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Obama designates three more national monuments

Vast stretches of Nevada and Northern California are now protected, bringing Obama’s count to 19.


For 40 years, Michael Heizer has been creating a mile-long contemporary art structure in a remote valley in the Nevada desert. The monumental sculpture, City, is made of earth and stone and is supposed to be viewed in the context of the surrounding wilderness.

But through the years, the federal land that surrounds the work of art has been considered for one noisy, destructive development after another — a missile testing range, a railroad to carry the nation’s nuclear wastes and, recently, oil and gas drilling. “We all knew that it was not just wilderness, that … things beyond our control could jeopardize the project,” said Erin Wright, director of artist initiatives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, a major benefactor of City.

On Friday, President Obama eliminated those risks with a stroke of a pen when he created the Basin and Range National Monument. The 704,000-acre stretch of Bureau of Land Management land in Nevada is the largest landscape that Obama has designated as a national monument. It is also home to vast stretches of desert solitude and cultural artifacts from ancient peoples. It was one of three new monuments the president announced on Friday, which brings his total to 19. Also included was Berryessa Snow Mountain in Northern California, which stretches nearly 100 miles and from near sea level at its southern tip to 7,000 feet in the north. As High Country News reported in May, the Berryessa Snow Mountain is a biodiversity hotspot. It provides opportunities for an array of outdoor activities, including hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, off-highway vehicle use, horseback riding, mountain biking and rafting. 

Part of Michael Heizer's artwork, City.
Tom Vinetz/Triple Aught Foundation
Berryessa Snow Mountain also offers an unparalleled opportunity for visitors to visualize the geology that made up our planet. About 100 million years ago, when this area was under water, and one plate rose and another fell, creating a fault. “It is the best place in the world to see these sort of things,” said Eldridges Moores, geology professor emeritus from University of California-Davis.Conservation biologists hope the vast monument will provide opportunities for species to migrate as the climate changes. The diverse landscape is home to large swaths of habitat for bald eagles, spotted owls and many other rare animals and plants.

“We are protecting this area for future generations and that is so exciting,” said Sara Husby, the executive director of Tuleyome, a local group that has been advocating for a monument in this area.

In the case of both monuments, efforts to get Congress to designate the areas stalled.

Although neither area was currently slated for major new development, the monument designations will prevent future logging, mining drilling or the construction of transmission lines or other energy projects.

Basin and Range National Monument, recently designated.
Environmentalists hope the monument designations will free up land managers to focus on protecting the wildlife and other important natural and cultural treasures.

In Nevada, where Heizer is putting the finishing touches on his decades-long project, the monument designation means he no longer has to worry about threats beyond his control that could jeopardize it.

“Designating the Basin and Range National Monument achieves two remarkable outcomes — a world-class artwork would endure into the future as it was envisioned, surrounded by sublimely beautiful open country; and a majestic Western American landscape would remain unspoiled for future generations,” commented Michael Govan, CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Elizabeth is HCN's DC correspondent.