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New Desert National Monuments Will Help Protect California's Wildest Landscapes

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The Castle Peaks in Mojave National Preserve as seen from Castle Mountains National Monument | Photo: Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society

The White House has announced that three new National Monuments will be designated in the California Desert, covering almost two million acres of some of the wildest, most ecologically crucial landscapes remaining in the state. The monuments, which will be formally announced by President Obama on Friday, will fill in the blank spots in what is now a nearly unbroken chain of protected land stretching from the Southern California coast to the Colorado Plateau.

The monuments were originally proposed for protection in legislation written by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein, who has been trying to shepherd the monuments through a recalcitrant Congress since 2009, asked the White House to wield his power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the monuments if Congress wouldn't act.

The centerpiece of the designation, and of the Feinstein bill's many different versions, is the 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, which stretches along more than 100 miles of the historic Route 66 between Barstow and Needles. Mojave Trails provides a critical wildlife linkage between the Mojave National Preserve and the 29 Palms Marine Corps Base, and through that land to Joshua Tree National Park to the south.

In addition to Mojave Trails, the other new monuments are the approximately 154,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument, which stretches from the northwestern Coachella Valley to San Gorgonio Peak and the borders of Joshua Tree National Park, and the nearly 21,000-acre Castle Mountains National Monument, surrounded on three sides by the Mojave National Preserve and on the fourth by the Nevada State Line near Searchlight.

"We are extremely grateful to President Obama for his foresight and leadership to protect these remarkable and fragile places in the California desert," said Dan Smuts, Regional Director of the Wilderness Society, which was one of the groups supporting Feinstein's bill and the Antiquities Act designations. "These national monuments not only protect important natural and cultural resources, but will also bring more visitors to hike, camp, and explore - which is great for the local economy. Moreover, they protect critical migration corridors that are essential for desert wildlife to adapt to a changing climate."

Danielle Segura, Executive Director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, was quick to point out the benefits that will accrue to communities near the new National Monuments. "We at Mojave Desert Land Trust have been truly inspired and energized by the myriad voices joining in support of protecting and connecting these landscapes. Our community has a deep appreciation and connection to our public lands that knows no boundaries. Our nation's newest national monuments preserve uninterrupted landscapes, ecosystems and opportunities for future enjoyment, discovery and adaptation to a changing biosphere," Segura said.

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The Sand to Snow National Monument will connect Joshua Tree National Park, in foreground, with the San Gorgonio Wilderness, in background | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

The choice to pursue Antiquities Act designation for the monuments meant that some lands Feinstein's bill would have protected were left out today. Under the Antiquities Act, the President can designate National Monuments, but he or she cannot effect land transfers between agencies, nor does the Antiquities Act allow designation of other protected statuses such as Wild and Scenic Rivers or Wilderness designation. The original bill crafted in 2009 would have designated four new Wild and Scenic Rivers in the California desert, established wildernesses and wilderness study areas, and transferred almost a thousand acres of BLM land near Anza Borrego Desert State Park to the State Parks system.

The Feinstein bill would also have added around 65,000 acres to the three desert National Parks in California, and established an Alabama Hills National Scenic Area near Lone Pine.

More controversially among environmentalists, the bill would also have established a system of federally designated off-road vehicle recreation areas throughout the desert, a provision that kept the bill from being fully supported by a few organizations, the Sierra Club among them.

None of those non-monument designations proposed in Feinstein's bill will be reflected in the designation announced today, though the Senator's bill would have added what's now the Castle Mountains National Monument to the Mojave National Preserve. In that sense, Republican opposition to the bill may have ended up shooting one of the party's key desert constituencies in the foot, by making it far less likely that those off-road areas would ever be given formal Federal status.

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The Marble Mountains in Mojave Trails National Monument, with the Mojave Preserve's Granite Mountains in the distance | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

Born of the Renewable Land Rush

Much of the original impetus for today's designation can be found in the first weeks of the Obama administration, when a confluence of a Bush-era energy development law covering public lands and a new, more renewable-energy friendly White House spurred a renewable energy gold rush on the lands now designated as National Monuments. That's especially true for the sprawling Mojave Trails, much of which was acquired in earlier years by the Wildlands Conservancy and transferred to the Bureau of Land Management for conservation. When renewable energy development proposals started popping up on some of the lands the Wildlands Conservancy had bought, the group turned to Feinstein for help.

Feinstein was a logical choice: in her first term as Senator, she'd shepherded an earlier desert protection bill championed by retiring Senator Alan Cranston to passage as the Desert Protection Act of 1994. That bill established the Mojave National Preserve, and "upgraded" both Death Valley and Joshua Tree from National Monuments to National Parks. It also carved out the so-called "Castle Mountains Exclusion" from the Mojave Preserve, due to an active gold mine in the area. Much of that exclusion is now protected within the Castle Mountains National Monument.

In the first months of Feinstein's proposal to protect the so-called "Catellus lands" -- land the Wildlands Conservancy had acquired from a railroad holding company -- within what is now the Mojave Trails National Monument, renewable energy development fever was high, and the Senator took some heat by energy partisans who claimed her interest in protecting habitat was anti-environmentalist.

