Almost five years ago, environmental activist and Palm Springs resident Jane Garrison learned that Oswit Canyon was under imminent threat—because developers were looking to build a housing community there. Such development could potentially impact several endangered species that lived on the property and would certainly infringe on the public enjoyment of popular local hiking trails.
“One of the first phone calls I made was to the owners (of the property),” Garrison recalled during a recent interview. “I sat down with them and asked, ‘How can we have you not develop there?’ They said, ‘Find us $7 million.’ At that time, I thought there was no way we could accomplish that. I didn’t know how to find funding for conservation purchases. But now it’s like I went to college for land development over the last four years.”
What transpired was the establishment of the Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., organization with Garrison at its helm—and after years of determined efforts and fundraising success, on Nov. 2, Garrison and her volunteers celebrated the closing of the Oswit Canyon land purchase, which guarantees that the property will remain a natural preserve in perpetuity.
But well before the ink dried on those closing documents, Garrison and her team were evolving into a new nonprofit entity named the Oswit Land Trust—with plans to expand the organization’s efforts beyond Oswit Canyon: OLT is in negotiations to purchase three golf-course properties within Palm Springs, and then re-purpose the land to create the Mesquite Desert Preserve.
“Four different golf courses make up the Mesquite Desert Preserve, which is what we want to create,” Garrison said. “The two city golf courses are at the Tahquitz (Creek Golf Resort), and then there are (the individual courses at) Bel Air Greens and the Mesquite Golf and Country Club.
“It’s interesting: We originally thought (that the property acquisitions) would be Bel Air Greens first, Mesquite second and the Tahquitz courses third, but now it’s reversed. Currently, we’re doing an appraisal on the city golf courses, which should be done in the next month or so. Then we’ll know what the fair market value is. Hopefully, the city will let us go forward to acquire them, and we can do a desert restoration and have that land be open to the public—and not just golfers.”
The “About Us” page on the Mesquite Desert Preserve website declares that “golf is a dying sport.” While that statement may be overly dramatic, many golf courses around the country have closed in recent years. In 2018, according to the National Golf Foundation, there were almost 200 golf-course and facility closures in the U.S., although those losses were offset somewhat by the opening of 12 new courses and the re-opening of 79 newly renovated courses. In any case, Garrison plans to create opportunities for interested residents, including golf enthusiasts, to offer input or criticism of her land-use vision at a series of public-outreach sessions to come.
“When we launched this vision, the support for it was overwhelming,” Garrison said. “We quickly had almost 2,000 people go to our website and our Facebook page in support. From the very beginning, I’ve always said that if this is not what the community wants, then I have no desire to push this forward.
“But the reality is that this (debate) is not about a desert preserve versus golf. This is about land that could be developed, and currently is for sale for development. So, the question really is: What do you prefer, a desert preserve or a development? All of this land can be developed. We have to be realistic about that. While I would hope that our current (Palm Springs) City Council would not vote in favor of having a change in the general-plan designation to allow for developments on these golf courses, who’s to say that the next City Council wouldn’t support it? And when you take into consideration the fact that the city is losing a minimum of $1 million per year on their golf courses, it’s only a matter of time before a City Council decides to cut their losses and sell the land for development. That would be a tremendous loss for the community.”
Garrison said it’s quite possible that only two of the three course owners will sell their properties to the land trust, and the result could be a hybrid golf course-desert preserve reality.
“There’s a very good chance that we will have a golf course (included in the preserve parcel), because the owner of the Mesquite Country Club is not budging,” Garrison said. “So we may have a golf course there for a long time. He wants more than the fair market value that it was appraised for, and he feels he’ll wait until something changes. But we would definitely move ahead for sure.”
Moving ahead seems logical, given the valuable strategic partnerships that the Oswit Land Trust has already formed.
“We have an opportunity (to work again) with the Trust for Public Land on this project, and that is phenomenal,” Garrison said.
According to the Trust for Public Land website, the organization “creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come.” The nonprofit was instrumental in helping the Save Oswit Canyon team raise the necessary $7 million-plus for the canyon land purchase.
“You know, the TPL are contacted (to support) thousands of projects around the country, and they only select a few that they’re willing to get involved with,” Garrison said. “So since we have the TPL willing to help us get the funding to purchase (the courses), it would be such a loss to not move forward on it.”
Garrison said students and faculty members at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert campus may also play a role in the project.
“We’ve already had several Zoom conference calls with some of their professors and Ph.D. students,” Garrison said. “They are incredibly excited about this project. There are botanists, biologists, master gardeners and California naturalists who all want to be part of it. We’re planning a Zoom event after the first of the year that will bring everybody together to start talking about how the project would go forward, once we start acquiring the different land parcels. So I’m really excited about this partnership, because we (at OLT) have the vision, and we know what we want to achieve, and UCR-Palm Desert has the expertise, the knowledge, the staff and the volunteers to make it happen.
“We’re also working on re-charging the Mesquite Creek. One of our board members is an engineer who used to be with NASA, and he’d read that there were creeks in Arizona that used to flow year-round, and no longer do—but they got these creeks flowing again by utilizing reclaimed water. So he did a study on where the end of flow is for the Mesquite Creek every day, and what time of year it stops flowing. Now we’ve had some calls with the Desert Water Agency, since they need a place to put their reclaimed water. So this could be a win-win opportunity. The biologists at UCR-Palm Desert are very excited about this possibility, too, because the ability to have a creek flowing year-round opens up aquatic plant (cultivation) and riparian areas that would support a lot of wildlife. Palm Springs is a ‘fly-away’ zone for migratory birds, and that’s why right now, you can see white pelicans, coots, egrets and mallards hanging out on the golf course. It’s pretty amazing.”
The OLT doesn’t plan on ending its preservation efforts with the golf courses, Garrison said.
“We are looking at other projects right now, and are evaluating different areas in the Coachella Valley.” Garrison said. “One 29-acre parcel adjacent to the Lykken Trail in Palm Springs is under threat of development. Also, we’re looking at land above the Vons shopping center in Palm Springs. There are 1,800 privately owned acres up there and years ago there was a plan to develop that entire hillside.
“So, we’re constantly evaluating opportunities. There are properties that are homes to sheep, burrowing owls or desert tortoises and other wildlife that have no protection and are threatened with development. They’re just so pristine and haven’t been touched, so we’re looking at which ones we could go after. We’re creating a plan for the next couple of years and developing goals regarding how many acres we want to save per year. So, OLT is definitely going to be a force in this area.”
Garrison said her organization’s efforts are needed in a valley that lacks a clear, comprehensive vision for land use, between the nine cities and a mélange of various other bureaucracies.
“I think that we have to have a better master plan in our area,” Garrison said, “and not just see one project and approve it, and then see another project and approve that, too. It’s death by hundreds of cuts into our desert. We need to look at it from a big-picture perspective and decide where we will allow development, and where we will not. The Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan did a really great job of that, but then you have someone like Paul Lin (of GLC Enterprises) wanting to develop a 5,000-acre city (called Paradise Valley) on land that is designated for conservation, and the (Riverside County) Board of Supervisors considers it. We have to realize that our communities need to be very strict and not even accept any applications (to build developments on land designated for conservation). You know, we may all be in different cities, but we’re all in this together.”
For more information on the proposed Mesquite Desert Preserve, visit www.mesquitedesertpreserve.org.