WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is establishing national monuments in Nevada and Texas and creating a marine sanctuary in U.S. waters near the Pacific Remote Islands southwest of Hawaii.
The Democratic president announced the measures Tuesday at a White House summit on conservation action at the Interior Department.
Biden said in November that he intends to designate Avi Kwa Ame, a desert mountain in southern Nevada that's considered sacred to Native Americans, as a national monument. The site spans more than 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) and includes Spirit Mountain, a peak northwest of Laughlin called Avi Kwa Ame (ah- VEE' kwa-meh) by the Fort Mojave Tribe and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Texas, Biden plans to create the Castner Range National Monument in El Paso. The designation will protect the cultural, scientific and historic objects found within the monument's boundaries, honor U.S. veterans, service members and tribal nations, and expand access to outdoor recreation on public lands, the White House said.
Located on Fort Bliss, Castner Range served as a training and testing site for the U.S. Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The Army ceased training at the site and closed Castner Range in 1966.
Together, the two new national monuments protect nearly 514,000 acres (208,000 hectares) of public lands.
In the Pacific, Biden will direct the Commerce Department to consider initiating a new national marine sanctuary designation within 30 days to protect all U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands. If completed, the new sanctuary would help ensure the U.S. reaches Biden's goal to conserve at least 30% of ocean waters under U.S. jurisdiction by 2030, the White House said.
Biden also will announce a series of steps to conserve, restore and expand access to public lands and waters across the country, the White House said. The proposals seek to modernize management of America's public lands, harness the power of the ocean to help fight climate change, and better conserve wildlife corridors. Biden also will announce new spending to improve access to outdoor recreation, promote tribal conservation and reduce wildfire risk.
Biden's actions come as he faces sharp criticism from environmental groups and youth activists over his approval of the huge Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.
Biden has made fighting global warming a central part of his agenda, and White House officials have defended efforts to put the United States on track to meet Biden's goal to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
But the decision on Willow has alienated supporters, particularly young activists skeptical about political compromise at the same time Biden is planning to announce his reelection campaign.
Climate activists are expected to gather outside the Interior Department on Tuesday to condemn what they call Biden's "climate hypocrisy'' and demand the administration change course on Willow.
The Willow Project has garnered global attention in recent weeks as a #stopwillow campaign went viral across social media platforms, most notably gaining more than 600 million views on TikTok and amassing more than 4 million signatures on a change.org petition, making it one of the most popular petitions in the website's history.
White House officials have acknowledged the indignation among Biden's supporters over Willow but emphasized that oil giant ConocoPhillips has held leases in that area of Alaska for decades, which strengthens the Houston-based company's legal right to drill.
Environmental groups already have sued in a renewed effort to block Willow.
''Biden has the authority to revoke the Willow approval, withhold permits for further fossil fuel projects and phase out federal fossil fuel production on public lands and waters,'' said Cassidy DiPaola, a spokesperson for People Vs. Fossil Fuels, a coalition of groups pressing Biden to end oil drilling and other fossil fuel projects.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus and other Nevada lawmakers have been seeking to protect the rugged region near the Mojave National Preserve from development, including solar farms and a proposed wind farm.
"Our creation story places us directly in the center of this area," said Shan Lewis, vice chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. "Our efforts are to protect these places of significance and sacredness while maintaining their integrity as a place of home and worship."
The Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition said in statement Tuesday that members were "overjoyed" to learn that the site will be a new national monument.
Biden's action will safeguard hundreds of thousands of acres of cultural sites, desert habitats and natural resources in southern Nevada that have great cultural, ecological and economic significance to the state, the group said. The coalition includes tribes, local residents, state lawmakers, conservation groups and and others who have worked to establish the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
''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," the group said.
WASHINGTON (AP) — In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation as they implored him to approve a contentious oil drilling project in their state. Around the same time, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held a very different meeting on the same topic.
Gathering at Interior headquarters a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from the White House, leaders of major environmental organizations and Indigenous groups pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, to use her authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups call the project a "carbon bomb" that would betray pledges made by Biden - and Haaland - to fight climate change and have mounted a social media #StopWillow campaign that has been seen hundreds of millions of times.
The closed-door meeting, which was described by two participants who insisted on not being identified because of its confidential nature, grew emotional as participants urged Haaland to oppose a project many believed Biden appeared likely to approve even as it contradicted his agenda to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as she explained that the Interior Department had to make difficult choices, according to the participants. Many Native groups in Alaska support Willow as a job creator and economic lifeline.
Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced it was approving Willow, an $8 billion drilling plan by ConocoPhillips on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope.
Haaland, who had not publicly commented on Willow in two years as head of the U. S. agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the approval order, leaving that to her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau.
In an online video released Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis ''is the most urgent issue of our lifetime.''
She called Willow ''a difficult and complex issue that was inherited'' from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips has long held leases to drill for oil on the site, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
"As a result, we have limited decision space,'' she said, adding that officials focused on reducing the project's footprint and minimizing impacts to people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and includes a pledge by the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land that will no longer be developed, she said.
The video had received more than 100,000 views by Friday.
Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the department said Haaland had been "actively involved" in the Willow decision from the start and met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of Congress.
Dallas Goldtooth, a senior strategist for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it "problematic'' that Haaland's video was the Biden administration's primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not spoken publicly on the project.
"They use people of color for cover on these decisions,'' said Goldtooth, a member of Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.
The White House pushed back on the idea, saying in a statement Friday that as interior secretary, "of course the video came from her.?
But Haaland's body language - at times looking away from the camera - made her appear "very uncomfortable" in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.
