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Obama designates 3 new national monuments in California desert

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Feinstein cements legacy as one of state's great conservationists

Feb. 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act on Thursday to designate three new national monuments in the California desert, protecting 1.8 million acres of Mojave Desert lands, including the longest remaining undeveloped section of historic Route 66.

Among the largest continental monument designations in recent times, they nearly double the combined acreage of all of Obama’s previous monument designations. Obama acted at the direct request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and made the designations even larger than the 1,380,350 acres the California Democrat requested.

The Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand to Snow monuments protect key wildlife and scenic corridors in one of the largest intact ecosystems in the United States. They will provide buffers near the desert’s three big national parks: Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

The White House said the designations demonstrate “the administration’s strong commitment to aggressive action to protect the environment for future generations.”

Feinstein said she was “full of pride and joy knowing that future generations will be able to explore these national monuments and that the land will remain as pristine as it is today. To a city girl like me, this expanse of desert, with its ruggedness and unique beauty, is nothing short of awe inspiring.”

Sunset is seen at Castle Mountains David Lamfrom/National Parks Conservation Association

Decades-long effort

Feinstein’s push was part of her decades-long effort to expand protection of the Mojave Desert. By sheer acreage alone, the designations, combined with her 9.4 million-acre Desert Protection Act of 1994, ensure Feinstein’s legacy as one of California’s great conservationists.

Much of the land that became protected Thursday was under threat of massive solar and wind development in 2008 and 2009, instigated in part by Obama’s push to site renewable energy on public lands to tackle climate change. Fueled by roughly $50 billion in stimulus money, solar developments were proposed along the Route 66 corridor, a stunning vista of pristine desert lands that most travelers today view from Interstate 40 as they travel between Barstow and Needles (San Bernardino County).

New plant species

Long considered a scrub wasteland, the desert hosts huge numbers of plant species that scientists are now discovering at a rate rivaling the Amazon. They also are finding that undisturbed desert soils act as a significant carbon sink. Bulldozing those soils to make way for solar panels or wind towers releases the carbon, scientists say, erasing any advantage of locating renewable energy plants there.

The designations are “the pinnacle of a 15-year effort to preserve the heart of the Mojave Desert,” said David Myers, head of the Wildlands Conservancy, which bought 1,000 square miles of former railroad lands now in the Mojave Trails monument for $45 million in 1999, cleaned the property of a century of trash and gave it back to the federal government, only to see the government open the property for industrial development.

“We just have unqualified praise for Sen. Feinstein and President Obama for doing this,” Myers said.

Feinstein turned to Obama after failing for six years to move a broader desert conservation bill through Congress because of Republican opposition to restrictions on public lands.

At 1.6 million acres, Mojave Trails is the largest of the three monuments, protecting 105 miles of Route 66 and linking Joshua Tree National Park with the Mojave National Preserve. Castle Mountains is a high desert grassland with thriving Joshua tree forests that completes the Mojave Preserve. Sand to Snow preserves a critical elevation corridor from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the San Bernardino Mountains.

“All the work we’ve done has paid off,” said Jim Conkle, a former Marine known as Mr. Route 66. “We are able to save our desert and the areas designated as monuments forever, for posterity, for our children’s children. ... Of all the things I’ve done, it’s the one thing I can be proudest of.”

The Antiquities Act

The 110-year-old law Obama employed gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. President Herbert Hoover used the Antiquities Act to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933, and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.

Republican opponents of the monument designations are expected to condemn the action as executive overreach.

Nonetheless, GOP lawmakers, led by Rep. Paul Cook, the San Bernardino Republican who represents the affected district, has proposed legislation that would create the same three national monuments. The key difference is that Cook wanted to open the Mojave Trails to mining.

Randy Banis, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, worked for years on Feinstein’s bill, which also included congressional protections for off-road vehicles. Feinstein said she will continue to press her bill, but Banis said legislation may be dead now. If so, the additional Feinstein protections for off-road vehicle use — a necessity for many desert travelers — and additions to the national parks and new wilderness may fall by the wayside.

“I don't see a path forward with the crown jewel that held together the diverse parties being cherry picked out,” Banis said.

The Bureau of Land Management will now begin the arduous process of creating a new management plan for the monuments. An outdoor enthusiast who craves desert solitude, Banis said he worries that “when it’s time for me to go back to the desert to camp and recreate, there will be fewer places for me to go in my Land Rover because of roads being closed.”

But dozens of desert communities, as well as environmentalists, pushed for the monument protections. Feinstein’s first Desert Protection Act passed the Senate by a single vote in 1994, but eventually was widely embraced as tourism replaced mining and cattle grazing as the linchpin of the desert economy.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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