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New Desert Bill is Fundamentally Flawed

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The Calumet and Iron mountains in the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Chris Clarke

Last week Congressman Paul Cook (R-CA) introduced the California Desert Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act (CMORCA), a.k.a. H.R. 3668, a bill which was supposed to be companion legislation for a desert protection bill long championed by Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Senator Feinstein's bill, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act (CDCRA), has been a ten-year collaborative effort between citizens with diverse desert interests such as wilderness, off-road vehicle recreation, rockhounding, and hunting.

Cook's CMORCA undermines the shared vision of desert land management embodied in Feinstein's legislation. His bill's numerous "poison pill" provisions would destabilize a coalition that has been working for a decade to protect the Mojave through the CDCRA.

 

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Particularly onerous are provisions that fundamentally undermine bedrock environmental legislation, and appear to be the product of the radical anti-government element on the House Natural Resources Committee. Among these include exemptions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act, waiving environmental review and biological surveys for specific projects on public lands in the desert. This is clearly unacceptable. It is not the job of Congress to dictate how federal agencies execute environmental laws, and such a precedent could have truly ominous implications for those who wish to see environmental protection regulations upheld.

Another serious problem with Congressman Cook's bill is his capitulation on the Cadiz Water Project. As recently as 2013, the Congressman expressed serious concern about the groundwater mining and export scheme, which would divert water from an aquifer that powers desert springs so that Orange County residents can fill swimming pools. In the 2014 campaign, however, he flip-flopped and voiced support for the project. His bill eliminates an important provision of Senator Feinstein's legislation, which would have forbidden exports of federally-owned groundwater.

Where CMORCA falls most short, however, is in its treatment of the vast and isolated landscape of the central Mojave Desert. Senator Feinstein has proposed designating the Mojave Trails National Monument in the area, encompassing the grand valleys and mountain ranges through which historic Route 66 crosses the desert. This is a biologically intact landscape, providing vital connectivity between the protected areas of Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Mojave Trails also has incredible historic value: from the traces of the Chemehuevi at desert springs to the route of westward emigrants along Route 66 to the largest military training grounds in human history, General George S. Patton's Desert Training Center. While the Senator has been pursuing this designation through legislation, she recently requested that President Obama consider designating the area as a National Monument using his authorities under the Antiquities Act.

CDCRA, as well as a national monument proclamation for Mojave Trails, would protect this area from new mining claims. Doing so would safeguard unique natural, scientific, and archaeological wonders, including sacred Native American trails and petroglyphs, newly discovered plant species, our continent's youngest volcano, trilobite fossil beds, and the longest undeveloped stretch of historic Route 66. A Mojave Trails national monument designation would protect these features and more for future generations, ensuring that the public can access these lands for outdoor recreation activities, and helping to contribute to our region's tourism economy.

Instead of providing permanent protection to these irreplaceable resources as a National Monument, Congressman Cook's bill would designate a Mojave Trails Special Management Area. This non-traditional designation provides no protection for the resources present, and may facilitate significant alteration of the landscape's rare beauty. Instead of the National Monument's prohibition of new mining claims, CMORCA would allow mining on some 100,000 acres in the Special Management Area. This more than double the amount of mines currently operating in the California Desert. The proposal is apparently intended to appease a knee-jerk philosophical reaction against any land use restrictions at all.

The CDCRA and Mojave Trails National Monument proposal have taken a balanced approach to land management that does not affect current mining operations, and honors valid existing claims. Boundaries were drawn to accommodate existing mining operations and language included in the bill that protects existing mining claims. Additional opportunities remain for future mineral development in the California desert outside of lands proposed for protection in lands proposed for protection as national monuments.

Congressman Cook's bill reads like a platform for the radical agenda of House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), who actually advocates for Western states to seize control of public lands from the federal government. By dismantling the bedrock environmental policies of this nation, and fundamentally altering the citizen-backed National Monument protections for Mojave Trails, CMORCA would set priorities for land management in the California Desert that are fundamentally out of step with the hopes and desires of desert residents and desert lovers from across the country.

By contrast, Senator Feinstein's legislation is an outstanding example of collaborative conservation, which would provide protection to millions of acres of desert while recognizing valid existing uses. Congressman Cook should reintroduce legislation which honors the collaborative effort which has gone into this bill for the past decade.

In the meantime, we have a unique opportunity. President Obama has the authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Mojave Trails as a National Monument without Congress. Senator Feinstein has asked him to make such a designation, along with two other areas called Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains proposed national monuments. Congress has proven that it is too dysfunctional to pass collaborative legislation, so the President should take what actions he has at his disposal to ensure the conservation of these unique and iconic places.

Congressman Cook's new legislation is wrong for our desert. It eschews the collaborative approach of CDCRA in favor of implementing a radical agenda. It disrespects the hundreds of stakeholders who have been involved in the development of a balanced approach to desert conservation, while creating new types of designations that have never been vetted with the public. In short, it's unacceptable. Congress has failed the Mojave Desert. It's time for the President to take matters into his own hands, and respond to the groundswell of support for conservation in the desert by designating Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains National Monuments.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and not necessarily shared by KCETLink.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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