Joshua Tree National Park, Wednesday, October 29, 2014. (Jay Calderon)
The Desert Sun
Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, turning Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks, creating the Mojave National Preserve, and establishing more than 3.6 million acres of wilderness areas across the Mojave Desert.
On the anniversary of those sweeping changes, conservationists are rallying around a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to relaunch legislation that would further expand protected areas in the desert and create two new national monuments – one of them stretching from the desert oases of the Whitewater Preserve and Big Morongo Canyon to the alpine forests of the San Bernardino Mountains.
The Democratic senator introduced the original California Desert Protection Act, which was enacted on Oct. 31, 1994, and calls the law one of her proudest legislative accomplishments. Feinstein plans to join the 20-year anniversary celebrations speaking at a Nov. 6 event hosted by The Wildlands Conservancy at the Whitewater Preserve.
"The 1994 law was a great first step, but there is broad consensus that more needs to be done," Feinstein said in a statement ahead of her visit. "I plan to introduce an updated bill in the new Congress that will balance the needs of this land, protecting the most fragile regions, setting aside other land for recreation use and allowing the state and local communities to benefit from this bill."
The legislation, which is expected to be introduced in January, is an updated version of a bill that Feinstein has been promoting since 2009.
While the details have yet to be announced, the proposal centers on creating two new national monuments covering more than 1 million acres. It would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument, stretching from near Joshua Tree National Park to Mt. San Gorgonio, as well as the Mojave Trails National Monument, between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve, including a historic stretch of scenic Route 66.
That status would heighten the level of protection for vast areas of desert with a rich variety of plants and animals ranging from desert tortoises to bighorn sheep. The bill would also designate additional federal lands as protected wilderness and would designate four areas as recreational sites for off-road vehicles.
Those steps will ensure wildlife "corridors" and help keep ecosystems intact, said April Sall, conservation director of The Wildlands Conservancy.
"It's a pretty important ecological hotspot, and it's a great opportunity to highlight that and at the same time create a tourist attraction and provide great access points for the public to enter the wilderness," said Sall, whose organization administers the Whitewater Preserve and is supporting the creation of new wilderness areas.
The national monuments proposed by Feinstein would include areas that are also separately proposed for protection under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would divide 22.5 million acres of the desert into zones for solar and other energy projects, conservation lands, and recreation sites.
David Lamfrom, associate director of National Parks Conservation Association, said that by creating additional national monuments, Feinstein's bill would make an area that has already grown increasingly popular as a tourist destination even more attractive.
"As the world gets smaller, our wide open spaces and our starry skies become really what everybody else is looking for," Lamfrom said.
The lure of Joshua Tree for visitors has grown markedly since it became a national park and was expanded under the California Desert Protection Act. The numbers of visitors have grown from less than 1.2 million in 1994 to what is expected to be a record 1.5 million visitors this year.
Those hikers, climbers, campers and others have brought a growing economic boost to communities such as Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, where motels, restaurants, and gas stations depend largely on out-of-towners during the cool winter months.
"The protection of the desert land all around us is extremely important because visitors come to escape urban America," said Vickie Waite, executive director of the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, which is coordinating a series of events celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 law.
The anniversary events include hikes, speeches, receptions and the unveiling of a new mural in communities across the desert.
Those attending the anniversary events will include Pat Flanagan, a naturalist who leads nature walks at the Oasis of Mara.
"Something as monumental, congressionally monumental, as this should be celebrated, and every 10 years is a good time to do it," Flanagan said.
She praised Feinstein's work in backing the legislation 20 years ago, and recalled that those changes took years to win approval after an initial version was introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston in 1986.
"This is not easy work, and you have to have a long vision," Flanagan said.
The work of creating Joshua Tree National Park and the other desert wilderness areas goes back a century and has involved many contributors.
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt for years championed the creation of a national park before President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. By 1950, the size of the park had been reduced significantly to make room for mining of iron and gold.
During the past two decades, the national park has been expanding, though it remains significantly smaller than the original national monument created by FDR. That gradual expansion has been boosted by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit formed in 2005, which has bought 123 properties totaling 7,500 acres.
Danielle Segura, the organization's executive director, said the 1994 law guides its work and is "a hallmark for protecting open spaces for the public."
At the park headquarters, Superintendent David Smith has a series of maps on his wall showing how the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park have changed since 1936.
"This is the boundary that FDR created for the park, in his opinion, working with conservationists at the time," Smith said, standing beside the map. "He thought this was a realistic appraisal of what the park should be. I think we're trying to replicate that. We're looking at more, broader ecosystem management."
Smith said that includes working on ways to link the national parks and other protected areas to allow for migration corridors, and also working with other agencies to protect wilderness areas outside the park.
Those tasks take on even greater importance, he said, as the park plans for threats including global warming and fires fueled by invasive weeds – which scientists predict could lead to the disappearance of Joshua trees in much of the park by the end of the century.
"It's a bigger picture. It's more than just the boundaries around the park," Smith said. "Yeah, we've come a long way in preserving some of these desert places, but now we've got to look outside."