WASHINGTON — President Biden pledged Wednesday that he would preserve the Spirit Mountain area in southern Nevada, which contains some of the most biologically diverse and culturally significant lands in the Mojave Desert.
“I’m committed to protecting this sacred place that’s central to the creation story of so many tribes here today,” Mr. Biden told a gathering of Native leaders at a White House tribal nations summit in Washington. “I’m grateful to so many of you that have led the fight to protect it.”
“There’s so much more that we’re going to do to protect the treasured tribal lands,” Mr. Biden said.
But the president stopped short of designating the federal land as a national monument, something Native tribes, environmental groups, local and state leaders have been seeking for more than a decade. Doing so would represent the largest national monument created by Mr. Biden, but it could also put some of the most potentially productive land in Nevada off limits to wind and solar projects.
About 33,000 acres of the area, also known by the Mojave name Avi Kwa Ame, are already protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Advocates want to expand those protections to encompass as much as 450,000 acres and create a national monument that would insulate the region from industrial activity.
Designation as a national monument would create a corridor that links multiple protected areas, from Mojave National Preserve and Castle Mountains National Monument in California to Sloan Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas in Nevada and Arizona.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
That would ensure a migratory path for desert bighorn sheep and mule deer and protect critical habitat for the desert tortoises, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, western screech owls and Gila monsters that are native to the region. Twenty eight different species of native grasses, some of them rare, also grow there, as well as some of the oldest and largest Joshua trees in the United States.
Converting the acreage into a national monument could benefit hunters as well as animals and plants, Russell Kuhlman, executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. He said the new protections would allow sporting organizations to build and maintain systems to catch and store water for game animals that are “critical for their survival.”
Mr. Biden has used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create a national monument at Camp Hale, Colo., and to restore three monuments that had been severely shrunk by President Donald J. Trump: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante.
But on Wednesday, he made no direct promise to use the law to protect the southern Nevada landscape.
Several environmental activists said they had expected Mr. Biden to announce the designation on Wednesday and were unsure why his speech fell short. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The creation of a national monument in the area could spur pushback from renewable energy companies seeking to develop in one of the nation’s best regions for wind and solar power, at a time when Mr. Biden has promised to speed up the country’s transition to clean energy.
The area includes a 5,600-foot peak north of Laughlin, Nev., that is the ancestral home of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and holds major significance for other tribes in the region.
The Fort Mojave tribe has been working for more than 30 years to permanently protect the area. Representative Dina Titus, Democrat of Nevada, introduced a resolution in February to establish Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument.
“Avi Kwa Ame’s story is one of perseverance and passion,” Ms. Titus said in a statement, adding she hoped to safeguard “these sloping bajadas, scenic canyons, and ancient cultural sites for future generations to enjoy.”
Both Deb Haaland, the interior secretary, and Tracy Stone-Manning, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, have visited the area this year to host round tables and community meetings about protecting the region.
“Avi Kwa Ame holds deep spiritual and historic significance to the Native people who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial,” Ms. Haaland, who is also the first Native American cabinet secretary, said in a statement. “I am thrilled that President Biden is committed to protecting this sacred place.”
A spokeswoman for Ms. Titus said the congresswoman expects Mr. Biden to officially designate a national monument.
Currently there is no wind or solar development within the proposed monument area, according to a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, who noted that much of the land was excluded from energy development under a federal conservation designation.
There is one pending application for a 700-megawatt solar project in one part of the potentially designated land that has been identified as an exception from the conservation designation, according to the Interior spokeswoman.
And a California-based solar company, Avantus, has sought access to part of the land that could be included in an expanded Spirit Mountain monument in order to use existing transmission lines and access roads from a shuttered coal fired power plant in Laughlin.
The company contends that its access to the land would not harm a future monument.
“Avantus supports the creation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, an important step to protecting Nevada’s culturally significant lands and honoring the state’s many Native communities,” said Frank DeRosa, vice president of Public Affairs at Avantus. “A very small portion of the federal land, approximately 2,000 acres of the 450,000 acre proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, less than 0.5 percent, overlaps the proposed monument boundary at its southern end.”
Outside of the boundaries for the proposed national monument, the federal government has identified 9 million acres of public lands in Nevada for large-scale solar development and nearly 16.8 million acres of public lands for potential wind development.