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Bill to Protect 1.6 Million Acres of California Desert Brought Back to Congress

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Castle Mountains in the Mojave Desert | Photo by David Lamfrom

Senator Dianne Feinstein today introduced a number of environmental bills that would conserve several areas around California. One would create the state's first National Heritage Area in the the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Another would restore San Francisco's estuary. A third would protect the Pacific coast from new offshore drilling. And for Southern California, she reintroduced the California Desert Protection Act, a sweeping bill that would conserve 1.6 million acres of land, including the creation of two new national monuments. At 941,000 acres, the Mojave Trails National Monument would surround a portion of historic route 66 and effectively create connectivity between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

The 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument would connect Joshua Tree National Park ("Sand...) to the San Bernardino Mountains (... to Snow"). If a hiker were to walk the monument end to end, they would go through seven distinct life zones.

The bill last year was introduced but never came up for a vote and timed out. Today's reintroduction maintains the lands provision, but does include the 2010 act's energy proposals, some of which have been already accomplished through other means, such as a government office that specifically deals with renewable energy in the California desert. Nonetheless, Feinstein plans on independently introducing more energy legislation because the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee prefers separate legislation when it comes to the two topics.

"We know that we must do more to advance renewable energy, but we must also be careful where we decide to permit these projects," said Feinstein. "I strongly believe that we should not permit the development of land that was donated to the federal government or acquired with taxpayer funds for conservation."

The 1.6 million acres of land is already owned by the federal government, but is not protected from renewable development. There are currently a number of controversial proposed fast-track solar projects on desert land owned by the government, but none will be affected by the bill.

Feinstein's Act would also designate five new wilderness areas, protect close to 76 miles of four waterways and add more acreage to Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

Castle Mountain, an area of 29,000 acres surrounded by the preserve and the Nevada border is one of those areas that would be protected. "It's the most lush and beautiful place," exclaimed David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association. He said that it's a rare high desert grassland where, if the legislation is approved, pronghorn antelope will be introduced. and if not, is eyed as a wind farm. "It's a place that highlights the rub between renewable energy and our most valuable land."

Overall, Lamfrom and his organization is supportive of the bill. "This is one of the last places," he said of the pristine territory. "As things disappear in other places, this only become more and more valuable."

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