ABOUT GOLD BUTTE NATIONAL MONUMENT: Photographs & Story
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Justin & Andreea Lotak · 8 min read
We met Jaina Moan, Executive Director of Friends of Gold Butte, at an event they were hosting for the community in Mesquite, NV. She gave us an introduction into the importance of this new national monument and into the struggles it faces. The following day we arrived in Gold Butte at sunset and it surpassed all of our expectations. For the next couple of days we felt like we were walking through an exquisite open-air art museum. In December 2016, the Gold Butte National Monument was designated through the Antiquities Act by President Obama. It was set in place to protect an almost pristine piece of the Mojave Desert in the southeastern corner of Nevada, where the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin regions also converge. This fulfilled 15 years of ongoing efforts of local groups to protect an area of great cultural and spiritual importance to the Southern Paiute.
The monument also connects major conservation lands, as Jaina observed:"It really encompasses the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem, which is a very unique one in the world. You have Grand Canyon National Park that’s protected, you have Grand Canyon - Parashant National Monument, and now you have Gold Butte, which finally has the protection that it needs. Then it’s surrounded by the Lake Mead Recreation Area, which is a National Park Service property. What you find is this really great gift that we are giving to ourselves as a people and to our future generations — to say: 'this is important for not just you to go out and enjoy, but for the animals and the plants that live there, and for preserving the historic record of our humanity that is on this landscape." Jaina further explained that the people concerned with preserving the place and seeking a protected designation had been noticing many acts of vandalism, looting of historic resources, chopping down of Joshua trees, use of petroglyphs as shooting targets, as well as irresponsible recreation. "People need to be aware when they go out there that they’re going into a rugged place and that they need to prepare; so, know where you’re going, bring extra water and food, be prepared for an emergency, know your options because there’s no service out there. It’s important to communicate these things and that’s what Friends of Gold Butte is trying to do: to promote responsible enjoyment of the monument. Part of that responsible enjoyment is consideration for the cultural resources in the area, but the other part of it is the consideration for yourself and for others that are to follow."
Sunset at the entrance in gold butte coming from mesquite
Many visitors try to make their way up these rugged rocks shooting from the ground. Though we generally didn’t see too many people in the monument, this particular area was quite popular, and it’s easy to see why.
Gold Butte was listed as one of the four terrestrial national monuments whose boundaries would be altered and shrunk at the recommendation of the Secretary of Interior Zinke. Cattle grazing is permitted in the monument, and private property and existing rights are grandfathered in. The Bundy Ranch is located in the vicinity of the monument and is where their first armed stand-off with the federal government took place in 2014. Despite some opposition, many residents in the region and members of tribes spoke in favor of protecting Gold Butte for its importance. "Gold Butte is this really amazing piece of the Mojave Desert. It has a really wide elevational range, from the highest point going over 8,000 ft to the lowest at about 1,200 ft. Because it has such a wide elevational gradient within a short distance, it has incredible biological communities at different points along the monument. At the higher elevations you find some really unique Ice Age relict forests, with little pockets of Douglas and white fir. It’s the only place where you find Douglas fir in southern Nevada. Then you see some really spectacular Pinyon-juniper woodlands, you see a lot of classic Creosote-Bursage across the landscape, which is prime habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise, a species that is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It has a really wide range of biodiversity among its ecosystems and wildlife populations and plant communities that are endemic to this part of the world. So ecologically speaking it’s a fascinating place. Then geologically speaking it's a very special place - you’ll find Precambrian rocks that date some 1.7 billion years; you travel a couple of miles and you find more recent rocks that are 170 million years old. The range of geologic history is absolutely incredible. It’s really a paradise for scientific research and geology. And then it’s also very significant because it has had a continuous history of humans. Archaeologists looking at the human record in Gold Butte have concluded that humans have either lived or traveled through the area for the past 12,000 years, a phenomenal amount of time. Through their travels and habitation on this landscape they’ve left quite the record of… of our humanity. You know? You find spectacular examples of petroglyphs, of agave roasting pits, then you find post-colonial evidence of habitation and the way in which those people used the land, with ranches, mines and so on. It really represents something for everybody when they’re out in Gold Butte."
Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia)
Joshua trees are a species typical to the Mojave Desert ecosystem. There are hundreds of them within the Gold Butte. More are being planted by the Friends group in an area that has been destroyed by a wildfire. Desert plants aren't adapted to live with massive wildfires and regenerate very slowly. Nowadays, wildfires happen in deserts because of introduced species of grasses that connect the bushes and the trees and spread the fire throughout extensive areas.
Left: to reach the Falling Man Rock Art site hikers scramble through this narrow tunnel in the ridge. From the parking lot it’s a short, easy walk and the rocks all around harbor the historical traces of the ancestors of the southern Paiute. For a detailed description of this hike head here. Right: while the rock walls and formations all around this area are filled with petroglyphs, this mountain side only has one, known as the ‘Falling Man’. All other petroglyphs have a geometrical, more rigid structure. The Falling Man breaks away entirely from the general style. It invites the imagination to wonder about its story. Regardless, it is a moving sight. It appears as a tribute or a revelation whose significance determined others to let this petroglyph remain alone on the rock wall.
Left: the colors of these rocks are painted by the interaction between water and minerals. The small pools, called “tinajas”, temporarily hold water which brings life to this dry environment. Right: Tadpoles in one of the tinajas that still had water.
“Gold Butte is this really amazing piece of the Mojave Desert. It has a really wide elevational range, from the highest point going over 8,000 ft to the lowest at about 1,200 ft. Because it has such a wide elevational gradient within a short distance, it has incredible biological communities at different points along the monument.”
Walking across the Mud Wash dunes was yet another wonderful experience in Gold Butte. This place truly has something for everyone. In the distance, the north slopes of the Virgin mountains host relict forests from the last Ice Age.
Mud Wash dunes
The dunes, sculpted and moved around by the wind, are one of the most impressive sights in a national monument where one constanly runs out of words to express awe.
sunset in “little finland”
The twisted sand and rock formations in ‘Little Finland’ spark the imagination of visitors. For some they become dragons, for others dogs, thrones or strange horses.
“Through their travels and habitation on this landscape they’ve left quite the record of… of our humanity. You know? You find spectacular examples of petroglyphs, of agave roasting pits, then you find post-colonial evidence of habitation and the way in which those people used the land, with ranches, mines and so on. It really represents something for everybody…”
the last car camping area
Our visit to Gold Butte was unforgettable not only because the place is so special, but also because we had the chance to hike and camp with Jim Boone. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Friends of Gold Butte, and a local expert on what the monument has to offer. For two days he shared with us all this beauty. Here, our cars were parked for the night nearby "Little Finland" where we camped and said goodbye to Jim.