Conservation advocates on Tuesday credited yearslong campaigns led by Indigenous groups and other frontline organizers with pushing President Joe Biden to designate two new national monuments in the southwestern U.S., but they also emphasized that the gesture cannot negate the environmental damage that the White House set in motion last week when it approved ConocoPhillips' Willow oil drilling project.
Biden announced new protections for a large portion of Avi Kwa Ame—also known as Spirit Mountain—in the Mojave Desert in southern Nevada, and the Castner Range near El Paso, Texas.
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the two regions will be protected from industrial development by oil and gas drilling companies as well as renewable energy firms.
Avi Kwa Ame serves as a migratory route for bighorn sheep and mule deer and a critical habitat for species including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and western screech owls. It is considered the creation site for tribes including the Cocopah and the Hopi, and Biden's designation is only the second aimed at protecting Native lands.
"While we celebrate this victory, these designations don't negate Biden's past giveaways to Big Oil, including last week's approval of the devastating Willow project in Alaska."
Castner Range was home to members of tribes including the Apache, Pueblo, and Comanche Nation, and contains more than 40 known Indigenous archeological sites. The land, which was taken over by the U.S. Army and used as a training site for 40 years until 1966, is also a crucial habitat for Mexican poppies, brush vegetation, the golden eagle, and the Texas horned lizard, among other species.
Coalitions including Castner Range Forever and Honor Avi Kwa Ame celebrated Biden's announcement and thanked him for listening to years of advocacy.
"The president's action today will safeguard hundreds of thousands of acres of cultural sites, desert habitats, and natural resources in southern Nevada, which bear great cultural, ecological, and economic significance to our state," said Honor Avi Kwa Ame. "Together, we will honor Avi Kwa Ame today—from its rich Indigenous history, to its vast and diverse plant and wildlife, to the outdoor recreation opportunities created for local cities and towns in southern Nevada by a new gorgeous monument right in their backyard."
Biden said the designations were aimed at conserving "our country’s natural gifts" and "protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come."
National climate action groups, however, were quick to point out that the credit Biden gets for protecting the lands doesn't negate his refusal to listen to advocates and Indigenous people who called on him to reject the $8 billion Willow project, which could lead to the production of more than 600 million barrels of crude oil over three decades—and ultimately 280 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions at a time when scientists and energy experts are warning that fossil fuel emissions must be drawn down.
"We thank the Biden administration for these important and long overdue designations," said Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and lands campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "The public has expressed strong support for protecting public lands, especially Avi Kwa Ame and Castner Range, for a very long time."
"While we celebrate this victory, these designations don't negate Biden's past giveaways to Big Oil, including last week's approval of the devastating Willow project in Alaska," Garcia added. "All communities must be protected from destructive fossil fuel and energy extraction. We urge Biden to read the writing on the wall and take action to protect our lands and waters for future generations."
The preservation of public lands and waters, said Chris Hill, senior director of Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign, are an important part of "a nature-based solution to taking on climate change."
"But we cannot save more nature if the federal government continues to approve destructive oil and gas operations like the Willow project," added Hill. "Designating new national monuments and safeguarding public lands from extraction can help us reach important climate goals, provide clean air and water, and expand access to nature for millions. It is through these actions that President Biden can build his monumental legacy."