WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden said Tuesday he is establishing national monuments in Nevada and Texas and creating a marine sanctuary in U.S. waters near the Pacific Remote Islands southwest of Hawaii. Biden called the conservation measures part of an effort to "protect the heart and soul of our national pride."
Speaking at a White House summit on conservation action, Biden said the new national monuments are among the "natural treasures" that "define our identity as a nation. They're a birthright we have to pass down to generation after generation."
"Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world," Biden said in a speech at the Interior Department. "They've always been and always will be central to our heritage as a people and essential to our identity as a nation."
Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame, a desert mountain in southern Nevada that Native Americans consider sacred, as a national monument, along with the new Castner Range National Monument in El Paso, Texas. He also moved to create a national marine sanctuary in U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands.
The Nevada site spans more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) and includes Spirit Mountain, a peak northwest of Laughlin called Avi Kwa Ame (ah-VEE' kwa-meh) by the Fort Mojave Tribe and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The rugged landscape near the Arizona and California state lines is home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a large concentration of Joshua trees, some of which are more than 900 years old.
In Texas, the Castner Range designation will protect cultural, scientific and historic objects, honor U.S. veterans, service members and tribal nations, and expand access to outdoor recreation on public lands, Biden said. Located on Fort Bliss, Castner Range served as a training and testing site for the U.S. Army during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The Army ceased training at the site and closed Castner Range in 1966.
Together, the two new national monuments protect nearly 514,000 acres (208,000 hectares) of public lands.
In the Pacific, Biden directed the Commerce Department to initiate a national marine sanctuary designation to protect 777,000 square miles around the Pacific Remote Islands. If completed, the new sanctuary would help ensure the U.S. reaches Biden's goal to conserve at least 30% of ocean waters under U.S. jurisdiction by 2030, the White House said.
The area to be protected is "larger than Alaska and Colorado put together," Biden said.
Biden also announced other steps to conserve, restore and expand access to public lands and waters across the country. The proposals seek to modernize management of America's public lands, harness the power of the ocean to help fight climate change and better conserve wildlife corridors, the White House said. Biden also announced new spending to improve access to outdoor recreation, promote tribal conservation and reduce wildfire risk.
Biden's actions come as he faces sharp criticism from environmental groups and youth activists over his approval of the huge Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.
Biden has made fighting global warming a central part of his agenda and has pledged to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. But the decision on Willow has alienated supporters, particularly young activists skeptical about political compromise at the same time Biden is planning to announce his reelection campaign.
Climate activists gathered outside the Interior Department on Tuesday to condemn what they call Biden's "climate hypocrisy" and demand the administration change course on Willow.
Protesters hung a large yellow banner that said, "Stop the Willow oil project" and chanted "no more drilling, no more drilling, no more drilling on federal land."
The Willow Project has garnered global attention in recent weeks as a #stopwillow campaign went viral across social media platforms, most notably gaining more than 600 million views on TikTok and amassing more than 4 million signatures on a change.org petition, making it one of the most popular petitions in the website's history.
White House officials have acknowledged the indignation among Biden's supporters over Willow but emphasized that oil giant ConocoPhillips has held leases in that area of Alaska for decades, which strengthens the Houston-based company's legal right to drill.
Environmental groups already have sued in a renewed effort to block Willow.
Conservation and tribal groups praised Biden's action. The Avi Kwa Ame landscape is sacred to 12 tribes and is home to rare wildlife and plants, while Castner Range is the ancestral homeland of the Comanche and Apache people, and its cultural ecology is considered sacred to several Indigenous communities.
"To the native people who point to Avi Kwa Ame as their spiritual birthplace, and every Nevadan who knows the value of our cherished public lands: Today is for you," tweeted Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, who sponsored a bill to protect the rugged region near the Mojave National Preserve from development, including solar farms and a proposed wind farm.
"Spirit Mountain will now be protected for future generations," Titus added.
The Castner Range monument "will preserve fragile lands already surrounded on three sides by development," help ensure access to clean water and protect rare and endangered species, said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.
Fort Mojave Tribe Chairman Timothy Williams, who attended the conservation summit, said tribes throughout the Southwest consider Avi Kwa Ame to be sacred land. Biden's creation of a new monument demonstrated his "commitment to respect tribal nations and our nation-to-nation relationship."
Under the leadership of Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, "We have a seat at the table and we have seen an unprecedented era and opportunity for our tribal communities," Williams said.
The Honor Avi Kwa Ame coalition, which includes tribes, local residents, state lawmakers and conservation groups, said its members were "overjoyed" to learn the site will be a new national monument.
"Together, we will honor Avi Kwa Ame today -- from its rich Indigenous history, to its vast and diverse plant and wildlife, to the outdoor recreation opportunities created for local cities and towns in southern Nevada by a new gorgeous monument right in their backyard," the group said.
Biden designated his first national monument, in Colorado, last year. In 2021, he restored the boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah after they were significantly narrowed by President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Rio Yamat in Las Vegas contributed to this story.