LAS VEGAS — More than two years after an armed standoff with followers of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy prompted a pullout of researchers from Gold Butte, federal land managers are returning to the scenic, historic and ecologically fragile area.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said work is resuming toward opening the area across the Virgin River from the Bundy ranch for hiking, camping and geological and archaeological exploration.
“Very limited work continued after April 2014,” bureau spokesman Craig Leff said Monday. “Then, in the summer of 2015, the BLM fully suspended work in the Gold Butte region after multiple gun shots were fired in the vicinity of student contractors.”
No one was injured in the June 2015 shooting near researchers from the Reno-based nonprofit Great Basin Institute. They had been monitoring water seeps and springs in the area about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. They reported the gunfire came at night, after they were first approached by two men who asked what they were doing.
Agency national chief Neil Kornze and state director John Ruhs toured parts of the area last week with a Clark County commissioner and a Las Vegas police captain, cataloging apparent vandalism and damage during stops at the scenic Whitney Pockets sandstone formation and the archaeologically significant Falling Man rock art site, according to the BLM.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid wants federal lawmakers to designate almost 550 square miles of the remote land northeast of Lake Mead as the Gold Butte National Conservation Area.
The return by federal officials to the area comes months after Bundy, four of his sons and 14 other men were arrested on federal charges in the gunpoint standoff that stopped government agents from rounding up cattle on public land. All 19 men remain jailed, with trial scheduled in February. Each has pleaded not guilty to various conspiracy, obstruction, weapon, threat and assault charges.
Bundy doesn’t recognize federal jurisdiction in the area where he’s accused of failing to pay more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties while illegally allowing his cows to roam.
His lawyer, Joel Hansen, said the BLM has no authority in Gold Butte. He suggested that boundary shifts after Nevada became a state in 1864 left the federal government with no legal claim in the area where Bundy is accused of trespassing.
“The Bundys are in full support of preserving the archaeological treasures of the Gold Butte area,” Hansen said. “However, that work should be undertaken by the state of Nevada. The state of Nevada owns Gold Butte, not the BLM.”
Hansen also blamed federal land policies for problems including invasive weeds and wildfires, and alleged that designating the area as critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and other plant and animal species is a Reid effort to please political backers.
The BLM said agency efforts will include projects to address the spread of noxious weeds and to reduce the threat of wildfire. Plans also include road maintenance, communication line repairs and the establishment of a route numbering system to help visitors find their way around.