December 22, 2009

Legislation would set pair of national monuments

San Bernardino Sun

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Monday introduced legislation that would establish two new national monuments in the Mojave Desert and set aside nearly 1.5 million acres of public land for preservation.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2010, if passed, would create the Mojave Trails National Monument, which would protect about 941,000 acres, including 266,000 acres of former railroad easements, along historic Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles.

In addition, it would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument, which would encompass 134,000 acres of land from the desert floor in the Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio.

Feinstein's bill would help protect crucial wildlife corridors for the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep and shimmering desert landscape.

"Our desert parks are places of remarkable beauty, rich cultural history, and profound ecological importance," said Michael Cipra, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The bill builds off Feinstein's 1994 legislation that set aside 7 million acres of desert land and established Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve.

The new legislation would add nearly 74,000 acres of new land to the national parks and the national preserve. It would also designate as wilderness about 250,000 acres of public land near the Army's training center at Fort Irwin.

The bill also designates as permanent four off highway vehicle (OHV) areas. At the Johnson Valley OHV area near Twentynine Palms, the Marines have agreed to consider an option for base expansion that would allow for an exclusive military use area, an exclusive OHV area and a joint use area.

Dan Smuts, senior deputy regional director for the The Wilderness Society, said the sweeping legislation would protect an area nearly twice the size of Yosemite National Park, and would designate nearly 76 miles of waterways as wild and scenic rivers. They include the Deep Creek and Whitewater River near the San Bernardino National Forest and the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley National Park.

The second part of Feinstein's bill is geared toward the streamlining of the federal permitting process for renewable energy projects. It would, among other things, expedite the application process for solar development on private lands and require the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the military to complete environmental impact statements on their programs to develop renewable energy on the lands they oversee.

Shannon Eddy, spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based Large Scale Solar Association, said she had not yet reviewed Feinstein's proposed legislation and therefore could not comment.

James Conkle, founder of the Route 66 Alliance, said the bill will likely increase the amount of tourism on Route 66 from Needles to Barstow and breathe new life into sleepy desert pass-throughs like Amboy, Essex, Ludlow and Goffs. It could revitalize business and spur the re-opening of gas stations, motels and restaurants.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district spans most of the High Desert, is concerned about the economic impacts the two proposed national monuments can have on the mining industry in the desert.

He embraces the legislation in how it protects OHV areas and other types of recreation like rock collecting and horseback riding and how it aims to harness future renewable energy projects.

"If this legislation passes, it will be a significant step toward drawing the line where remaining development in the Mojave Desert can occur and where it can't," said Mitzelfelt. "I fear legislation like this may be necessary because of the influx of renewable energy plants."