Protecting Avi Kwa Ame as a National Monument Would Honor Tribes and Increase Access to Nature
Protecting Avi Kwa Ame as a National Monument Would Honor Tribes and Increase Access to Nature
President Biden must use the Antiquities Act to designate Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument. He faces a critical opportunity to honor ancient sacred lands; conserve ecologically important sites; advance the administration’s 30x30 goal; and enact community-led conservation to close the nature gap.
For more than half a century, Indigenous communities and conservationists in southern Nevada have advocated for the protection of Avi Kwa Ame, the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain and the surrounding landscape. In November 2022, President Joe Biden committed to protecting the site at the White House Tribal Nations Summit, saying:
When it comes to Spirit Mountain and its surrounding ridges and canyons in southern Nevada, I’m committed to protecting this sacred place that is central to the creation story of so many Tribes that are here today.
Yet, more than two months later, President Biden still has not formally designated Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument.
The 450,000-acre site is deeply rooted in the creation story of many Tribes and has been the center of conservation advocacy efforts since the 1950s. Many also know this ecological hotspot as home to the world’s largest Joshua tree forest. And according to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Avi Kwa Ame’s designation as a national monument would help close the nature gap, increasing access to close-to-home protected nature for nature-deprived communities in the greater Las Vegas area.
As the two-year anniversary of the Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative passes, monument designations remain an important tool for protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. Not only will this site’s designation contribute to the administration’s “30×30” goal, it will also advance their commitment to equity and environmental justice by enacting Indigenous-led conservation and narrowing the nature gap. President Biden must use the Antiquities Act to formally designate a national monument at Avi Kwa Ame to honor ancient sacred lands; conserve ecologically important sites; advance 30×30; and enact community-led conservation to close the nature gap.
Learn more about the nature gap
The Nature Gap
Communities of color experience disproportionate rates of nature deprivation
The nature gap is the uneven and inequitable distribution of access to nature caused by a long history of violent and institutionalized discrimination and dispossession on lands across the United States. There are many existing barriers to access public lands, including lack of transportation, funding, and time. Increasing nearby nature can help overcome such barriers, thereby addressing the nature gap.
Communities of color and low-income communities experience nature loss and deprivation at a disproportionate rate. Nationally, 74 percent of people of color live in an area deprived of nature, compared with just 23 percent of white communities. This inequity can have significant consequences, as access to nearby nature improves physical and mental health, increases resilience to climate change, and creates economic and educational opportunities.
Around Avi Kwa Ame, 93 percent of people of color are nature deprived, making them nearly twice as likely to be nature deprived than white communities living in the same area. An analysis of nature deprivation in the 25-mile radius around Avi Kwa Ame found that communities of color in the greater Las Vegas area experience heightened nature deprivation, even while surrounded by other public lands in the region. These findings support the national nature gap analysis, which demonstrated that communities of color experience disproportionate rates of nature deprivation. However, some communities in this area were found to see even higher than average rates of nature deprivation. For example, nearly 7 in 10 American Indian or Alaska Native communities living around the proposed monument experience higher rates of nature deprivation than the national average.
In addition, families with children in the area surrounding the proposed monument experience 26 percent higher nature deprivation than families without children, often due to lack of available time and financial resources. This difference was even more stark when compared across measures of race and ethnicity. Nonwhite families are 20 percent more nature deprived than white families around Avi Kwa Ame. However, even white families in this radius are 18 percent more nature deprived when compared with national averages. The nature gap is persistent in the broader southern Nevada community surrounding Avi Kwa Ame, and the opportunity to increase access to nearby protected nature for local families should serve as another reason for the administration to formally designate this national monument.
Avi Kwa Ame’s significance for Native Americans
For 10 Yuman-speaking Tribes, Avi Kwa Ame sits at the center of human origin—it’s a sacred creation site connected to their stories and ancestors. The Hopi and Southern Paiute Peoples also highly regard Avi Kwa Ame, not as a creation site, but for the cultural relevance of the area. Tribal elders have sought formal protections for this mountain and the surrounding acres since the 1950s.
Advocacy for a national monument at Avi Kwa Ame is supported by local Tribes, along with the Laughlin, Searchlight, Boulder City, Henderson, and Clark County governments; conservation, recreation, and outdoor industry groups; and Reps. Dina Titus (D-NV) and Susie Lee (D-NV). Due to its importance, Spirit Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as traditional cultural property in 1999. Since then, advocacy for monument status has been ongoing, with 27 of the 28 Tribes in the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and all of the 21 Tribes of the Inter-Tribal Association of Arizona formally supporting the proposed monument. The monument proposal is popular across the state, with 77 percent of Nevada residents in support.
Avi Kwa Ame would be one of the few national monuments that honors the history of Indigenous peoples in America. The designation of this site would therefore demonstrate a commitment from the Biden administration to federally enact Indigenous-led conservation on U.S. lands.
Read more on national monuments
National Monuments Are a Missing Piece in Biden’s Equitable Conservation Agenda
Located in the Mojave Desert, Avi Kwa Ame serves as a biological hotspot, home to more than 200 endemic plants and the world’s largest Joshua tree forest, with some trees more than 900 years old. A large portion of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument is currently designated as an area of critical environmental concern, as it is some of the highest-quality desert tortoise habitat in the state of Nevada. Other inhabitants of this area include the near-threatened Gila monster, endangered desert bighorn sheep, gilded flickers, and bald eagles. Designation as a national monument would create a wildlife corridor, connecting delicate Nevada ecosystems to other protected areas in the Southwest.
Only about a one-hour drive from Las Vegas, Avi Kwa Ame has the potential to safeguard essential ecosystems; increase connectivity; bolster conservation around the Colorado River; and create recreational benefits for the surrounding communities in Nevada, Arizona, and California.
President Biden took an important step in honoring Avi Kwa Ame by committing to protections at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. However, the ongoing wait for a formal designation has left the site’s community wondering when the president will solidify his commitment.
Avi Kwa Ame honors the history of Native Americans and uplifts the value of Indigenous-led conservation. The site will increase access to nature for communities historically deprived of its benefits. Moreover, formal protections will safeguard quintessential American ecosystems at a time when conserving biodiversity is as important as ever. The administration outlined a commitment to equitable conservation in its America the Beautiful initiative, but with two years in the rearview mirror, executive actions to meet 30×30 are paramount. Avi Kwa Ame presents an opportunity for the president to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to honor place-based conservation that truly matters to American communities. President Biden must act swiftly to formalize his promise to designate the new Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
Making Castner Range a National Monument Would Help Nature-Deprived Communities
This analysis builds on previous work measuring the nature gap and the nature gap around Castner Range specifically. An analysis by Conservation Science Partners, commissioned by CAP, utilized 2020 census data and 2018 data on human modification to measure nature loss by race/ethnicity, income, and households with children under the age of 18. For this analysis, nature deprivation was defined by comparing nature loss in the 25-mile radius surrounding the proposed national monument at Avi Kwa Ame with 500 random samples of similarly sized areas across the United States.
The author would like to thank Jenny Rowland-Shea, Nicole Gentile, Bertha Gutierrez, Edwith Theogene, Caitlin Littlefield, Conservation Science Partners, Corinne Muller, Will Beaudouin, and the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
Research Associate, Conservation Policy
We work to protect our lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises. This work helps to ensure that all people can access and benefit from nature and that conservation and climate investments build a resilient, just, and inclusive economy.