The struggle to gain protection for critical land and water resources, wildlife, Native American cultural sites and spectacular landscapes within the California desert has gone on for more than a decade. With support from a wide group of constituents, including off-roaders, businesspeople, faith leaders, conservationists and veterans, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has developed strong, balanced legislation—but Congress has been either unwilling or unable to act.
Her latest proposal, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, hasn’t even been scheduled for a committee hearing, and no bill was introduced in the House. So, the senator pushed forward to safeguard our precious public lands by asking the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare three new desert national monuments—Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.
The responses from editorial boards at The Desert Sun, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and the Orange County Register were disappointing and perplexing. While editors acknowledged the need for protection of the California desert, they chose to advance arguments defying all logic. The Desert Sun applauded Feinstein’s conservation efforts and even said the proposed national monuments “would be great additions to the nation’s protected lands”—but then slammed the senator for turning to the Antiquities Act to accomplish this goal. Instead,Desert Sun editors argued that we should return to a dysfunctional Congress that is intent on blocking any public-lands legislation, no matter how broad and diverse its support in local communities.
In an editorial published by both The Press Enterprise and Orange County Register, Feinstein was accused of being eager to “cede congressional powers” to the executive branch because of her request that the president take action. That argument is certainly hard to swallow, given the senator has spent nearly 10 years trying to push desert-conservation legislation through Congress. The same editorial gave Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a soapbox to spout misinformation about both the Antiquities Act and the nature of national monuments. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, McClintock has consistently blocked conservation efforts. He proposes that Feinstein and the president would be conspiring “to declare vast tracts of land off-use” if they proceed with the designation of the new national monuments. McClintock claims they would benefit an “elite few granted restricted use.” In reality, it would be mining, solar and wind projects that would restrict access to an “elite few,” while creating these monuments would benefit the greatest number of people by ensuring recreational access for equestrians, hikers, hunters, rock-hounders and off-roaders on designated routes.
Use of the Antiquities Act—which grants the president the authority to declare national monuments on lands controlled or owned by the federal government—has been used almost equally by Democrats and Republicans alike. One need look no further than Joshua Tree or Death Valley to see the success of national monuments in providing protection for natural resources and conserving sites with cultural, historic and scientific value, as the act prescribes. Both places were initially established as national monuments, the former by Republican Herbert Hoover, and the latter by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their elevation to national parks by Congress through the California Desert Protection Act only increased their value to the community.
The proposed Mojave Trails National Monument would connect Joshua Tree National Park to the Mojave National Preserve and protect significant wildlife corridors. This region includes the longest intact stretch of historic Route 66 and the best-preserved encampment from World War II’s desert training center, Iron Mountain. Important Native American trading routes and sacred trails crisscross the landscape.
Castle Mountains contains 36 species of rare plants, including some of the finest native desert grasslands in the entire California Desert. This is home to healthy populations of golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats. It’s also a target location for reintroduction of pronghorn, the world’s second-fastest terrestrial mammal. Beneath the shadow of Hart Peak are rich Native American archaeological sites and the historic gold mining ghost town of Hart.
For many Coachella Valley residents, the dramatic landscape of the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument is an everyday sight, including Southern California’s highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio, and its longest river, the Santa Ana. This area includes alpine peaks, forests, Joshua tree woodlands and two of California’s three deserts, the Colorado and the Mojave. Its mountains are the most botanically diverse in the contiguous United States. This is critical habitat for migrating birds, black bears and bighorn sheep, and it contains culturally significant Native American sites. For the 18 million people who live within a two-hour drive of this proposed monument, there are great opportunities to get outside and enjoy wide-open spaces.
We are fortunate here in the Coachella Valley to be surrounded by the wild beauty of the desert. It is the reason many of us came to live, raise families, start businesses and retire here. With public lands close by, both residents and visitors have the opportunity to connect with nature. I count myself among them. I have enjoyed exploring these natural areas as an avid hiker and camper, and I’ve visited remote sites accessible only by four-wheel drive. Protecting these landscapes preserves the quality of life that we enjoy. That’s why so many Coachella Valley businesses and organizations support the establishment of these monuments—using either legislation or presidential proclamation. This includes my own organization, Great Outdoors Palm Springs (GOPS), an all-volunteer group that educates, promotes and conducts camping and hiking activities for the Coachella Valley’s growing LGBTQ community.
While we remain committed to passing Sen. Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, we recognize the opportunity to protect some of the lands contained in that legislation now. So we also call on the president to designate three new desert national monuments, to ensure that the pristine public lands all around us remain for generations to come.
Scott Connelly is the vice president for outings of Great Outdoors Palm Springs.