US President Joe Biden on Tuesday designated two new national monuments, protecting nearly 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of wilderness in the states of Texas and Nevada.
The announcement comes nearly a week after his administration approved a controversial Alaska oil drilling project, the largest federal land proposal.
Speaking Tuesday at the White House Conservation in Action Summit, Biden named Castner Range in Texas and Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada, also known as Spirit Mountain, as national monuments under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906.
He also issued a presidential memorandum to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, calling on her office to designate about two million square kilometers (777,000 square miles) of ocean south of Hawaii as a new national marine reserve.
“The natural treasures of our country define our identity as a nation,” Biden told the audience at the summit. “They are a birthright that we must pass down generation after generation.”
Tuesday’s designation marks another step toward Biden’s goal of preserving 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030, part of an executive order he issued in January 2021, a week after his inauguration.
But the announcement was not without controversy. For years, indigenous tribes and conservation groups had lobbied the government to name Avi Kwa Ame a national monument, and Biden teased more protections for the area in November during the first White House tribal lands summit in six years.
Avi Kwa Ame, a rugged desert landscape of canyons and rock formations, is considered the spiritual birthplace of 10 Yuman-speaking tribes. The white granite summit and surrounding lands are home to Gila monsters, desert tortoises, and bighorn sheep among the creosote bushes and pinyon pines.
About 13,564 hectares (33,518 acres) in the area were already protected as federal wilderness, but Biden’s announcement on Tuesday expands protections to an estimated 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres), making them off limits to development.
This is due to opposition from energy companies. Crescent Peak Renewables has sought approval for years to develop wind turbines and other facilities on the site, which is wedged into the southernmost tip of Nevada, near California and Arizona.
In response to increased federal protection for Awe Kwa Ame, Republican Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo issued a statement criticizing Biden for failing to consult with local politicians.
“When I learned that the president was considering unilateral action, I reached out to the White House to express several concerns,” Lombardo wrote.
“While I’m still waiting for a response, I’m not surprised,” he said of Tuesday’s announcement. “This kind of ‘Washington Knows Best’ policy may garner praise from inexplicable special interests, but it’s going to cost our state jobs and economic opportunity.”
Indigenous groups, however, applauded Biden’s actions. Speaking at Tuesday’s summit, Timothy Williams, president of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said his community was “filled with joy” when he learned that Awe Kwa Ame would be protected.
“It is a place that we know as our creation. It is the beginning of our traditional songs. And it is the place that indigenous nations across the Southwest hold sacred,” he explained. “What had once been a distant dream for our people suddenly seemed possible.”
Nevada remains a critical swing state for Biden as he weighs a likely 2024 presidential run. In the 2022 midterm elections, the incumbent Democrats lost the race for Nevada governor but retained a central seat in the U.S. Senate, resulting in a mixed bag for the party.
The second national monument, Castner Range, will be located in the deep red state of Texas. Located near the city of El Paso, the area is of historical importance to the local indigenous people and served as a training site in World War II. It also contains 40 known archaeological sites and is a habitat for animals such as the western burrowing owl.
“Castner Range has been an indelible part of the history of the United States military, but now is the time to write a new chapter about the future of this natural treasure,” Deputy Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo said in a press release Tuesday.
But protesters outside the White House conservation summit urged the Biden administration to do more to protect the country’s natural resources and indigenous lands. Of particular concern was the Alaska drilling project known as Willow, which would extract 180,000 barrels of oil per day from the Arctic wilderness.
“No more drilling on federal land,” the protesters shouted as they unfurled a banner that read, “Stop the Willow oil project.”