Haaland's statement "did not seem to be a wholehearted defense of the decision, '' said Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. ''It was almost an apology.''
Allowing Haaland to be the administration's public face on Willow strengthens Biden's expected reelection run by allowing him to avoid public scrutiny on an issue on which some of his most ardent supporters disagree with him, environmentalists said.
''It's clear-cut D.C. politics,'' Goldtooth said. ''I've seen this play run before, '' including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was put forward to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 oil pipelines in the upper Midwest.
Asked about Willow on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the oil company "has a legal right to those leases," adding: "The department's options are limited when there are legal contracts in place.''
Goldtooth and others involved in the Willow fight say the project was largely advanced by Beaudreau, Haaland's deputy, who grew up in Alaska and has a close relationship with the state's two Republican senators. Beaudreau is especially close to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate Energy chair who has cooperated with Biden on a range of issues. Murkowski played a key role in Haaland's confirmation, and she and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to get Beaudreau installed as deputy after they objected to Haaland's first choice, Elizabeth Klein.
Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long realized that the decision on Willow was likely to be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was up to Interior.
The senator, who personally lobbied Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, ''Cooperation goes both ways.''
Despite the White House involvement, Haaland has been faulted for the decision to approve Willow. New Mexico's senior Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich, singled her out for criticism in a rare rebuke of a fellow New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming Interior secretary.
"The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public land it belongs to every American,'' Heinrich said in a statement. "Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.''
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., who holds Haaland's former seat in Congress, said she joined millions of people, ''including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers, in opposing the Willow Project.'' She urged the Biden administration to reconsider the project and its consequences for global climate change.
Native American tribes in the Southwestern U.S. have been watching Willow closely, concerned about any implications it could have for development in culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Interior Department failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits near the Chaco site.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management would work toward withdrawing hundreds of square miles from development. She also committed to taking a broader look at how federal land across the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation.
Mario Atencio, of DinÈ CARE, a Navajo environmental group, said he understands that the Interior Department faces pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on a pause ordered by Biden on oil leasing on public land.
"We're very aware that it's a game of inches sometimes, and there's a little discretion in some places, and we are just trying to have just as much visibility as the oil and gas industry has," said Atencio, who is Navajo.
The Willow project has divided Alaska Native groups. Supporters call the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow. But City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and worries about impacts on caribou and her residents' subsistence lifestyles.
Hartl, of the biological diversity group, said Willow was approved by the White House for clear political reasons. "They cared more about Lisa Murkowski's vote than frankly they did the climate,'' he said.
PHOENIX (AP) — Shannon Castellano and Travis Methvin should have spent this weekend seeing world-famous waterfalls on the Havasupai Tribe Reservation in northern Arizona.
Instead, the two friends from San Diego spent Friday night along with 40 other hikers camped out on a helipad. But sleep was elusive because tribal members warned that an emergency services helicopter could potentially land anytime during the night.
"Yeah, so we didn't really sleep," Castellano said Saturday while driving to a hotel in Sedona. "I just kept one eye open really and one ear open ... You just do not expect any of that to happen. So, I think I'm still in shock that I'm not even there right now."
Tourists hoping to reach the breathtaking waterfalls on the reservation instead went through harrowing flood evacuations.
The official Havasupai Tribe Tourism Facebook page reported Friday that flooding had washed away a bridge to the campground. An unknown number of campers were evacuated to Supai Village, with some being rescued by helicopter.
The campground is in a lower-lying area than the village of Supai. Some hikers had to camp in the village. Others who weren't able to get to the village because of high water were forced to camp overnight on a trail.
But floodwaters were starting to recede as of Saturday morning, according to the tribe's Facebook post.
Visitors with the proper permits will be allowed to hike to the village and campground. They will be met with tribal guides, who will help them navigate around creek waters on a back trail to get to the campground.
Tourists will not be permitted to take pictures. The back trail goes past sites considered sacred by the tribe.
Meanwhile, the tribe said in its statement that it has "all hands on deck" to build a temporary bridge to the campground.
Abbie Fink, a spokesperson for the tribe, referred to the tribe's Facebook page when reached for comment Saturday.
Methvin and Castellano decided to leave by helicopter Saturday rather than navigate muddy trails with a guide. Despite losing money on a pre-paid, three- day stay, Methvin says they can still try to salvage their trip. Having only received permits last month, he feels especially sad for hikers they met with reservations from 2020.
"They waited three years to get there," Methvin said. "At least we have the ability to go do something else versus having that whole weekend ruined. It sucks, but it's making lemonade for us."
From Supai to Sedona, several areas of northern Arizona have been slammed this week by storms. The resulting snow combined with snowmelt at higher elevations has wreaked havoc on highways, access roads and even city streets.
The flooding of the Havasupai campground comes as the tribe reopened access last month to its reservation and various majestic blue-green waterfalls - for the first time since March 2020. The tribe opted to close to protect its members from the coronavirus. Officials then decided to extend the closure through last year's tourism season.
At the beginning of this year, President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration initiated by the Havasupai Tribe, freeing up funds for flood damage sustained in October. Flooding at that time had destroyed several bridges and left downed trees on trails necessary for tourists and transportation of goods into Supai Village.
Permits to visit are highly coveted. Pre-pandemic, the tribe received an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 visitors per year to its reservation deep in a gorge west of Grand Canyon National Park. The area is reachable only by foot or helicopter, or by riding a horse or mule. Visitors can either camp or stay in a lodge.
Castellano is already planning to try to get a permit again later this year if there are cancellations. "We just want to see it in all its glory, not muddy falls," she said.