February 12, 2016

President designates 1.8 million acres of desert as national monuments

By Matthew Cabe
Desert Dispatch

Local reactions were mixed — if not negative — Friday in the wake of President Obama’s early-morning granting of national monument status to nearly 1.8 million acres of Southern California desert, including 1.6 million acres in the Mojave Desert.

Obama signed proclamations establishing the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains — both in the Mojave Desert — and Sand to Snow in the Sonoran Desert as national monuments. The designations will nearly double the amount of public land that Obama has designated as national monument status since taking office, according to the White House.

Obama utilized the federal Antiquities Act — adopted in 1906 — which grants the president the authority to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments, according to the Associated Press.

Amid the action, numerous conservation, Christian and veteran groups’ positive responses were in line with the Joshua-Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust, and Executive Director Danielle Segura called the support truly inspiring.

“Our community has a deep appreciation and connection to our public lands that knows no boundaries,” Segura said in a statement. “We value that our nation’s newest national monuments preserve uninterrupted landscapes, ecosystems and opportunities for future enjoyment, discovery and adaptation to a changing biosphere.”

Accolades for Obama were in short supply elsewhere, however, as Rep. Paul Cook — who introduced his “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act” last October — said Obama’s “unilateral designation” ignored the legislative process.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in a statement. “I’m opposed to the president creating national monuments through unilateral executive action … I’ve never found people in Washington to know better than residents of San Bernardino County when it comes to local land issues. This time, special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often.”

Cook’s comments were mirrored by 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who emphasized the importance of the legislative process Friday.

“This process exists to allow all of the affected stakeholders to have their voices heard and considered before impactful actions like the creation of these monuments become law,” Obernolte told the Daily Press. “Unfortunately they were not given that opportunity.”

Cook introduced his bill as an alternative to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s desert protections bill, and despite several similarities, Cook’s bill would have designated Mojave Trails as a special management area rather than a national monument.

That lower-rung designation was crucial to Cook because, unlike a national monument, special management areas allow for new mining operations.

Field representatives for Feinstein, D-CA, however, maintained at various council and legislative review meetings throughout the High Desert that national monument designations bolster tourism in areas with proximity to the monuments.

Addressing a crowd at Wildlands Conservancy's Whitewater Preserve last October, Feinstein said she would continue to push her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, according to a previous Daily Press report.

But amid that push for her bill, Feinstein also expressed a hope to have her proposed national monuments within the bill established by Obama through executive action.

That Feinstein’s hope became a reality Friday didn’t sit well with Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland.

“Once again the president has overstepped his authority and done something as a political favor,” Holland told the Daily Press. “It is ridiculous. It is despicable. Now all the work done by Cook — and Feinstein — is null and void. Now everybody loses because (Feinstein) didn’t get her way and took this route.”

By contrast, the White House focused its aim on preservation as local officials took issue with the bypassing of political processes.

"In addition to permanently protecting incredible natural resources, wildlife habitat and unique historic and cultural sites, and providing recreational opportunities for a burgeoning region, the monuments will support climate resiliency in the region," the White House said in a statement.

The designations also will connect those regions to other protected government land, including Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and 15 other federal wilderness areas, according to the Associated Press.

The Mojave Trails National Monument, at 1.6 million acres, is by far the largest of the three designated by Obama Friday. It contains ancient lava flows, sand dunes, ancient Native American trading routes and World War II-era training camps.

The monument also contains the largest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66, which led many local Mother Road advocates to champion Feinstein’s bill prior to Obama’s designation.