Local tribes and national conservation groups are lobbying to establish a fourth national monument in southern Nevada that would preserve Indigenous cultural sites and critical environmental habitat.
The proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument would protect 380,000 acres east of the Mojave Desert in southern Clark County. The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and local tribes are working together to achieve the land designation.
“I call this the crossroads of the America West. Almost everything that happened in westward expansion happened in this landscape,” said Alan O’Neill, an advisor to the National Parks Conservation Association and former superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
A map of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
Avi Kwa Ame is Mojave for “Spirit Mountain.” The mountain and surrounding area are sacred to multiple Native American tribes, including Yuman-speaking tribes, Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute. Sprit Mountain is the Yuman tribes’ spiritual birthplace and figures prominently within their ideology, and the Hopi and Chemehuevi also consider the mountain a sacred site.
“This is a place where our god lives. We do the best we can to take care of this place,” said Linda Otero, director of the Aha Makav Cultural Society and former council member Fort Mojave tribe. “It touches our lives in every which way.”
In 1999, Spirit Mountain and 48,000 acres surrounding the mountain were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property. At the time, it was the largest traditional cultural property in the country.
O’Neill said he helped lead the charge behind the 1999 designation “to recognize the spiritual values of the landscape.”
But, the designation only included the mountain, not surrounding landscapes. To Otero and other Indigenous people, the mountain’s influence is much greater – it encompasses the whole region.
“We kind of had an unspoken agreement with them (local tribes) we would revisit it when the time was right,” O’Neill said.
Caste Mountain towers over Joshua trees at the proposed national monument.
Since the designation, two wind projects have threatened the area, and sprawl from Las Vegas continues to creep toward the mountain. According to a report from UNLV, roughly 140,000 people move to the city annually, and its population should hit 2.72 million by 2035.
The Crescent Peak and Searchlight wind energy projects also threatened the area, O’Neill said. Both projects were tabled, but “It was so troublesome to the conservation community. The environmental community is supportive of renewable energy, but like everything else, it’s location, location, location. They couldn’t have picked a worse location for wind development in terms of impact on ecological values and cultural values.
“Rather than wait for the next bad project, we decided to be more proactive. How do we provide permanent protection for the area?”
There are two ways to create a national monument – through legislation or presidential executive order.
Nevada’s Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument was created through legislation, while Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments were created through presidential executive order.
Walking Box Ranch is part of the proposed national monument.
For Avi Kwa Ame, conservation groups are working with Sen. Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and other state politicians to include the property as part of the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act lands bill. The draft version of the bill expands Clark County’s development boundaries by more than 42,000 acres but balances it by creating 308,000 acres of new wilderness area.
The designation would connect the Mojave National Preserve, Castle Mountains and Mojave Tails national monuments, Dead Mountains Wilderness Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Colorado Plateau. It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation and includes the South McCullough Wilderness Area and the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area.
Ecological highlights of the proposed monument include features such as natural springs and petroglyphs; critical habitat for desert tortoise and golden and bald eagles; and serves as a migratory corridor for desert bighorn sheep.
The property is also home to the largest Joshua tree forest in the world and contains the oldest and largest Joshua trees on the planet, some more than 900 years old.
The proposed monument also houses the historic Mojave Trail, a 138-mile stretch located in the southernmost part of the area used by Mojave and other Native peoples to transport goods with the Chumash and other coastal tribes, and Fort Piute, a former military outpost along the road.
Clara Bow and Rex Bell at the Walking Box Ranch.
In the mid 20th century, Hollywood stars Rex Bell and Clara Bow constructed the Walking Box Ranch seven miles west of Searchlight, also located on the proposed monument land. Bell starred in western films such as “The Cowboy Kid” and “Tombstone” and served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 1955 until his death in 1962. Bow was a silent film star who transitioned to “talkies” and was one of the inspirations for the Betty Boop character.
The ranch is a 5,000 square-foot Spanish Colonial Revival style home that also includes a large cactus garden and outbuildings. The ranch was a hangout for Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Errol Flynn, and John Wayne and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
“We’re excited,” O’Neill said. “We can protect both the cultural and natural landscape all in one.”