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Biden Designates Mountain Sacred to Indigenous Tribes as National Monument

Spirit Mountain
Spirit Mountain is seen across the southern California and Nevada desert.

At more than 506,000 acres, the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument will be the largest tract of land granted federal protection during Biden's presidency, and will preserve Nevada's Spirit Mountain and the desert around it.

(CNN) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday will officially designate a new national monument in Southern Nevada at a conservation event, according to a White House official.

At more than 506,000 acres, the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument will be one of the largest tracts of land to come under federal protection so far during Biden's presidency, and will act to preserve Nevada's Spirit Mountain and the desert around it.

Biden's proclamation will mark a major victory for the surrounding Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, which has been advocating for the monument's creation for around three decades.

"Avi Kwa Ame is the point of Mojave creation; it's a very important and integral part of our history and belief system," Ashley Hemmers, the tribal administrator for Fort Mojave, told CNN. "For us, that mountain is a living landscape; it's like a person. If something were to happen to it, it would be like losing a loved one."

Biden will also designate the Castner Range National Monument in Fort Bliss in West Texas, the official said, which was a training site for the Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Together, the two monuments will protect close to 514,000 acres of new public lands. In addition, Biden will direct Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to consider protecting all US waters around the Pacific Remote Islands as part of a new national marine sanctuary.

Biden will make the announcement at a Tuesday conservation summit for tribal leaders and elected officials that will be hosted by the White House and Interior Department.

As they meet, climate and youth activists will also be demonstrating outside the Interior Department's headquarters, where Biden is set to speak on Tuesday, to protest the recently approved Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. The Biden administration approved the controversial Willow Project last week. The drilling project, which is slated for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, galvanized a surge of online activism against it in recent months. Environmental advocates have filed two lawsuits in federal court to stop the project.

Inside the department, the focus will be on protecting the new national monuments and the area around Spirit Mountain, which Biden initially vowed to designate as a national monument in November at the White House tribal nations summit.

"When it comes to Spirit Mountain and the surrounding canyons and regions in southern Nevada, I'm committed to protecting this sacred place that is essential to the creation story of so many tribes that are here today," Biden said in his November speech, adding, "And I look forward to being able to visit Spirit Mountain and experience it with you as soon as I can."

Spirit Mountain — known as Avi Kwa Ame in Mojave language — sits in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in Southern Nevada. It is a sacred site for more than 10 tribal nations and is the site of tribal ceremonies and rituals.

Designating the new monument has rankled some clean energy groups who warn it could hamper wind and solar energy development in Southern Nevada.

While Interior and the Bureau of Land Management have identified millions of acres in Nevada for renewable energy development, much of the public land within the proposed monument area can't be considered for clean energy development because they are part of the critical habitat for a desert tortoise species, the Department of Interior said last year.

There is a pending application for a solar project on about 2,575 acres that the department has identified as exempt from conservation, an Interior spokesperson said last year.

Outside of the proposed monument area, the Bureau of Land Management has identified more than 9 million acres of federal land that could be used to build utility-scale solar panels, as well as 16.8 million acres of federal land that could be developed for wind energy.

Hemmers said that while the tribe wants to actively encourage recreation on the newly created national monument, it wants to see energy and clean energy development done elsewhere in Nevada.

"They can both protect an area while also walking towards an energy future that gets us to our climate goals," Hemmers said.

Hemmers, who watched Biden declare his intention to designate Avi Kwa Ame a national monument in November along with her elderly grandmother — a survivor of the brutal, federal Native American boarding school program — said seeing the proclamation finalized would bring an immense sense of "relief."

"It would give me a sense of relief that people in my community cannot have that burden on their shoulders, being threatened by possibly losing a piece of us," she told CNN.

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