Will the land surrounding Michael Heizer’s City stay protected?

US Interior Secretary hinted at downsizing after visiting two of Nevada’s national monuments, as part of review ordered by President Trump


As City—Michael Heizer’s vast Land Art installation in the Nevada desert—nears completion, the fate of the federally protected land surrounding it could soon be decided. Ryan Zinke, the US Interior Secretary, visited the state on Sunday, 30 July, as part of a review of 27 national monuments ordered by President Donald Trump, which could result in some of these lands being reopened to development. Although he cut his trip to Nevada short to return to Washington, DC, Zinke stopped by City and met with staff from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art including the director Michael Govan, who has been a key player in the project’s realisation.  

“Monuments have been adjusted... 18 times before,” Zinke told reporters at a press conference in Bunkerville, Nevada, the hometown of the anti-government cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, who is currently in jail awaiting trail for his role in a 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. “So I don’t think there’s too much question that a monument can be adjusted. Whether a monument can be rescinded or not, that is a question for the courts.” Zinke is expected to make his recommendations on the monuments under review to Trump by the end of August.

Heizer has been building City since 1972, on private land he bought in Nevada, around a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. Over the years, the remote site has been threatened by development, including a government plan to build a railroad that would transport nuclear waste across Garden Valley to a repository in Yucca Mountain. A number of museums banded together to call for the site’s preservation, and in 2015, Obama created the Basin and Range National Monument, which covers 704,000 acres in southern Nevada’s Lincoln and Nye counties, including the land surrounding City and several Native American rock art sites. The next year, he created the Gold Butte National Monument, which covers 300,000 acres in Clark county.

“To experience City you leave the world of gas stations, casinos and supermarkets, and move into this abstract space,” Lacma’s director Michael Govan told us soon after the designation. “If there were a road or power line or oil mining nearby, it would totally ruin the experience of emptiness created by this vast desert basin and range.” Govan himself travelled to Nevada on Sunday "to show Zinke the City project by Heizer and advocate for preserving the Basin and Range National Monument which protects the artwork and the array of natural and archeological resources within the monument area," a spokeswoman said. The mile-and-a-half-long series of sculptural earthworks could open to the public by 2021.

“City will be a top attraction once it opens, but as of now the areas within the monument known as Shooting Gallery, Mt Irish and the White River Narrows are popular destinations to visit because of their high concentration of petroglyph panels,” writes Jocelyn Torres, the Nevada programme director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, in a recent column in the Las Vegas Sun. She adds that instead of reviewing the site’s status, “our time would be better spent moving forward restoring and enjoying our national monument than rehashing decisions made with input from community members, elected officials, businesses, archaeologists, recreationists and conservationists.”

However, some officials and private landowners have argued that too much land was taken by the government with not enough public input. “We don’t object to national monuments, but to take 700,000 acres to protect private property that represents less than 1 percent of that land seems excessive,” Nye county commission chairman Dan Schinhofen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We think it can be pared down.”