By Carolyn Lochhead
San Francisco Chronicle
AMBOY, San Bernardino County — Drive mile upon mile through California’s Mojave Desert, and you still can see the unspoiled vistas of one of the largest intact ecosystems in the continental United States.
Along Route 66 stretch the same empty valleys and distant mountains that Oklahoma farmers escaping the Dust Bowl saw in their migration west. In the vast swathes of scrub land, scientists are finding new plant species at a rate rivaling that in the Amazon. Ancient creosote bushes, like one 11,700 years old that miraculously survived in an off-road vehicle playground, live here in soils scientists only now realize are one of the planet’s great carbon sinks.
Six years ago, these lands were on the verge of being bulldozed for industrial solar and wind installations amid an all-out drive by the Obama administration and national environmental organizations to boost renewable energy in the fight against climate change.
The only thing standing in the way was Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a small conservation group called the Wildlands Conservancy whose leader, David Myers, had the California Democrat’s ear.
Within days, President Obama is expected to invoke the Antiquities Act, at Feinstein’s request, to create three national monuments preserving 1,380,350 acres of these lands, including a long stretch of Route 66. Republicans oppose the designation as executive overreach; they have proposed the same three monuments, but would open the Route 66 area to mining.
The monuments would cement Feinstein’s legacy as one of California’s great conservationists by expanding protection around the 9.6 million acres included in her Desert Protection Act of 1994, the largest U.S. park designation in history outside Alaska. The 1994 law created three national parks at Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.
The Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand to Snow monuments advance a grand design sketched long ago by Myers and the late conservationist Eldon Hughes to protect an arc of desert land from the San Bernardino Mountains near Palm Springs to the Sierra Nevada. With the new monuments, Myers said, “we’ll be 75 percent there.”
The Mojave Trails designation would protect 105 miles of the most pristine extant section of Route 66 and link Joshua Tree National Park with the Mojave National Preserve.
“To industrialize it, to tear it up, to abuse it, to rape it, would be a travesty,” said Jim Conkle, a former Marine known as Mr. Route 66. “People see the Mojave Desert as this vast wasteland. I see it as an ocean without water. There’s so much there. If we don’t take care of it, it’s gone forever.”
Castle Mountains National Monument is a stunning high desert grassland that would complete the Mojave Preserve. Sand to Snow National Monument would preserve a key wildlife corridor from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the San Bernardino Mountains.
Like public lands throughout the West in the 19th century, the Mojave was fragmented into a checkerboard pattern by hundreds of 640-acre sections that Congress gave away to the railroads during the Civil War to promote westward expansion.
Soon after Feinstein’s first desert act passed, the real estate arm of the Santa Fe-Southern Pacific Railroad put up for sale desert properties outside the protected area. Dotted across what is now the proposed Mojave Trails monument, the parcels were “aimed,” Myers said, “like a shotgun at the heart of the Mojave.”
“Billboards went up all over the desert: for sale to development,” Myers said.
It was a threat, he said, to the open space between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve.
“Even today, you can pick up any newspaper and you’ll still see 40-acre parcels being sold in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Nevada,” Myers said. “Those are all former railroad lands that have been subdivided.”
To prevent development along Route 66, Myers formed the Wildlands Conservancy, funded mainly by a wealthy donor, and bought 1,000 square miles for $45 million in 1999. The group hauled out everything from abandoned bulldozers to old box springs, and gave the land back to the federal government.
The donated land also included private property within the national parks and more than 200,000 acres in wilderness areas designated by Congress. Feinstein secured $18 million in federal funds to complete the purchase.
Alternative energy push
President Bill Clinton committed to keep the land in conservation. But in accepting the largest private land gift in U.S. history, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which unlike the National Park Service keeps its land open to grazing, mining, off-road vehicles and other uses, refused deed restrictions.
Then came the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a Bush administration law that opened public lands to energy prospecting at rock-bottom lease terms. Four years later, Obama’s economic stimulus threw more than $50 billion at renewable energy. The combination set off a land rush in the Mojave.
“None of us saw that coming,” said April Sall, who worked for the conservancy at the time.
From global oil companies to fly-by-night speculators, solar and wind prospectors flocked to the desert, proposing development on 1.3 million acres, including the donated conservation lands. National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that in the battle against climate change, the Mojave could be sacrificed.
James Andre, a UC Riverside plant biologist who directs the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center at the Mojave National Preserve and has been leading species discoveries in the desert, rode with Feinstein and solar executives in 2009 when the senator toured Route 66 amid the land rush.
“It would have been one solid bulldozed field of mirrors,” Andre said. “The night sky there is unbelievable. There are no cities. There are no people. It’s just a functioning ecosystem today.”
