of story. Rather, they’re opposed by a more localized manifestation of all that Culture and History we’re talking about: the surrounding rural communities who have come to think of Gold Butte as their recreational backyard — one particularly attractive to area off-roaders. To them, the prospect of a national recreation area means putting the land more firmly in the grip of the feds. (The land is already owned by the federal government, has been deemed an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and already has about 28,000 acres designated as wilderness, but that’s pretty much window dressing: This sprawl of desert doesn’t even have a full-time ranger. It’s like a libertarian’s dream walkabout.)
“A national conservation area bill is the wrong administrative tool to preserve Gold Butte,” says Lindsey Dalley, president of Partners in Conservation, an outdoor recreation group. “Gold Butte has a huge history component, and a lot of cultural aspects come into play that a national conservation area bill or wilderness treatment don’t address.”
The conflict raises a question about fragile, wild and beautiful public land. Should it be like a museum, groomed and preserved for everyone? Or should it be more like the local general store, suited to the customs and practices of the communities around it? Is there a middle ground? It’d be easy to write off the bill’s opponents as stubbornly unenlightened, but growing up with the land fosters a view that’s at once less romantic but no less rich or complex. Their resistance to government involvement isn’t some Tea Party knee-jerk, but rather a caution rooted in generations.
“The reason places like Logandale and Moapa are interesting is because our history comes from St. Thomas,” says Dalley, referring to the small town that was submerged in the waters of the newly created Lake Mead in 1938. “And when St. Thomas existed, Gold Butte was their sustenance; it was for cattle and commerce. There’s an emotional aspect to it that people don’t realize. All of our history comes out of St. Thomas, which comes out of Gold Butte.”
The bill makes compromises, Hall points out. For instance, it leaves in about 500 miles — the vast majority — of roads for off-roading, a rarity for a national conservation area. “Whatever you do here now, you’ll be able to do when it’s a national conservation area,” says Hall, “except there’d be interpretation, education and a ranger presence to bring it to a higher level of status, and it would receive some more funding so we can have a better management plan.”
But many in the surrounding towns and hamlets, such as Mesquite, Bunkerville, Moapa, Overton and Logandale, remain suspicious.
[HEAR MORE: Listen to a discussion about saving Gold Butte on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
“A lot of people in the rural communities don’t feel the bill is necessary,” explains Elise McAllister, administrator for Partners in Conservation. She agrees that the area can use a full-time ranger, but balks at the rest of the bill. “The people in favor of the bill have good intentions and they work hard, but many of us don’t feel another layer of bureaucracy is going to help the area.” McAllister favors more local eyes and ears on the place — in fact, she herself often heads up volunteer cleanup and reclamation efforts — but adds, “You can’t guard every rock 24 hours a day.”
You’d think a bill protecting a place dubbed “Nevada’s Piece of the Grand Canyon” would sail through Congress. But, actually, this is the second version of the bill to be introduced, after a 2008 bill introduced then-Rep. Shelley Berkley went nowhere.
“That bill was just to get the conversation started,” says Hall. “We knew it wasn’t going anywhere, and it may have made things a bit contentious, but things have calmed down since then.” For Hall to be pushing another piece of legislation is risky. On the one hand, many people in the areas around Gold Butte admire her tenacity, how dogged and methodical Hall is. She’s even made a few converts. But on the other hand, there’s also a sense of eye-rolling “here we go again,” convincing many to just tune the conservation campaign out. “People start to get heartburn when they hear Gold Butte needs protecting,” says McAllister of Partners in Conservation. There’s a sense of, ‘We went through this already, so let it be.’”
But this again is different. Some point out that the time for a bill is ripe, given that Gold Butte seems as popular as ever. “Hardly a weekend goes by that I don’t see something out there,” says Tom Cluff, a Mesquite resident and avid Gold Butte hiker who supports the bill. He tells stories of seeing ATVers tearing out road closure signs and fences to plow over the raw landscape. “But the politics in Mesquite have become dominated by the mindset of opposition, and I don’t see it changing. People who have chosen to think the federal government is in some conspiracy to do something, I don’t think they’re going to change their minds.” What kind of impacts will it take to change those minds?
“Mesquite has doubled in size over 10 years, St. George is at a 120,000, and Las Vegas is bursting at the seams,” says Hall. “People who enjoy remote recreation are going further into the desert.”
And that’s starting to affect both nature and culture. For instance, if you want to visit the original Gold Butte townsite, don’t bother trying to find the old wooden cattle corral that dates back to the 1930s.
Somebody took a chainsaw to it. What they didn’t use for kindling in a nearby campfire, they took home as antique accents.
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