February 9, 2015

Bill would create two new Mojave Desert national monuments

Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduces legislation that aims to balance open space protections with off-highway vehicle use, energy development.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein re-introduced legislation Monday, Feb. 9, that would expand California desert protections by establishing two new national monuments in the Mojave, additional wilderness areas and permanent off-highway vehicle areas.

Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 amends the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that she also introduced. That earlier bill established the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve and protected more than 7.6 million acres of California desert wilderness.

“This piece of legislation is the final chapter in a long effort to preserve one of the most magnificent landscapes in the United States,” Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a written statement. “We must ensure that critical parts of the California desert – with its mountain vistas, bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert tortoises, Joshua trees, Native American petroglyphs and much more – will be protected for all time.”

This is the third introduction of the bill by Feinstein since 2009, after earlier attempts stagnated in Congress. Supporters of the bill said they aren’t sure it will pass the current Republican-led Congress but commended the legislator for collaborating with environmentalists, off-roaders, renewable energy developers, cattle ranchers, miners, utilities and the Department of Defense.

“I think they’ve done a really wonderful job of crafting a bill right up the middle. There’s something for everybody here,” said Randy Banis of Lancaster, a member of off-road groups and the Bureau of Land Management’s Desert Advisory Council.

The key piece of the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is creation of two national monuments that would connect critical wildlife corridors.

The Sand to Snow National Monument would encompass 135,000 acres, from the desert floor in the Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio. It would connect to the western edge of Joshua Tree National Park and include Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and San Gorgonio Wilderness, eventually linking to the Whitewater Preserve.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, an Oak Glen-based nonprofit group that purchases land and opens it to the public, said Sand to Snow would be the most diverse of all national monuments because it includes two distinct deserts as well as pinyon pine forests, oak woodlands and coastal chaparral.

The larger proposed monument, Mojave Trails, is slated for 965,000 acres between the Mojave National Preserve and Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base. It would include about 200,000 acres that once belonged to the Catellus Development Corp., a former arm of the Santa Fe railway.

The Wildlands Conservancy paid $45 million in private funds to buy more than half a million acres of the unspoiled Catellus lands in 2004.

It involved 160-acre parcels laid out like a checkerboard along either side of the railroad tracks from Barstow to the Colorado River, the result of a grant from the government in the 1800s to spur development.

The conservancy donated the land to the government for protection and public use.

Included in the Mojave Trails National Monument would be “phenomenal landforms,” Myers said, including the Amboy Crater, Pisgah lava flows, Cady Mountains and Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness.

Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Pipes Canyon, northwest of Yucca Valley, also are slated for protection under the bill. In 2011, environmentalists vigorously fought a proposed industrial-scale wind farm on the buttes, which contain rare plants and Native American artifacts.

The bill proposes adding 4,500 acres to Joshua Tree National Park, 22,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve and 39,000 acres to Death Valley National Park, and designates six new BLM wilderness areas covering 250,000 acres.

Feinstein’s bill also addresses other desert uses: off-road recreation and renewable energy development.

“With so many competing uses for this land, it is essential that we come together to build consensus,” she said.

The legislation designates five existing off-highway vehicle areas on 142,000 acres as permanent recreation areas. They include Dumont Dunes, El Mirage, Stoddard Valley, Rasor and Spangler Hills.

Banis, who worked with off-roaders to propose changes to an October draft of the bill, said 15 off-highway organizations supported it – up from just three letters of support from the industry for the last version of the bill.

Among the changes they proposed – and got in the final bill – were inclusion of Dumont Dunes to study possible expansions of El Mirage and Spangler Hills that eventually could complete some four-wheel-drive trails, he said.

The latest version also adds 80 miles of newly designated dirt roads that can be used by cars and off-road vehicles, he said.

Renewable energy development also was addressed in the bill.

None of the areas proposed for protection are included in the 150,000 acres previously identified by the Department of the Interior for potential solar development in the desert.

The bill encourages development in solar zones established by the federal government to avoid conflicts over conservation land.

It also allows for upgrades to transmission lines necessary to bring clean energy from new desert solar and wind farms to urban areas while still protecting pristine landscapes.