LAS VEGAS — On a wall of layered sandstone 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas, an etching made by ancient hands shows the bright, white figure of a man frozen forever in midst of a fall.
If the people fighting to protect this place succeed one day, the petroglyph might make a good logo for Gold Butte National Conservation Area. If they don't, the Falling Man provides a ready-made metaphor for their failure.
Almost a decade has passed since advocates first floated the idea of turning Gold Butte into a conservation area. So far, the closest they have come is a 2008 bill that was introduced but went no further.
Now Gold Butte's protectors once again are trying to turn up the heat on Nevada's congressional delegation — this time with an opinion poll showing strong backing among voters for the conservation area and politicians who support it.
If that sounds like a bit of pointed political needling, that's because it is.
"We just kind of wanted to remind them how much support there is for this," said Mesquite resident Nancy Hall, who heads up the Friends of Gold Butte.
The poll showed that 66 percent of Clark County voters support the establishment of a national conservation area between Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument just across the Nevada border in Arizona. Just 20 percent of those surveyed opposed the idea.
By a roughly 2-to-1 margin, voters also said they are more likely to support a candidate who favors a conservation designation for Gold Butte.
The polling and research firm Moore Information conducted the survey of 325 likely general election voters in Clark County in late April. Results were released last month.
Longtime conservationist John Hiatt is on the board of directors for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a separate advocacy group that sponsored the poll. He's hoping the survey results finally spur some action.
"We've been hearing for months if not years now that legislation is imminent, but it never seems to quite get there," Hiatt said.
A LONG-USED LAND
The roughly 350,000 acres of rugged mountains, yucca forests, sandstone ridges and slot canyons is protected by the U.S. Bureau Land Management as a series of interlocking Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.
BLM natural resource specialist Carrie Ronning summed it up like this: "It's an amazingly beautiful place that people have enjoyed and used for thousands of years."
Since the critical environmental areas were designated in 1998, BLM and its agency partners have completed surveys of Gold Butte's wide variety of plants, wildlife, rock art and other cultural resources.
The bureau also has inventoried more than 600 miles of designated routes within the area, from isolated stretches of pavement to tracks just wide enough for an ATV.
But after 14 years, the BLM still doesn't have a specific plan for managing Gold Butte.
The bureau is only now compiling a recreational assessment to determine how people use the area and where they might like to see facilities such as developed campgrounds and bathrooms built someday.
The area is more than 1½ times the size of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas combined, but just one BLM law enforcement ranger, based out of Mesquite, is assigned to patrol it.
The bureau gets help from hundreds of volunteers like Hall and Hiatt, and the agency calls in additional personnel to help keep an eye on things on holiday weekends and other busy times. For the most part, though, the place and the people who visit it are left to look out for themselves.
The conservation area preferred by Friends of Gold Butte and Friends of Nevada Wilderness would take in roughly 550 square miles of federal land, from the pine-covered peaks of the Virgin Mountains to what Hall called the "down-low desert" at Lake Mead's northeastern boundary. Within that area lie thousands of cultural sites, including rock art panels crowded with petroglyphs and pictographs left by successive generations of Native Americans.
"This is essentially an open-air art museum of their culture," Hall said.
Despite the efforts of volunteer site stewards and watchful visitors, artifacts have been removed and rock art scribbled over or shot up.
"There is a contingent of people who think if we don't do something we're going to lose it. It's just going to be gone, at least the valuable archaeological stuff," Hiatt said. "We either protect it from the small percentage of people who will destroy it, or we say, 'Well, it was interesting. Too bad our kids will never get to see it in its present condition.'?"
Hall is a little mystified that it's taking so long, since the conservation area has broad-based support from business owners, environmentalists, tourism officials, outdoor enthusiasts, and elected leaders at the federal, state and local levels.
"I don't know what's holding the whole thing up," she said.
ON THE ROAD TO CONFLICT
That's not to say the idea lacks controversy or critics.
Earlier this year, Gold Butte played host to a minor range war, as federal officials scheduled — then canceled at the last minute — a roundup of hundreds of rogue cattle. The animals were turned loose on the land by Cliven Bundy, a Bunkerville rancher who doesn't have a grazing permit and doesn't recognize the federal government's authority to require one.
Hiatt and Hall insist that dispute, now in federal court, has no bearing on what they're trying to accomplish. Observers say otherwise, warning that lawmakers must tread carefully when creating a conservation area in a place where the federal government is not exactly welcomed with open arms.
(By way of example, Ronning notes that as part of their "adaptive management" of Gold Butte, the BLM has limited the use of its trademark trapezoid-shaped signs and agency logo. The result so far: less vandalism.)
Then there is this: In April, members of the Mesquite City Council attempted to rescind that community's support for the conservation area, in large part over concerns about the amount of designated wilderness contained in the plan.
The push was narrowly defeated thanks to a rare tie-breaking vote from Mesquite Mayor Mark Wier.
Just don't mistake his vote for full-throated support. Wier said he also worries about restricting public access to public land, and he wants the communities closest to Gold Butte to have a large say in what ultimately gets carved out as wilderness.
But Wier also recognizes the need for greater protection out there, as more people move to the region and discover something that was for generations a secret spot known mostly to locals.
"Adding more and more people to the mix, it just becomes a situation where you need more enforcement. Not everyone is going to respect the area," the mayor said.
As Hall put it: "It's not a question of whether we want to share it or not. The word is out. We have to share it."
BLM doesn't have a lot of traffic data for Gold Butte, but Hall and others who spend a lot of time there have seen visitation grow with the populations of Southern Nevada and southwestern Utah.
Still, the place isn't exactly being overrun. According to the bureau, a little more than 8,700 vehicles — roughly 24 a day — drove through the most heavily visited part of Gold Butte in 2011. So far this year, the area is on pace to see just more than 12,000 vehicles, or about 33 a day.
ACTION SOUGHT SOON
Wier said he wouldn't mind seeing Gold Butte become even more of a destination for tourists, particularly if it leads to something else he thinks would benefit his city.
"I'd love to have a boat ramp on our side of Lake Mead. And you'd have to go through Gold Butte to get there," he said.
Under the Friends' plan, a full two-thirds of Gold Butte National Conservation Area — some 120,000 acres in all — would be designated wilderness, off-limits to mechanized vehicles.
That sounds like a lot, Hall said, but all existing, recognized access routes would remain open under their plan. The places proposed as wilderness are "just large areas of roadlessness," she said.
Staff members for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck — the two Nevada lawmakers Hall and others are counting on introduce possible legislation — offered general support for the idea but no concrete plans.
If a Gold Butte bill is going to be introduced during this session of Congress, it needs to happen soon, Hiatt said. Otherwise, there won't be enough time for the measure to be vetted and work its way through both chambers.
The current political climate and upcoming election are unlikely to help matters, he said.
"It's just amazing to me how Congress does — or doesn't — work. It doesn't seem to be about getting things done. It's all about scoring points right now," Hiatt said. "I'm hopeful, but I'm not going to be too surprised if it doesn't happen."
Hall has a slightly sunnier outlook.
"Politics is a funky monkey, but I think it's going to happen. Certainly if not this year, it will happen next year. It's hard to argue that a place so beautiful shouldn't be taken care of."
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com