One Person’s Impact

Photo: Courtesy of Kim Garrison-Means

In remote southern Nevada, Kim Garrison-Means spearheaded the grassroots activism of door-to-door canvassing and neighborhood potlucks, weaving the fabric of a powerful bipartisan conservation campaign to establish America’s newest national monument.

All across America, conservationists are watching a small patch of southern Nevada desert with bated breath. Located between Lake Mohave and Mojave National Preserve, Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-vee Kwah May) is a stark, serene landscape that’s been sacred to local Native tribes for centuries. It’s now expected to become our nation’s newest national monument

That begs the question: With all kinds of massive, iconic landscapes—from Tongass National Forest in Alaska to Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon—all vying for national monument status, how did this little scrap of desert get bumped to the top of the list? How did it rise so fast to capture the public’s imagination? 

According to Jocelyn Torres, senior field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit organization that advocates for national monuments, most of it comes down to one woman: an avid hiker and artist without any lobbying or political background. Her name is Kim Garrison-Means. The campaign to save Avi Kwa Ame from oil and gas development had started years before Garrison-Means ever heard of it, and it was propelled forward by a handful of concerned locals and members of the Fort Mojave Tribe. But when the campaign started looking for a spokesperson who could bridge partisan divides, Kim, who’s lived on the borders of Avi Kwa Ame all her life and has spent decades hiking the landscape, stepped forward. 

“Kim is one individual. She has knocked on every door of her neighbors’ homes,” Torres explains. “She’s gone to bingo nights and town halls and even to D.C. to talk to her elected officials about why this place matters to her.” 

For a lot of people, politics can be overwhelming, and establishing a new park—let alone a new national monument—seems like an impossible task. But Garrison-Means’s story proves that anyone can make a difference and that everyone has a role to play. Public Lands recently sat down with Garrison-Means to understand more about how she stepped into her own role to save nearly 450,000 acres of sacred lands.

PUBLIC LANDS: What made you fall so hard for this landscape that you felt you had to save it?

KIM GARRISON-MEANS: I had no choice, because I’ve known that landscape my whole life. My grandparents moved to this 60-acre plot outside of Searchlight, Nevada, in the 1960s. The landscape I grew up in is within the national monument’s proposed boundaries. It’s a remote area, so you don’t see towns or other people, and I grew up hiking among these beautiful granite boulders that remind me of Joshua Tree National Park. My grandfather would put out water for the animals because the historic springs of the area were getting more dry as the decades progressed. I grew up with him teaching me the names of the plants and animals and rocks and stars, and that was instilled in me as part of my experience of the world—that all these things are our neighbors, and we all live together and treat one another as equals. 

What’s it like hiking through Avi Kwa Ame?

There are a number of wonderful, trail-sized roads that are designated routes left over from the mining era which was about 1900 and 1920. At the time they were wagon roads. They’re small and they go to mysterious places. Hiking was a big thing for our family, as well as Jeeping down those roads. We’d go out to the Eldorado Mountains and the Highland Range and the Newbury Mountains—those are all pretty extensive, dramatic ranges with huge basins around them. You can view the Colorado River going all the way through into Arizona and see all the way into California. 

Then there’s the diversity of species there. You have all these different colors of lichens that come out on the rocks, and you can find things like mushrooms and red-spotted toads after the rain. These things are so inspiring because they’re in direct conflict with the idea that the desert is this vast expanse of nothingness. But here we have so much life, and the diversity of the ecosystems and micro-ecosystems is really stunning. 

The landscape has been sacred to local Native tribes for a long time. Do you still get a sense of that here?

Absolutely. This area is dramatically different from other mountainous landscapes that have more trees. The amount of perspective you get from being quiet on top of one of those mountains and being about to see for that distance is very grounding. It makes you feel like a small piece of something big.

There are about a dozen tribes for which this land is still sacred. The Fort Mojave Tribe, for example, has their current tribal lands very close to this area, so they’re sort of the designated caretakers and representatives, in a way, for all the tribes for whom it’s important. They’re the ones who started banding together the community during the first wind-farm proposals here a few years ago.  

Was Searchlight originally anti-monument?

That’s something I think every community has to balance and figure out. I think for our community, we’ve seen mining, and we’ve seen ranching on public lands. And there’s always hunters and off-highway vehicle users. So for us, our community’s journey has had to do with two things: One, is that land designations historically have impacted Searchlight and other village areas in a negative way. People didn’t have any say over what those designations were, but our economy suffered because of them. But the town still exists because people love this area and this landscape. Then, about 15 years ago, we started having proposals for huge industrial energy projects to be sited in this area, projects from companies in foreign countries. That was alarming. They just wanted to plop a big wind farm in the middle of this dense Joshua tree forest we have even though it has the densest golden eagle population in Nevada. That led to the point where our community members were interested in the idea of sharing this space, and making it a more formal protected federal space as a national monument. 

How did you get involved?

My roles started about two years ago. It was early 2020, and I was the kind of person who could have conversations with different people and piece together what a national monument designation would mean for us and what the impact would be to our community. So I and some of my family and friends got together with people we knew in Searchlight. We started in people’s living rooms just having conversations and asking all the questions. It was scary at first. We spent a lot of time researching. I called the superintendents of Basin and Range National Monument and Mojave Trails National Monument and talked to them about how it was going. For us that was the first step.

Then you went door to door, talking to people?

Yes, and we sent out postcards to everyone from my P.O. Box, which was a little nerve-wracking. We met with OHV groups and hunting groups in Nevada. We worked really hard to make sure everybody knew what was going on and had a voice. At one point, I was going door to door and there was a conversation about whether to just go to households that looked from the yard like the people would be liberal-leaning and would sign a petition. But I stopped everyone and said, ‘No, no. This is our community and everyone needs to know. We go to every single door and we have whatever conversation we need to have.’ And then we were really surprised by how willing people were to talk about this because it affects their backyard and their experience, and how on-board people were despite their political affiliations.

And you held an art show to bring the community together and raise awareness?

I did. I’m an artist, and holding the show was one of the things I knew how to do best and how powerful it could be. The show allowed people to see their own voices being heard publicly. We had all these communities who cared about the space. We’d never had an art show in Searchlight before. This was the first one. People played music that was thematic to the history of our town and landscape. People came from all the big cities. That’s the power of art. You are allowed to express your thoughts and feelings with it, and it doesn’t have to be political. We were able to create dialogue without making it attached to any agenda. It was community, creative, dialogue, and a way to celebrate this place that we all love.

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