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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Last month, California’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts, along with the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains, became home to three new national monuments—Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow—thanks to President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.

Together, these new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of desert and mountains. These new monuments will help preserve the ecological integrity of a region under tremendous pressure from two of the country’s fastest-growing urban regions, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By connecting existing protected areas, plants and animals will have a better chance to move to cooler and wetter climates as our deserts become hotter and drier due to climate change. These new monuments will help to ensure that California’s magnificent deserts and neighboring mountains are healthy and whole for years to come.

The monuments also protect a region that’s brimming with stories of the diverse people who’ve made their homes here.

Castle Mountains provides an important buffer between an old gold mining site and the Mojave National Preserve. Prospectors first flocked to the Castles in 1908. The boomtown of Hart grew from nothing to 1,500 people in just a few months. Today, the site is barely perceptible: One can find just a chimney, tin cans and memories. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1973, the busy roadside services of US Highway 66 in Mojave Trails disappeared overnight. Proprietors simply walked away from their cafes, service stations and motels. Now these remnants of history are slowly turning to dust, even as this lonely stretch of the “Mother Road” attracts tourists from all over the world. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Sand to Snow host village sites that are thousands of years old. Numerous petroglyphs, pictographs and grinding stones found there offer a glimpse into the life of Native Americans before contact with the Spanish.

However, the creation of these new national monuments is just the beginning. As communities across the desert rightfully celebrate the designation of these monuments, the exciting work of making them more than lines on a map begins. Local elected officials, business leaders, tribes, recreational interests, conservation organizations and others should join together to ensure that adjacent communities such as Barstow, Needles, Morongo Valley and Desert Hot Springs, along with tribes such as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Fort Mojave tribe, receive the full economic, educational and recreational benefits of the newly protected public lands.

Advocates for the new monuments have long highlighted the economic benefits that conservation would provide, and there are numerous studies to support this. However, without proper signage, well-marked trail-heads, adequate parking areas, strategically located front-country campgrounds and good maps, it will be difficult to attract visitors. To realize true economic benefits, it will take infrastructure improvements, marketing and personnel. There must be a significant financial investment, through a public-private partnership.

The Bureau of Land Management, in particular, is going to need an official partner to raise funds for things like the construction of visitor centers, campgrounds, wayside exhibits and signs, as well as the less-exciting, but no-less-important expenses, including operating costs and funding for education and interpretive programs. This new partner organization could work with groups that have existing relationships with the BLM and the Forest Service, like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy, in three areas: education, stewardship and recreation. Local schoolchildren need educational resources, and there should be interpretive programs for visitors and locals alike. Stewardship programs can connect people to their public lands, help to build and maintain infrastructure, restore damaged ecosystems, and advance knowledge through citizen-science projects. Finally, we must ensure that the multiple recreational activities permitted in these monuments are carried out responsibly, without damage to natural habitat and in respect of the sacred sites of local tribes, through programs that teach and promote responsible use of our shared natural resources.

Diversity is increasing in the desert, just as it is across the nation, but California’s deserts have always been diverse. Of course, Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Even in small, isolated railroad and mining towns, residents came from remarkably diverse backgrounds. For example, during Amboy’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, along Route 66 in Mojave Trails, a Greek and a Chinese immigrant each owned and operated a café, motel, gas station and garage. Hopi and Navajo railroad workers lived in town and maintained the line. Mexican Americans made up the majority of students in the Amboy School. (To learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert’s mining and railroad communities check out Joe de Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun.)

Ensuring that we draw Southern California’s kaleidoscope of races and cultures to enjoy these new monuments is no simple task. It will require having a workforce that reflects diversity, and the creation of an environment for visitors where cultural differences are honored and embraced. To get there, we’ll need conservation leaders who reflect our diverse communities. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of training programs that draw participants from diverse and often underserved communities throughout the Southland. One example is the San Gabriel Mountains Forever’s Leadership Academy, a rigorous program that’s training a new generation of conservation advocates who better reflect the makeup of our nation.

If we want visitors to these new monuments to be as diverse as the communities near them, we have to roll out a multicultural welcome mat. We will have to address issues of access. There must be adequate and affordable transportation and a welcoming environment, including bilingual interpreters, campgrounds that can handle multi-generational visitors, bilingual signage and information, and gender-neutral restrooms to serve both families and the transgender community. Partnering with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures and the Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, both of whom are already working in the Coachella Valley, could help break down barriers, economic and cultural, to greater visitation by people of color.

