Sunrise woman leads effort to secure national conservation area and wilderness status
By F. ANDREW TAYLOR
VIEW STAFF WRITER
June 29, 2010
F. ANDREW TAYLOR/VIEWFrom top, Terri Robertson points out a pictogram on an April 12 hike in Gold Butte. Bullet holes mar the surface of a petroglyph at Gold Butte.
F. ANDREW TAYLOR/VIEWLinda Goya follows Terri Robertson down a trail to Robertson?s favorite spot in Gold Butte during an April 12 trip to the area of environmental concern. Robertson and other Friends of Gold Butte are working to get that designation changed to national conservation and wilderness area.
Photos by F. ANDREW TAYLOR/VIEWFrom top, Terri Robertson leads an April 12 tour of Gold Butte. Linda Goya explores a canyon along the trail. Wildflowers form a carpet along a canyon floor. Robertson said there are no established trailhead signage, campgrounds or bathrooms in the area.
Sunrise resident Terri Robertson stood on a hill at the end of miles of dirt road with the sort of broad grin that can't be faked. Below her a trail led to bright orange rocks that hid little canyons with petroglyphs and fields of tiny flowers that covered the harsh flinty surface with a brightly colored living carpet.
"This," she said, "is my favorite place in the world."
Although that spot in the Gold Butte area holds a particularly warm spot in her heart, it's safe to say that any of the wild places in Nevada are her favorite places. Robertson has spent the majority of her life playing in and protecting those places. At the moment, she's the Las Vegas outreach coordinator for Friends of Gold Butte, a group that hopes to convince Washington to change the designation from Gold Butte Area of Environmental Concern to a combination of national conservation area and a wilderness, with a capital 'W.' That designation would protect the land from development and preserve it for recreation. It also would make it eligible for funds to protect and improve it.
"There are lots of people visiting, and there are absolutely no facilities out there," Robertson said. "There's no established trail system, camping areas or restroom facilities. There are hardly any signs. There are a few but not where they need to be. We need kiosks with educational information."
Gold Butte covers 345,000 acres stretching from Lake Mead Conservation Area to the Virgin Mountains. There are 500 miles of dirt road there. The friends of Gold Butte consider it to be Nevada's section of the Grand Canyon.
The area can be reached by most vehicles only by a little roller coaster of a road that begins just south of Bunkerville. The paved road winds for a few miles past a few farms and ranches until it drops into a well-constructed dirt road.
One of those ranches along the way is owned by Cliven Bundy, one of the most vocal opponents to changing the area's designation. Bundy is Robertson's cousin.
At a May 4 Clark County Commission meeting supporters and opponents packed the room. More than 100 people asked to speak during the public comment section of the meeting, with the opinions split and both sides passionate about the issue. At least one speaker from Mesquite broke down in tears bemoaning the possible loss of access to an area she said she takes her children to regularly.
Among those who spoke out in opposition to the designation change was Las Vegan Ken Dunn, who noted that in this century, people choose motorized transportation over walking or horseback. He jokingly asked for a poll of the audience to determine how many people had walked to the meeting from home.
"Gold Butte belongs to all the people, not you, not me but everybody and for all of our uses," Dunn said. "The citizens of Clark County spend millions of dollars more on four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, SUVs, ATVs, dirt bikes, motor homes, camping trailers and so on than they do on Birkenstocks."
David Bert, host of the local television and radio outdoor travel show "Along the Way," was at the meeting and said he was flabbergasted by the amount of misinformation he heard.
"One of the massive misrepresentations of those opposing the NCA is that they're just going to shut those roads down," Bert said. "A lot of people at the meeting were confusing OHV (off highway vehicle) travel with ATV travel. Because of the show, I probably spend more time off highway than any of the people who were there."
Bert also pointed out what he felt was intentional confusion of the boundaries of the wilderness and the national conservation area, noting that the two designations do not overlap, and the more restrictive wilderness designation doesn't include the section that already has roads.
The general point of those opposed to the designation is that once the area is declared an NCA, it's difficult if not impossible to change it back, a point the Friends of Gold Butte not only concede but tout as a selling point. What Robertson and the group have been trying to convince their opposition of is that an NCA will protect the land without making it onerously inaccessible.
To use the Western vernacular, this isn't exactly Robertson's first rodeo. Forty years ago she was part of a small group that was instrumental in making Red Rock what it is today, a national conservation area with over 1 million visitors a year.
"The original plan from the BLM was to put a gas station and a motel right at the entrance to Red Rock," Robertson said.
Before the current loop road was constructed, separate dirt roads led to the many canyons in the area, where trailheads are today. While Robertson is a fan of the loop road solution, she doesn't want to see every access road paved. She isn't a stereotypical tree hugger -- or, in this case, cactus hugger. She's an avid proponent of off-highway vehicles and is on the Nellis Dunes Advisory Committee.
"The BLM's original plan also called for paving the Potato Ridge Road, a beautiful four-wheel-drive road," Robertson said. "They planned to pave it all the way to the Pahrump Highway. Fortunately they didn't, and that road is still open and user-maintained."
Robertson said that meant that when large boulders shift into the road, usually after a big rainstorm, it's the OHV drivers who clear them off through a variety of means.
The Friends of Gold Butte contend that the 500 miles of dirt roads in the proposed Gold Butte National Conservation Area already includes more than would remain. The OHV activity conservationists would like to see stopped is trail cutting, the practice of driving across virgin terrain that cuts into the protective crust of the desert and scars it for decades. The cut areas also expose loose soil to the elements, which increases airborne dust.
"What makes Gold Butte so wonderful is that it's home to beautiful petroglyph areas, wonderful cultural sites, agave roasting pits and mining history, including Spanish Aristas," Robertson said.
The old mining town of Gold Butte itself is home to an unusual Spanish Arista, a device used to grind ore for processing. There are Spanish Aristas in many places in the Southwest, but they are constructed out of several flat rocks. The one at Gold Butte is carved directly into the surface stone.
The area is home to spectacular petroglyphs, ancient carvings in rocks and a few pictographs, ancient painted images that are seen less frequently in this area. While the vast majority of visitors respect and enjoy their beauty, there are those who deface or even steal these rare historical artifacts.
The Friends of Gold Butte hope that the funding that would come with the change of designation would provide for an increase in park rangers. Currently only one ranger covers that territory and several others.
"There's a spot up there we call the billboards because they're so high up in the air, so long and the figures are so big," Robertson said. "There's nothing quite like it."
Bert recalled an episode of "Along the Way" that featured the petroglyph wall, the largest in Clark County.
"One of the things I talked about in the story was all of the things on the way to the wall, all of different midden sites (piles of ancient domestic waste), the manos and metates (corn grinding tools) and the lithic scatter (stone tools and debris found on the surface). All of that was out there, and it was fascinating," Bert said. "Two years later I went back and almost all of that was gone. Poached. Taken away. It was a heartbreaking experience going back."
Contact Sunrise and Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at