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Two new national monuments are dedicated in Nevada and Texas

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The United States has two new national monuments. They were dedicated this week by President Biden. One is in Nevada, the Avi Kwa Ame. That's the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain. The other is Castner Range in El Paso, Texas. And we got reports from both monuments, starting with Ryan Heinsius of member station KNAU.

RYAN HEINSIUS, BYLINE: Avi Kwa Ame sits at the southern tip of Nevada, south of Las Vegas, and at the convergence of the Arizona and California borders. The craggy, rugged landscape is part of the Mojave Desert. It's home to abundant plant and animal life. It's also among the most sacred areas for a dozen southwestern tribes. Timothy Williams is the chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe.

TIMOTHY WILLIAMS: This is where our creation story begins. Much like other religions, they have a place of creation. There's definitely some areas within their own stories that are sacred to them. And this is our place, Avi Kwa Ame, the mountain.

HEINSIUS: Williams was with President Joe Biden earlier this week as he signed the declaration. The half-million-acre expanse is the president's largest monument designation to date. Its centerpiece is Spirit Mountain.

WILLIAMS: Each time, you know, you go up there, you just feel something different up there. You know, it's so powerful, it can knock you to your knees.

HEINSIUS: For over a decade, the Mojave and other tribes and conservationists have pushed for federal protection of the area. Taylor Patterson is a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe who advocated for the designation.

TAYLOR PATTERSON: All of the tribes that call the Southwest home have moved through this area and found it to be really important and really significant.

HEINSIUS: Patterson says Avi Kwa Ame is also a key migration route for bighorn sheep. It's critical habitat for desert tortoises and many other species. You can find some of the largest and oldest Joshua trees in the country there.

PATTERSON: People make the mistake of the desert being desolate, but we know there's so much there. You can really see that in full spectrum in Avi Kwa Ame.

HEINSIUS: And the designation comes as Indigenous peoples in Arizona and northern Nevada fight mining projects backed by the Biden administration on sacred lands. Still, dozens of Southwestern tribes, along with local governments, supported the president's designation of Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Heinsius.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: I'm Angela Kocherga, and I'm standing on the edge of the brand-new Castner Range National Monument. Stunning mountains are in full view. There's a wide-open expanse. Some of the first golden poppies are starting to bloom. This land has been home to multiple tribal people dating back thousands of years.

SCOTT CUTLER: And apparently, they even had spiritual connections to some of these sites as well.

KOCHERGA: Scott Cutler is president of the Frontera Land Alliance, one of the El Paso organizations that led the fight to preserve Castner Range.

CUTLER: There are rock art sites on Castner Range that are very significant.

KOCHERGA: Natural Springs and wildlife made this a prime location for tribes. The landscape is still important to the Ysleta Sur del Pueblo people in El Paso. Tribal councilman Rafael Shorty Gomez worked hard to preserve the 7,000 acres.

RAFAEL GOMEZ: You need those places. You need those places for people to escape, you know, to refocus on life and for the kids, too.

KOCHERGA: This now peaceful place served as a training ground until 1966 for soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Veterans from across the country also wanted the national monument, says Frontera Land Alliance Director Janae Reneaud

JANAE RENEAUD: There is history here. It was a live firing range, hence the range.

KOCHERGA: The decades-old fight to protect Castner Range grew more urgent as development from El Paso sprawled closer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOCKINGBIRD CHIRPING)

KOCHERGA: On the edge of Castner Range, a mockingbird competes with nearby traffic. Before the monument can open to the public, the military has to ensure all unexploded munitions are cleared. But those who've fought long and hard are patient, knowing the land is protected for future generations. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.
Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR News and National Native News.