How Harry Reid, Brian Sandoval, a determined coalition and, yes, Cliven Bundy helped make Gold Butte happen

A year and a half ago, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid persuaded President Obama to set aside 700,000 acres of Nevada land as a national monument.

The Basin and Range designation culminated a long lobbying effort by Reid, bolstered by outside groups and lamented by GOP delegation members. Only Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was muted, tut-tutting about the lack of “a more collaborative process when making such an important designation.”

Back then, I wondered, along with others, could Reid also coax the president to confer the same status on the Gold Butte area not far from where Cliven Bundy was protesting his right not to pay grazing fees other ranchers paid? That would be a fitting gift to Reid and a stick in the eye to Bundy and his backers, one that would surely prove irresistible and, I suggested, “Maybe by that time, Heller and Sandoval will even help.”

Well, I was half-right.

Last week, Obama said goodbye to Reid with another use of The Antiquities Act, creating another national monument out of 300,000 acres near Bundy’s compound. Heller, who once called the Bundyville horde “patriots” even as Reid was labeling them “domestic terrorists” unleashed a similar broadside as he did after Basin and Range. (Heller previously had written one of the those for-media-consumption-only letters to the president.) But Sandoval, while he used similar language as he had in 2015, also talked about what he had done once he realized the inevitability.

Indeed, Sandoval’s assiduous attention to the pending national monument proclamation, with the White House and Reid, resulted in significant changes to the monument boundaries, thus mitigating the impact. But the real victory here is for environmental advocates and cannot be overstated: After many years of working on this, groups led by ex-Reidite Megan Jones with an assist from activists such as restaurateur Jenna Morton, ensured the last feather in Reid’s cap would be a Butte. And the man they really should thank, besides Obama, for ensuring it finally occurred was one Cliven Bundy.

Here, according to the key players, is what happened:


The first efforts to have Gold Butte designated as a National Conservation Area began a decade and a half ago. The first congressional foray came in 2008 when then-Rep. Shelley Berkley introduced a bill. A group called Friends of Gold Butte erected a website and began pushing for the national monument designation almost exactly nine years ago.

After Berkley lost a U.S. Senate bid in 2012, her efforts were picked up by Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford in subsequent sessions, with Reid leading the way in the Senate. But every congressional attempt was thwarted by the GOP leadership, especially because Heller and Rep. Joe Heck were not on board. (Heller and his staff were helpful, I'm told, at the turn of the decade but their contacts eventually dwindled.)

Advocates thought they were slowly moving toward acquiring the votes when the Bundy standoff occurred in mid-2014 and then a few months later, the red wave hit Nevada.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, wary of what might happen to BLM staffers after the Bundy confrontation, wanted nothing to do with Gold Butte. But ole Cliven proved to be an asset to the Gold Butte campaign.

“While Reid was always a champion of protecting Gold Butte, the Bundy standoff triggered unwavering support and he made it his mission to get it done,” said one insider. “Ironically, it also put Gold Butte on the map both nationally and locally as a rallying cry to beat back extremism.”

Advocates publicly asserted they still wanted legislation – they even met with some of the GOP members of the delegation -- but they had surrendered to the political realities. It was the Antiquities Act or bust.

The strategy was simple, as Gold Butte backer Jones told me:

 "Through extensive research and polling other political advocacy groups determined that amping up hits on Bundy and tying the Bundy doctrine of land management around every elected official's neck was the only way to beat them at their own game.   Every move they made to hit Bundy was an attempt to ensure there was the political will for Obama and Jewell to do their job when the timing was right.  Based on the election results in Nevada, I would say that we were successful in making sure that support for Bundy was toxic."


Sometime after the Basin and Range designation, it became clear that Obama would consider Gold Butte, too, but only after the election.

By mid-2016, seeing the writing on the wall, Sandoval got involved. He worked directly with the White House and with Jewell, working on boundaries and public safety issues.

After touring Gold Butte, the governor wrote to Obama shortly before the election, saying he had become aware of the potential designation and asked the president to consider the scope of the set-aside, the Virgin Valley Water District’s claims and the city of Mesquite’s long-range plans. As if to emphasize the importance of the issue, Sandoval hand-delivered the letter to the White House during a November trip to DC


Gov Butte Obama Letter by Jon Ralston on Scribd


Sandoval’s relationship with Reid, which has been symbiotic during his tenure, also was pivotal.

Said one Reidite: “The White House was uneasy about the first map we wanted too so it wasn't a hard sell to get them to decrease the acreage….Reid knew this so asked for more than he thought he could get knowing that the White House would want concessions. Reid asked Sandoval not to raise hell about this designation and he didn't. It is very much in keeping with their relationship. Same with Medicaid expansion and exchanges. Basin and Range. And so many other things. Sandoval uses Reid's access to the White House to extract things and Reid in turn gets a win and what he wants. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that has been quite successful.”

It certainly paid off here. Consider the maps below:

The first is of the original proposed Gold Butte boundaries. It includes private land and many of the Virgin Valley springs, about 360,000 acres. It also went right to the Bundy ranch doorstep, sure to be incendiary.

The second is the northern part of the boundary, which eliminated most of the Virgin Valley Water District springs and rain gauges. Sandoval's proposed map also eliminated all of the private land, which was excluded from the final designation.

The third map is the final designation, which is about 290,000 acres.

20161228174257997 by Jon Ralston on Scribd

“In addition,” gubernatorial spokeswoman Mari St. Martin told me, “the governor was able to secure language to give the VVWD the authority they need to maintain their infrastructure within the designation. The proclamation also included a federal advisory committee which is a statutory committee which will include a variety of stakeholders in order to create the management plan. Finally, the governor helped insure that state water law was adhered to and the proclamation listed hunting, fishing, and OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) recreation.”

This didn’t happen in a vacuum, either. In the months before this happened, nonprofit backers of the designation repeatedly brought up Bundy as a bete noire. And his name also was constantly raised by Ruben Kihuen in his ultimately successful race to defeat Horsford-slayer Cresent Hardy. And when Bundy was thrown in jail, it only armed Reid with more rhetoric throughout the year.

"There was a conscious decision to separate Gold Butte advocacy groups from the efforts of those working on holding politicians accountable,"  said Jones who led the coalition efforts and advised third-party groups on strategy.  "On the coalition side we continued to push out our business support and economic voices but also began to more forcefully highlight the injustice felt by tribal voices who hold this land sacred for ancestral reasons. We also documented extreme cases of irreparable damage to the area to call on a sense of urgency for permanent protection."


Donald Trump’s surprise election created even more impetus for the Gold Butte coalition. (One school of thought is that if Hillary Clinton had won, Obama might have just ceded the designation to her.)

But with Bundy-sympathizers defeated in the blue oasis of Nevada, the backers quickly obtained letters of monument support from the newly elected delegation members – Kihuen, Sen.-elect Catherine Cortez Masto and Rep.-elect Jacky Rosen. And Reid, of course, let the White House know in the past-Nov. 8 world what would complete his legacy.

What seemed inevitable after Basin and Range actually took a lot of work from Friends of Gold Butte and, to close the deal, Sandoval. Not surprisingly, many foes are calling on Trump to undo what Obama has done on national monuments. But it would be unprecedented and complicated.

The real question: Would the political cost – to the president, to Heller, maybe others – be worth the attempt to unravel this hard-wrought designation? I bet I know what Cliven Bundy, the real architect of the Gold Butte national monument proclamation, thinks.

(Photo from Friends of Gold Butte)