The secretary of the interior, whose department includes the BLM and National Park Service, agrees. Secretary Sally Jewell recently signed an order in honor of the memory of Doug Walker (a long-serving member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council) that will increase access to public lands by youth and young adults who are “disadvantaged and under-resourced.”

Finally, it all has to start by reaching out to diverse communities to ensure that there is maximum participation in the creation of the general management plans that will guide the three new national monuments. We also must include diverse user-groups: Equestrians, off-highway-vehicle users, hunters and conservationists all have interests that must be addressed. Sooner rather than later, listening sessions should be organized throughout the desert and mountain area—something both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have expressed their determination to do.

All of this will take years to accomplish. However, I’m hopeful that when the first anniversary of these new monuments is marked in February 2017, all stakeholders will see that significant progress has been made. I’m also sure the future of these monuments will be inclusive, reflecting the very best tendencies of Southern California and the nation.

Mati Jatovsky is the California desert representative for The Wilderness Society and a former park ranger interpreter. He lives in Joshua Tree. 

Published in Community Voices

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.

Published in Community Voices

When a racist rancher in Nevada and his armed supporters can command headlines by claiming to own and control publicly owned lands, perhaps it’s time to remind Westerners about the history of the nation’s public-land heritage.

Recall that it is we, the American people, who own the public lands that make up so much of our Western states. These great open spaces are the birthright of all of us, not just the residents of Nevada or California or other Western states. The question of ownership of the public lands was settled by the founding fathers, in favor of you and me, by the Maryland compromise reached in 1781, and carried forward in the property clause of Article IV in the United States Constitution.

On occasion, diehard malcontents such as Cliven Bundy emerge to promote so-called "Sagebrush Rebellions" to turn the public lands over to the states as a conduit for handing them out to resource raiders and private interests. Governors and state legislatures, most recently in Utah, are sometimes drawn into endorsing these movements, only to see them fade away in the face of public opinion.

While this latest fracas is fresh in our minds, let me speak up for the employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who have been demonized by Fox News' Sean Hannity and threatened by rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers. BLM staffers are dedicated public servants who struggle with the unenviable task of juggling the conflicting demands of ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, sportsmen and conservationists. They deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation. We can do that by calling on President Barack Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands.

He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments. Some may counsel caution in light of the recent House passage of a bill by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the law. However, the best way to protect and preserve the Antiquities Act is to use it visibly and vigorously, thereby demonstrating once again the broad public support it has enjoyed for more than 100 years.

The president could start with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to protect a million acres in the Mojave Desert of California—including land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Or he could take up Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud’s bill to protect the scores of small islands that host seabird colonies off the coast of Maine. The president can use his authority under the Antiquities Act to take these bills and their establishing language and designate the lands in questions as new national monuments.

President Obama could also review the list of our existing national parks and monuments, many of which are in need of expansion because these areas are threatened by encroaching strip mining, drilling or other incompatible development. He could start out in the majestic expanses of Southern Utah, where Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks all need additional lands to protect their archaeological sites and unique geological formations.

And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the West as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon.

The president also has the authority to add lands to our National Wildlife Refuge System. There is an urgent need to create a system of refuges to protect the endangered greater sage grouse that inhabits the sagebrush seas that stretch across public lands in seven Western states.

In addition, the Antiquities Act could be used to protect fisheries and endangered coral system in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off Western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries, the passage through which millions of salmon migrate to spawn throughout the river systems of Alaska. The little-known deep-water corals adjoining the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea also deserve enhanced protection.

There is much to be done, and President Obama should not wait until the 11th hour to act. He should start now by advancing proposals, explaining the urgency of conservation, generating the visibility of the issues at stake and asking all Americans to voice their opinions. He should invite Congress to take legislative action, making it clear that he will act if it doesn’t.

A robust conservation program, following in the tradition begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, will be an enduring accomplishment for President Obama, a gift to future generations from his time in office.

Bruce Babbitt, an Interior Department secretary under President Bill Clinton, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated service of High Country News. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is working on conservation planning in the Amazon River Basin as a fellow of the Blue Moon Fund.

Published in Community Voices