Interior secretary recommends shrinking Nevada national monument

One of the many walls of petroglyphs in the Falling Man petroglyph area is seen in the Gold Butte region Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, northeast of Las Vegas. President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, at sites in Utah and Nevada, which includes the 300,000-acre area now known as the Gold Butte National Monument. CREDIT: Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended scaling back the size of the Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada on Tuesday, drawing praise from Republican Sen. Dean Heller but sharp criticism from congressional Democrats and conservationists who vowed to fight any such move.

Zinke said he would focus changes on efforts to protect local governments' access to water on the site. He made no mention of plans for another monument under review in Nevada, the Basin and Range.

Designated by President Obama, Gold Butte protects more than 400 square miles (1,036 sq. kilometers) of desert landscapes featuring rock art, sandstone towers and wildlife habitat for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other species.

Brian Beffort, director of the Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter in Nevada, said the secretary's recommendation "is a direct attack on decades of work invested by local communities."

Zinke declined to specify how much land he wants removed from monument status in Nevada. He said the administration is working with Nevada's governor and congressional delegation to find a solution.

"The Department of Interior's decision is welcome news for Nevada as it allows the Valley Water District to access their water rights that were lost under the previous administration," said Heller, who added he was proud to work with Zinke "to prioritize local concerns over the opinion of Washington bureaucrats."

President Donald Trump signed a pair of proclamations Monday shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

"The administration is engaged in the largest rollback of national monuments protection in recent history," Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said Tuesday.

Zinke's review of the monuments "has been a sham from the start, failing to listen to local advocates and tribal communities in Nevada who care deeply about preserving the natural beauty and cultural heritage of Gold Butte," she said. "I will continue to fight this reckless decision."

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said Zinke has been busy "fundraising and undermining the integrity of the Interior Department."

"He is in no position to make a sound judgment on Gold Butte," she said.