July 15, 2009

Conservation Commission to buy Big Morongo parcel

Erica Felci
The Desert Sun

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (BLM)

Coachella Valley officials are spending $3.9 million to acquire 638 acres in Big Morongo Canyon, the largest land purchase since the desert multi-species protection act went into effect last fall.

The Coachella Valley Conservation Commission last week approved buying the habitat lands. Officials say they saved $1.1 million.

The deal should be finalized in August.

The property, along the north part of Indian Drive, is a significant parcel as it was part of the now-defunct Palmwood project. The golf resort was once envisioned as an economic boost to Desert Hot Springs, and was a key reason the city initially opted out of the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

This land is part of a “significant wildlife corridor,” said Katie Barrows, environmental resources director for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments.

“Acquisition of the Palmwood parcel will be a significant step to ensuring conservation of this rich natural area and access to trails for generations to come,” Rancho Mirage Councilman Richard Kite, chairman of the conservation commission, said in a statement.

The 75-year, $2.2 billion multi-species act — designed to preserve land and habitat for 27 of the desert's endangered and protected species — went into effect in October. Since then, the conservation commission has acquired about 227 acres of habitat land.

During the 12 years it took valley and county officials to develop the plan, about 60,000 acres were acquired.

Barrows said there was interest in acquiring additional land in the area around Palmwood.

Desert Hot Springs City Council in November rescinded its earlier approval of the Palmwood development and decertified the project's Environmental Impact Report.

City officials in recent months have been working on Desert Hot Springs becoming a full member of the valleywide conservation effort.

In what is a first step to that inclusion, the city has been working with various agencies regarding conservation in the 4,000 acres they are looking to annex near Interstate 10.

About 1,900 acres make up land eyed for habitat.

Officials continue to study what is needed to amend the original plan to let the city join. That amendment would have to be approved by every jurisdiction that's already in the plan.

“By next summer, our hope would be that Desert Hot Springs can adopt the multi-species plan” and its related regulations and fees, City Manager Rick Daniels said.