February 16, 2011

Act would set aside Mojave land

The bill states that there shall be no commercial development within the areas locked up.

Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association maps out a large section of desert wilderness that would be added to Joshua Tree National Park if the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 is passed into law. (Rebecca Unger, Hi-Desert Star)

By Rebecca Unger
Hi-Desert Star

MOJAVE DESERT — As the region celebrates the 75th anniversary of Joshua Tree National Monument this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is introducing federal legislation to designate additional areas of the Mojave Desert for recreation and environmental conservation.

Seth Shteir, the California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the passage of the 2011 California Desert Protection Act.

“This is really visionary legislation, in that it protects the heart of the California desert and its critical wildlife corridors,” the conservation professional said.

“We now know that living things are interconnected, but the boundaries of our national parks have political boundaries, not ecological or geographic,” Shteir said.

“To protect what’s living in the parks, we must maintain critical wildlife corridors so they can seek food, water, shelter and mates. This is particularly true as our climate gets warmer, and studies show that the American Southwest is a climate change hot spot.”

The proposed legislation calls for the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study on the effect of climate change on the lands covered by the Protection Act.

The 2011 legislation also protects desert wildlands from large renewable-energy developments.

“The bill states that there shall be no commercial development within the areas covered by the CDPA,” Shteir explained.

In addition to adding lands to the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and the Mojave National Preserve, the act would set aside nearly 76 miles of rivers, 250,000 acres of wilderness, 941,000 acres of the Mojave Trails National Monument east of Ludlow and 134,000 acres of Sand to Snow National Monument, which would include the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

The 2011 CDPA also permanently designates five areas in the Mojave Desert for off-highway vehicle fun.

Shteir sees the CDPA’s protection of critical wilderness areas coupled with set-aside regions for sport riding as win-win.

“The desert is an economic engine for the region,” he said. “The report ‘Economic Oasis’ says that in 2003, outdoor recreational users spent $230 million visiting the Mojave region. In 2007, the Michigan State University money-generation model for national parks reported that visitors to Joshua Tree National Park spent $32 million, and supported over 500 jobs in the area. So, the CDPA is not only good for our plants, wildlife and our recreation, but it’s good for the health of our economy.”

Preserve would be part of monument

The riverbank habitat of the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in Morongo Valley is one of the areas that would be get additional protection in Feinstein’s act.

The preserve links wildlife corridors between Joshua Tree National Park and the high country of the San Bernardino Mountains.

“The park’s bighorn sheep rely on the preserves as a year-round water source,” Shteir pointed out. “I was recently hiking in a remote area of the preserve and saw three bighorn sheep, and one of them was very pregnant. After the heavy rains in December I saw bear tracks in the muddy earth along a creek.”

The preserve also is a world-renowned birding destination. A total of 235 species have been recorded here, with 70 nesting species.

Before the Green Path North energy project was scrapped, high-voltage transmission towers would have been placed in the preserve. The passage of the 2011 CDPA would add another layer of protection for the preserve by making it part of the Sand to Snow National Monument.

“We are sandwiched between the two burgeoning metropolitan areas of Las Vegas and Los Angeles,” Shteir noted. “As their development increases, the desert will become increasingly squeezed. When we protect the desert’s special places, we protect our natural history, our ecology and our recreational opportunities for future generations.”

Shteir also wanted to clear up a misconception that has fueled rumors of a “land grab” by environmental extremists.

“The lands protected by the California Desert Protection Act are federal lands,” he said. “There is no private property in this legislation.”