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In Praise of California's New National Monuments

Amboy Crater in Mojave Trails National Monument
Amboy Crater in Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Bureau of Land Management

The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.

Recently, as part of my job, I toured the newly created Mojave Trails National Monument with some land management agency staff and several conservationists who had been instrumental in its creation. The trip led me to think deeply about the California desert, the work it took to protect this special place and the importance of preserving the 1906 Antiquities Act, which faces an increasing threat from elected officials and critics who seek to dismantle it.

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Descending from the summit of Sheephole Pass, we stopped at the National Chloride Company of America on Bristol Dry Lake, and learned firsthand from the plant manager that this was the only place in the United States producing the industrial and food grade salt that is used for oil and gas development, beer and cheese. 

Huffing and puffing behind my colleagues I hiked to the top of Cadiz Summit, where a panoramic view stretched westward along historic Route 66 and desert mountain ranges sprung up in every direction. That evening, we camped in an opening, ringed by ancient creosote bushes near the Cadiz Dunes, whose undulating, windswept sands guard mysteries, and reveal only footprints, kangaroo rat tracks and the lone, wandering darkling beetle.

Most people don’t understand the extensive community outreach that surrounds the designation of a monument. I can attest to the countless hours spent reaching out to communities — from Palm Springs to Victorville. My role in the campaign involved extensive outreach and education, speaking to artists, business owners, recreationists, chambers of commerce and local elected officials about the value of protecting public lands in desert communities like Victorville, Apple Valley, Palm Springs, La Quinta, Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree. 

My door to door forays with my large cardboard map, brochures and clipboard taught me that many desert business owners from Japanese restaurant managers to hotels to barber shops-understood the economic, recreational and ecological value of the proposed Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains National Monuments and the importance of the Antiquities Act.

In the California desert, President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect 1.8 million acres of federal land was really a capstone in recognizing the beauty, fragility and importance of our desert lands. It was used after nearly a decade of attempting to get Congressional approval for land protection with overwhelming, broad based support. 

California’s desert lands, over the past century, have been appreciated by some, but more often misunderstood and abused. Their vastness and remoteness has been a treasure to a few, while to others a convenient and unpopulated location to build nuclear waste dumps and giant landfills.  Most recently, a tsunami of renewable energy applications that overwhelmed both agencies and the conservation community, threatened some of the newly created desert monuments.

Back at the Cadiz Dunes, our party trudges up the crests and valleys of the sand formations, marveling at their smoothness and the amber evening light that illuminates every ridge and fold in the Old Woman Mountains to the east. Walking on the sand is not unlike walking atop crunching snow and the traction it provides makes walking even on a narrow, knife-like ridge easy for those afraid of heights.

We momentarily lose our way on the way back to camp, which proves to be the source of some good jokes later in the evening. Darkness falls, the mountains become a black velvet silhouette and we settle in to laugh, tell stories and discuss future adventures. Stars pop out, sprinkled across the sky and for just a moment the joking and talking stops almost as if we had come to the end of the first act in a play.

In the silence, I realize that the designation of Sand to Snow, Castle Mountains and Mojave Trails has been a gift to people who care deeply about these places and the California desert. During the next four years, the Antiquities Act will have to stand up to numerous attacks, but for now, camped beneath the stars beneath the Cadiz Dunes, President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act clearly seems a gift that will be remembered favorably by future generations.