Energy development influenced the designation of the Sand to Snow National Monument as well. The lower elevations of that monument abut the San Gorgonio Pass wind development area, one of the most heavily enturbined places in the world. Locals had fought both the Green Path North transmission line proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which had been planned as a way to bring theoretically renewable electricity to Los Angeles from the desert. Before Los Angeles dropped the proposal, parts of Sand to Snow such as the spectacular wildlife habitat in Big Morongo Canyon were considered as potential rights of way for the power lines.

In subsequent years, wind developer Element Power proposed to build wind turbines atop two local mountains, Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa. Element withdrew from that proposal, but locals were spooked. Both Black Lava Butte and Flat Top were at first suggested for protection as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a BLM administrative designation. Today's designation includes the mountains as a northern unit of Sand to Snow National Monument.

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The Castle Mountains, with the mine in the foreground that led to their exclusion from the Mojave Preserve in 1994 | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

The Soul of the Desert

The Mojave Desert is one of the least-trammelled, least-exploited ecosystems left in North America. Even in the age of Google Earth and iNaturalist, it's largely unexplored by science.

But the planet is getting a lot smaller, and the Mojave is wedged uncomfortably between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It's no news to long-time readers here that the desert is under increasing threat, from ill-considered groundwater export schemes to once-rampant energy development to suburbanization.

I have spent a lot of time at KCET casting sidelong, critical glances at the Obama administration's acts in the Calfornia desert. It's unlikely that many will remember the disappointments 200 years from now, the flimsy wind turbines and fragile solar fields. Thursday's designation will thus likely form the centerpiece of Barack Obama's legacy in the Mojave Desert.

It's an important move, and it changes things around here. I see the Sand to Snow National Monument each morning when I open my kitchen door to toss my coffee filter into my worm composting bin. Mojave Trails is a short drive away by desert standards: a mere 45 minutes or so. In a community like Joshua Tree, increasingly dependent on tourism to keep its economy afloat, a few dozen extra visitors a day, or a few hundred, might mean local kids have a better chance of affording college.

And this designation helps that in two ways. One, by adding a couple more monuments to the area, so that people whose vacation plans center around checking parks and monuments off their life list will be more likely to visit. And two, by helping to forestall the ongoing conversion of so much desert to industrial use, which isn't the most effective draw for tourists seeking wild landscapes.

There's more to designation than attracting tourists, of course. 1.8 million acres of land in the California desert now bears greater protection, and that means the wildlife on those acres is far less likely to have its habitat destroyed for some short-term social gain.

"This is a historic moment for the Mojave Desert," said Dr. Jim Andre, Director of the University of California's Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. "Designation of these national monuments provides us with the opportunity to ensure permanent protection of critical habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals, including the iconic bighorn sheep and desert tortoise. At a time when our deserts face increasing threats from climate change and fragmentation from development, we must act now to protect sufficient habitat and ecological linkages vital for the long-term sustainability of native desert biodiversity."

The litany of places protected by these designations reads like a California Desert Rats top 10 list. The Mojave Trails National Monument protects Afton Canyon, one of just three places in the Mojave where the Mojave River runs aboveground year-round. It also includes the Amboy and Pisgah volcanic craters, the Bigelow Cholla Garden and the Trilobite Wilderness. Sand to Snow includes both the Whitewater and Big Morongo canyons, stunning gorges carved into the mountains above the San Andreas Fault that provide crucial wildlife migration corridors in a rapidly urbanizing part of the desert.

And Castle Mountains National Monument, which fills in most of that hole in the Mojave National Preserve left by the 1994 Desert Protection Act, is a botanical wonderland, with a startling diversity of desert shrubs above the westernmost extension of the Southern Great Plains grasslands. On a very recent visit to Castle Mountains, the National Parks Conservation Association's David Lamfrom -- who lobbied hard to get Castle Mountains included in the list of new National Monuments -- told me that few scientists had spent time cataloguing the Castle Mountains' biological and cultural resources.

And those resources are there in abundance. Castle Mountains lies in a narrow band along the west bank of the Colorado where Mojave yuccas from California overlap with banana yuccas from the Colorado Plateau, a hint at the botanical exchange that's taken place over the millennia in this corner of the desert. The Monument is likely to have abundant cultural resources as well.

"The Castles lie between the New York Mountains, which had abundant water and game, and Spirit Mountain, which was sacred to most of the Native people in the area," said Lamfrom. "So it makes sense that people would have found this range important."

Protecting these places in perpetuity is an act of wisdom, a caretaking that will be applauded by generations to come, both of desert residents and of those who come to visit. It's been a long time in coming, with a lot of toil involved along the way.

And I suspect David Lamfrom spoke for many of those who worked to make this designation happen when he told me "the sun will shine on the desert a little differently for me today."

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A view across the Castle Mountains NM to the Castle Peaks in the Mojave preserve | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET