Editorial: The government should expand protections for California’s deserts

(Los Angeles Times)

Anyone who has driven through the California deserts — especially those who have wandered away from the freeways — has experienced the subtle majesty of vast open spaces, of the arroyos that wind back to jagged steep-sided mountains and of the magnificent plants and wildlife that thrive despite the low water, intense heat and relentless sun. The world tends to think of California nature in terms of beaches and redwoods and mountains, Big Sur and the Sierra Nevada, but the deserts are also part of who we are.

There are two movements afoot that would help expand conservation protections in the deserts while also allowing for development of solar, wind and geothermal energy. Both deserve support.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has for years sought to expand federal protection to land that wasn’t included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which covered nearly 7.6 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national parks and created the Mojave National Preserve. But her more recent legislation to establish two new national monuments and expand the Mojave National Preserve has gained no traction in a Congress that has been slow, to put it charitably, to designate additional conservation lands and parks. So Feinstein and conservation groups are petitioning President Obama to use his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the monuments, and to expand the covered areas even beyond her legislative proposal.

The president should grant her request. Feinstein has asked for creation of a Mojave Trails National Monument, which would connect the Mojave National Preserve with Joshua Tree, adding protections to federal lands that encompass sweeping vistas as well as habitats for such species as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The monument would also include  the Cadiz Valley, which contains dunes and the remnants of training grounds used by Gen. George Patton’s armored divisions before they deployed during World War II, and culturally and wildlife-rich areas in the Sacramento Mountains. Feinstein also has asked Obama to create a Sand to Snow National Monument, which would include 135,000 acres between Joshua Tree and the San Bernardino Mountains as well as the Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa (holding 1,700 petroglyphs and several natural springs). And she wants the picturesque, habitat-heavy Castle Mountains, which were omitted from the 1994 Desert Protection Act because an active gold mine was located there, to be designated a national monument now that the mine has closed.

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