Scientists have only recently learned that desert soils and plants, whose roots plunge deep into the earth, sequester vast amounts of carbon. “If you bulldoze the soil, you start to release carbon at a rate that offsets the gains of moving away from fossil fuel,” Andre said. “That’s pretty extraordinary, given that the sole reason used to justify the projects has been dealing with the climate crisis.”
Nearly everyone in the desert, from off-roaders to birdwatchers, say they support renewable energy, but insist it should go on rooftops and disturbed lands, not virgin desert.
Feinstein proposed the monuments and other areas for protection in legislation introduced in 2010. The threat of legislation thwarted many solar and wind projects, but others have proceeded.
Two towering volcanic buttes in Pipes Canyon near Yucca Valley, blanketed in Native American petroglyphs, were added to the proposed Sand to Snow protections last year after transmission lines and wind towers were proposed on top of them. The Bureau of Land Management leased the land to wind companies for testing at $1 an acre, said Frazier Haney, conservation director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
With her bill languishing in Congress, Feinstein asked Obama last fall to declare the monuments under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.
Executive action would not include all of the lands Feinstein sought for protection, including many of the park additions, wilderness areas, and a first-ever congressionally designated area for off-road vehicles.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Paul Cook, whose San Bernardino County district encompasses the area, introduced a competing bill last fall that would create the same three monuments. But Cook added several poison pills for environmentalists, opening nearly 100,000 acres to mining in the Mojave Trails and banning use of the Antiquities Act in the California desert.
Looking out recently over the Castle Mountains grasslands, transformed by El Niño rains into a glistening garden of cactus and Joshua trees, David Lamfrom sees an ideal place to reintroduce pronghorn antelope exterminated by hunting a century ago. Seven years ago, developers proposed solar farms on 8,000 acres of these grasslands.
“This place has been almost protected and almost destroyed a dozen times,” said Lamfrom, desert director for the National Parks and Conservation Association. “There is unanimous agreement that it deserves protection. If Congress can’t act, the president must.”
But off-road vehicle groups fear a presidential proclamation, saying it will kill prospects for Feinstein’s broader bill that protects their areas. Randy Banis, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, negotiated those safeguards over many years.
Sitting in remote Lucerne Valley’s Cafe 247, not far from the 11,700-year-old creosote bush, Banis said he uses the desert for “deep, dark, backcountry, lonely exploration,” not to bash it up driving in circles on big tires. Even hard-core environmentalists need roads to get to their hikes, he said.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a lifted up rock buggy or Nana’s Camry, when you take it on a dirt road, you are” an off-roader, Banis said.
Large mining companies are neutral on Feinstein’s bill. Banis said opposition comes down to a “couple of dozen” small-scale miners. Cook’s bill would open 96,500 non-specific acres for mining and potentially permit sand and gravel quarries just about anywhere in the Mojave Trails.
The California Desert District Mining Association, which represents the small prospectors, said in an e-mail the monument designations represent “armchair environmentalism” that discriminates “against man’s access and use of the land.”
San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood testified to Congress that mining is “one of our most significant economic drivers” and warned that aggregate mines could be closed in the Mojave Trails. But a study last year by the nonprofit Sonoran Institute in Arizona showed that mining has contributed “no more than 0.25 percent” of private-sector jobs in California’s seven desert counties.
Banis is urging Republicans to support the Feinstein bill. “We’re trying to make them understand,” he said, “that if they don’t make something happen in the legislation, they’re going to get an Obama monument shoved down their throats, and they’re not going to be happy.”
National monuments in the California desert proposed for designation by President Obama under the Antiquities Act are:
Mojave Trails: 1.2 million acres, including 105 miles along Route 66, to be managed by Bureau of Land Management, plus another 253,000 acres added in Bristol Dry Lake, Cadiz Valley and Sacramento Mountains.
Castle Mountains: 21,000 acres next to Mojave National Preserve to be managed by National Park Service.
Sand to Snow: 135,000 acres creating a low- to high-elevation corridor linking Joshua Tree National Park to the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The plan includes an additional 6,350 acres of Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa. It will be managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
Areas left out
The proclamation would omit many areas in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s legislation that can only be added by Congress.
National Park additions: Death Valley (39,000 acres), Mojave National Preserve (22,000 acres) and Joshua Tree (4,500 acres)
Off-Highway Recreation Areas (142,000 acres)
Wilderness designations (250,000 acres)
Wild and Scenic Rivers (77 miles), including Deep Creek and Whitewater River in the San Bernardino National Forest and the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley
Alabama Hills National Scenic Area (18,610 acres) near Mount Whitney in Inyo County