This sacred valley could become America’s next national monument

If successful, the designation would end a decades-long fight to protect rare swamp cedars—and a key Native American site.

In an arid mountain basin called Spring Valley in eastern Nevada, an isolated evergreen forest has long baffled ecologists. Scientists say its trees—with sprawling blue-green boughs, stretching as high as 40 feet—shouldn’t be here.

“This endemic growth of Rocky Mountain junipers, or swamp cedars, should be at 8,000 feet or above elevation. These are growing at 5,000 feet,” says Kyle Roerink, executive director of regional water conservation nonprofit Great Basin Water Network. “Wrong elevation, wrong soil, complete wrong habitat. No one understands why they grew here, nor how they continue to survive.”

But to the original inhabitants of this valley—the Western Shoshone—the swamp cedars are no mystery. This site, called Bahsahwahbee, or Sacred Water Valley, is a living monument to the hundreds of ancestors slain during three 19th-century massacres, two led by the United States Army and one by vigilantes.

Today’s tribal elders, including Rupert Steele of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and Delaine Spilsbury of the Western Shoshone, remember accounts of these events.

“The men were out hunting, and the women were gathering,” as they had been for thousands of years, Spilsbury says of the third massacre. “My grandmother and her friend were around 10 years old, and they were away from camp when it happened. When they came back, they found everyone [who remained] was dead.” These trees, she says, grew where their bodies fell.

“The trees nourished themselves on the lives of our ancestors,” her son, Rick Spilsbury, adds. “And that’s the only thing left in Spring Valley alive of the Western Shoshone.”

(To keep Earth flourishing, 30 percent of it needs protection by 2030.)

The Spilsburys have been involved in efforts to protect the site—still used for prayer, remembrance, and spiritual gatherings—for nearly 30 years. Each year, the fight intensifies. For decades, fast-growing desert communities in the southern part of the state have been eying the groundwater that keeps this delicate ecosystem alive.

Now the Spilsburys and other advocates are seeking a new ally: the National Parks Service.

Groundwater tug-of-war

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees Bahsahwahbee’s 14,000-plus acres. Unlike the public lands within the boundaries of Great Basin National Park just eight miles away, BLM land isn’t managed with conservation in mind, says Rick Spilsbury. “Out here, we call it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines.” 

The bureau has the power to greenlight commercial use of the land by private companies for purposes from grazing to oil and gas exploitation to water rights.

(Inside the political battle to preserve a sprawling national forest in California.)

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), a government agency founded in 1991, has been pushing a plan to pump billions of gallons of water out of Nevada’s already dwindling wetlands—including Bahsahwahbee—to Las Vegas and surrounding desert communities for decades. Facing public outcry and legal challenges from local tribes and community groups, the SNWA abandoned its plans for the Vegas pipeline in 2020.

The victory was hard-won, but the threat hasn’t abated. The SNWA still retains the ability to siphon tens of billions of gallons of groundwater annually from valleys around Bahsahwahbee. Moreover, two additional pipeline proposals are in play that could potentially reduce local aquifers by hundreds of feet, according to hydrological analyses.

“The threat of [water] export is something that looms large in the minds of Indigenous communities and small ranching and farming families,” Roerink says. “The idea that you’re going to drain one area to feed another—that’s essentially saying one area is more important than another.”

Monte Sanford, an environmental consultant to the Goshute and Western Shoshone, says trying to ensure protection for the swamp cedars has been an unusual battle. Instead of fighting each development threat as it comes—from mining to wind farms to groundwater grabs—the tribes are laying the groundwork for something more permanent. “We need to do something more than just being reactive,” Sandford says. “We need to protect [the swamp cedars] in perpetuity.”

After a long application process, Bahsahwahbee received a Traditional Cultural Property designation in 2017, which placed the site on the National Register of Historic Places.

“State and federal employees and officials tend to need to see a narrative, or a map, or something other than the tribe just saying, ‘This is important to us,’” Sanford says of the designation, which would add more steps to the regulatory process for any proposed development.

Ultimately, the designation can’t guarantee protection or prevent the BLM from granting easements or rights-of-way to development interests, pipelines included. That’s why the site’s stewards are seeking a more powerful designation—as a national monument.

Furthering swamp cedar protection

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to consider bringing the site under the purview of the National Park System, either establishing it as its own protected site or folding it into nearby Great Basin National Park.

However, the plan has its caveats, Sanford says. Other places of cultural significance, such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, have been subject to grave robbing, looting, and vandalism.

(What the Bears Ears monument means to a Native American.)

Since there is some danger in calling so much attention to a sacred site, Sanford says the local tribes would like to see provisions added, such as more security and a stipulation for co-management between the NPS and the tribal governments. They are hoping to educate visitors that Bahsahwahbee isn’t a recreational site—it’s more “like an important cemetery,” says Delaine Spilsbury.

Despite recent progress, there is a long way to go. The next step is to make a case to the Department of the Interior and lobby for support in the Biden administration for federal protection. Sanford adds that the federal government often issues permits to developers for the destruction or relocation of tribal cultural resources. Their active help in the preservation of Bahsahwahbee would be a massive shift from the norm.

“We want to see the trees live,” Rick Spilsbury says. “We want to share our story with the rest of the world so people can learn from it. We want to be able to go visit the place and think—just be able to go there and to remember. We think that the parks system can help us with that.”

Alexandra Marvar often reports on conservation, development, and water politics. Find more of her work here.

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