LAS VEGAS–Spurred by the possible development of a wind farm, a coalition of Nevada lawmakers, tribes, conservationists and local residents are pushing for the creation of a national monument in Clark County.
In March, Crescent Peak Renewables, a subsidiary of Swedish-owned Eolus North America, submitted a Bureau of Land Management application for a 9,154-acre wind energy project on the Nevada-California border that it hopes to have ready for commercial operation by late 2024. The project would provide 308-megawatts of energy from 68 wind turbines for the southern Nevada and California electric grid.
The developer, whose previous application for a larger wind farm in the same area was rejected in 2018, is now facing renewed opposition and a campaign local residents to gain protective status for the area the company plans to develop.
A national monument designation for Avi Kwa Ame, which means Spirit Mountain in Mojave, would permanently protect nearly 400,000 acres south of Las Vegas, from future energy development and mining.
More than 80% of the land within the proposed monument is already federally protected as critical habitat. However, the designation would connect existing protected landscapes from the East Mojave Desert to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and expand protections to the area of the proposed wind farm.
There are two ways national monuments can be designated: either by Congress through legislation or by the president through the Antiquities Act.
Growing support for the area’s designation as a national monument has brought together Nevada tribes, rural towns, business leaders and conservationists.
On June 1 the Moapa Band of Paiutes — who have developed their own solar project on their reservation — sent a letter of support for the monument to Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
“We support the designation (of) Avi Kwa Ame as a National Monument, as it will conserve important cultural sites, protect wildlife, benefit our state’s economy, and secure the permanent protection of these lands for the benefit and enjoyment of Nevadas and visitors alike,” wrote Chair of the Moapa Band of Paiutes Laura Parry.
Avi Kwa Ame is considered culturally significant and sacred by Yuman-speaking peoples, including the Mojave, Hualapai, Yavapai, Havasupai, Quechan, Maricopa, Pai Pai, Halchidhoma, Cocopah and Kumeyaay.
Taylor Patterson, the executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada, said native peoples are not against the development of renewable energy in the state overall but that tribes need to be involved in every aspect of development to avoid damaging culturally significant areas like the Avi Kwa Ame.
“The Moapa Band of Pauite solar project shows that tribes are not against development, they are against development in sacred spaces. There can be a balance; it’s just up to developers to do tribal consultation and find out where those spaces are,” Patterson said.
“These tribes have given plenty to development. So why does it have to be in their most sacred spaces that these projects go up?”
In 2019, the Fort Mojave Indian Council voted unanimously to formally support the protection of the Avi Kwa Ame. The area is an important part of the tribe’s spiritual ideology and is featured in Mojave creation beliefs.
“Tribes have consistently articulated that any industrial project in this area is not culturally or environmentally appropriate. There is no potential mitigation possible for the first, indirect, and cumulative encroachment and destruction/desecration of sacred and cultural landscapes,” wrote Chair of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Timothy Williams, in a letter to the Nevada delegation, adding that the tribe applauded the denial of the previous application from Crescent Peak.
Smaller towns in Clark County that would border the proposed project have also signaled strong support for the creation of the national monument. The wind project would be developed about 9 miles west of the small town of Searchlight and about 30 miles south of Boulder City.
In late March, the Boulder City Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of the proposed monument and the preservation of the area from future development.
“We are in a very special situation where we are able to enjoy and preserve the land around us. Our neighbors not so far away haven’t been able to do as much with the pressures of development,” said Councilwoman Tracy Folda during the meeting.
The Boulder City Chamber of Commerce believes the creation of a national monument would drive economic growth for the town — growth industrial development could put at risk.
“Supporting economic development doesn’t always equate to just building commercial enterprise,” said Boulder City Chamber of Commerce CEO Jill Rowland-Langan, adding that the chamber does support solar energy production.
“Boulder City’s founding fathers recognized the importance of conservation and protection of our land by putting into place a limited growth ordinance that would allow for manageable growth and wise use of natural resources,” Rowland-Langan said.
Rowland-Langan pointed to recent research looking at ZIP codes immediately adjacent to 14 national monuments that found monuments were associated with 10% more business establishments and about 9% more jobs in the years following the designation. National Monument designations also correlated with the closure of fewer established businesses, according to the study.
Last week, the Searchlight Town Advisory Board passed a resolution to support the monument designation. Residents of the town say the development of the area would devastate the local economy.
Kim Garrison Means, a third-generation resident of Searchlight and Avi Kwa Ame organizer, said the public lands around the town have been recognized for decades as a unique and critically important habitat for a number of species from the East Mojave Desert to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
“We’ve now had to fight for almost 15 years to keep these energy projects out of the middle of these, supposedly, vital lands,” said Garrison Means. “It’s exhausting.”
Past federal designations ended cattle ranching and mining leases on public lands around Searchlight, the town’s two traditional economic staples. Garrison Means said the town is still standing because of the pristine undisturbed lands that attract home buyers, recreation and tourism.
“We have already sacrificed our economy twice in order to save this land. Being a small rural town we often feel like we are not listened to and that our needs are sacrificed for some greater good of the county or the state,” Garrison Means said. “At this point, sabotaging the only economic outlet that we have left to us as a town is just insulting and painful to us.”
She added, “Now energy companies are coming in with an attitude of disrespect and act like the desert is a wasteland with nothing out here.”
Conservation groups say they don’t oppose the development of renewable energy in Nevada but believe it can be done without encroaching on critical public lands. Avi Kwa Ame is home to sensitive species, like golden eagles and the desert tortoise.
“This is not a zero-sum game,” said Gabrial di Chiara, an organizer with the Nevada Conservation League. “There are alternative routes to capturing renewable energy that don’t include industrializing pristine desert landscapes.”
Eolus, the wind power developer, has acknowledged that desert tortoises and golden eagles are present in the area but contends the area is a “marginal-to-unsuitable habitat” for these species, according to its BLM application.
The company also states the project would only disturb up to 700 of the 9,154 acres included in their application — about 8% of the total development area — and access to the work site would be “designed to minimize disturbance.”
“All cultural resources will be avoided during construction activities,” according to the application.
During a study of the 35-miles of Sloan Canyon Switching Station near Boulder City where the project would connect the company found that all other possible locations in the area had major conflicts, including a lack of access to transmission, desert tortoise migration paths, residential areas, military flight corridors and poor wind resources.
Eolus declined to comment on this story.