October 29, 2009

Tug-of-war over future of public land in Mojave Desert far from over, despite sweeping protections

Access to land such as Joshua Tree National Park is a key issue to many. (2003 / The Press-Enterprise)

The Press-Enterprise

Fifteen years have passed since the historic California Desert Protection Act set aside millions of unspoiled acres as wilderness, elevated Joshua Tree and Death Valley to national park status and created the Mojave National Preserve.

The legislation was the largest land conservation bill in the continental United States, hailed for its safekeeping of a long-ignored 6.37 million acres of landscape that counts "singing" sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and world-class climbing boulders among its attractions.

"It was a hell of a battle. We didn't know how hard it would be," said Elden Hughes, of Joshua Tree, former chairman of the Sierra Club's desert committee. "I don't care where in the United States you were, you could hear me shouting when it passed."

Now, proposals are pending for desert landfills, airports, housing developments, renewable energy projects and water harvesting, pushing a new generation to find ways to balance such pressures with the need for open space.

The process has to be a consensus, said Ralph Hollenbacher, a manager at Chevron, which is planning several solar projects.

"You don't have to please all of the people, but you have to please most of the people," he said. "What may be developable for one individual may be a national monument for another."

Among Chevron's projects is a 4,000-acre development near the southeast border of Joshua Tree National Park. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management vetoed the company's two previous site choices because they were in sensitive areas, Hollenbacher said.

With new urgency, environmentalists are filing lawsuits not just to protect endangered species from urban sprawl, but also from climate change. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is crafting legislation that would set aside millions more acres in the Mojave.

"If you look at the California desert, it's wedged in between two of the most rapidly expanding areas of the country, greater Los Angeles and greater Las Vegas. With that comes some intense development pressure," said Mike Cipra, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Proponents of the Desert Protection Act laud it as a guardian of great expanses that provide solitude, inspiration and a refuge for wildlife. Almost 3.5 million acres were declared wilderness, which puts it off-limits to vehicles, mining and energy development. Hiking, hunting, camping and livestock grazing are allowed.

Critics say the protections are too extreme and make the land inaccessible to all but a small percentage of the population.

Some people contend that development in the desert is a necessary, and inevitable, way of keeping the state economically viable and meeting sustainable-energy goals. But others say it would prompt plant and wildlife extinctions and bring indelible changes to one of the state's last uninhabited spaces.

Competing viewpoints

Donna Charpied, an organic jojoba farmer, has lived in Desert Center for 29 years. For almost the entire time, she has been fighting the proposed Eagle Mountain landfill, which would dump Los Angeles County trash into an old iron ore pit within two miles of Joshua Tree National Park wilderness, where threatened desert tortoises roam. The case is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Desert Protection Act missed a "big piece of the puzzle" by not including Eagle Mountain, Charpied said. She also is fighting energy development plans that would bring new roads and other changes.

"There are going to be places we've gone all our lives that we won't be able to, and it's not because it's protected, but because it's fenced," said Charpied, who also worries about air quality and industrialization from the projects.

Arkansas resident and retired Riverside firefighter Hallett Newman has a similar complaint about access, but it has to do with wilderness protections.

"They're closing down way too much desert," he said. "Few people have the opportunity to visit the interiors of wilderness areas because of their physical ability, when you have to hike and carry everything with you."

John Stewart, resource consultant for the California Association of 4WD Clubs, said some of his favorite spots are no longer accessible by road.

"I love getting out in the desert, driving the washes and the old roads to see where they go. You find beautiful vistas, places to have a campfire at night under the stars, places of solitude. These are places you can't really hike to."

Future protections

Environmentalists are hanging their hopes on new legislation by Feinstein, who also carried the 1994 bill.

Feinstein's latest piece, expected to be introduced within days, purportedly would create a national monument and protect public land in eastern San Bernardino County, south of the Mojave preserve.

The monument would encompass thousands of unspoiled acres of former railroad land stretching from Barstow to the Colorado River. The Wildlands Conservancy bought the land and turned it over to the BLM in 2004 for preservation. But the BLM has accepted applications for energy developments on much of that acreage.

David Myers, the Oak Glen-based conservancy's executive director, said Feinstein's bill would alleviate many impacts of renewable energy, which can consume massive amounts of water, scrape the land bare and disrupt wildlife corridors.

"If you look at the desert as a body, this will save a lot of the vital organs. It saves the heart of the desert," Myers said. "It's really important to think big and protect big landscapes."

His group supports wind and solar projects on private land already disturbed by farming or other activity.

So does Jim Dodson, one of the original Desert Protection Act proponents.

"There's enough land out there so we can have parks and monuments and wilderness and still have enough land left over for renewable energy generation," he said. "It just requires some reasoned analysis and forethought."