California Desert Protection Act: The Sequel

Fifteen years after the California Desert Protection Act created Joshua Tree, Mojave, and Death Valley, there may be even more to celebrate.


By Scott Kirkwood


Look at a map of Mojave National Preserve, deep in the heart of the California desert, and you’ll see a huge notch carved out along the border of Nevada—like a slice of birthday cake removed before anyone was able to blow out the candles. That 29,000-acre plot of land was once home to an open-pit gold mine that was still active in 1994, when the preserve was created by the California Desert Protection Act. In fact, the development of the Castle Mountain Mine was one reason that desert activists pushed for that legislation, which set aside Joshua Tree and Death Valley as national parks and created the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve, forming the conservation backbone of the California desert. Fifteen years later, the Castle Mountain mine is closed, the land is healing, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is looking to add that missing puzzle piece to the preserve, effectively uniting the ecosystem. It’s one component of sweeping legislation that Sen. Feinstein has introduced to prepare the desert for the next century of recreation, conservation, and green-energy generation.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2010 was born out of recognition from Sen. Feinstein, NPCA, and other conservation leaders that land management in the desert has evolved dramatically in the last decade, and the future of these ecologically important landscapes must be plotted out consciously. The legislation would designate an additional 344,000 acres of wilderness, add 76 miles of wild and scenic rivers, expand Joshua Tree and Death Valley. It would also create two new BLM monuments: the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument along Route 66 and the 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument, which would connect Joshua Tree National Park to the San Bernardino Mountains, allowing wildlife to move across the landscape and gain access to year-round springs in the Big Morongo Preserve. When NPCA took Feinstein’s staff to that region and the Castle Mountains, they were quickly persuaded to include both areas in the legislation.  

“The Castle Mountains are a beautiful place—think Joshua tree forests, washes filled with willows, and rugged mountains where herds of desert bighorn sheep still roam,” says Mike Cipra, manager of NPCA’s California Desert program. “There’s a huge contrast between pristine land and disturbed land that’s been used for industrial purposes, and no place in the California desert shows it more starkly than the Castle Mountains. The area also reflects the history of mining and its impacts in America, and the Park Service is uniquely positioned to tell that story.” 

The mine’s footprint occupies only 700 acres of the 29,000 acres to be added to the preserve. Although scars of two open-pit mines will remain, along with a mound of rubble left over from the chemical process of leaching gold from rock, the mining company has worked to restore the land, as required by law—removing industrial facilities and planting Joshua trees and cactus. And there may be one more restoration yet to come, if the Park Service has any say. 

“This area has unique grasslands that you typically don’t find in the desert, so it’s an important area for us,” says Mojave Superintendent Dennis Schramm. “One of the things we’ve been focusing on is restoration of pronghorn antelope, which are native to the area. Our records indicate there was small population in Lanfair Valley last seen in the early 1900s. We’re talking with the fish and game departments in California, Nevada, and Arizona, and evaluating the habitat, because we think this grassland could be a really important part of bringing back a small herd that would spend nearly all of its time in the preserve.” 

There’s another national park that could see a significant restoration effort come to its completion if the legislation is passed. Surprise Canyon, which straddles Death Valley and BLM land just outside the park, would be designated a national wild and scenic river. In the 1990s, the canyon—part of a trail that leads to the historic mining town of Panamint City—became a playground for extreme off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who winched their vehicles up near-vertical waterfalls, spilling oil, antifreeze and other toxic substances into the area, chopping down cottonwoods, and endangering wildlife that depend on the year-round stream. In 2000, a coalition of environmental organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity successfully sued to stop the destructive practice, and in 2006 NPCA and the coalition intervened to keep crucial protections in place. Since then, the number of visitors to the area has multiplied five-fold, but now they’re all on foot. The watershed is continuing its remarkable recovery: Cottonwoods are sprouting up and orchids are blooming once again. If Surprise Canyon becomes a wild and scenic river, those protections would be made permanent. 

The legislation also designates specific areas for off-road vehicle use throughout the California Desert. Only one of the areas is anywhere near a national park, and all of them have seen off-road vehicles for many years, but there is some concern that Congress is setting a precedent by designating such areas with the passage of a law rather than using a deliberate process that engages stakeholders at many levels; the risk is even greater in states that have less progressive views toward conservation.

In an age when energy independence and green technology dominate the headlines, some have also expressed concern that the legislation is closing off huge swaths of the desert from solar power development. But the BLM is currently studying 351,000 acres of public land in the California desert for potential solar energy development—more than double what is needed to meet California’s renewable energy goals—and none of the lands in Sen. Feinstein’s proposal are within these BLM solar study areas. In fact, Senator Feinstein’s bill includes key provisions to encourage renewable energy projects on disturbed private land and unused military land. Building renewable energy projects on disturbed land closer to cities and towns minimizes the need for new transmission lines, protects desert wildlife like bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, and provides jobs for communities that need them. It’s clear that there’s enough land to go around—it’s just a matter of picking the sites wisely. 

“There are many places in the California desert where development and employment are essential and appropriate,” says Sen. Feinstein. “But there are also places that future generations will thank us for setting aside. This bill, if enacted, will have a positive and enduring impact on the landscape of the Southern California desert, and I hope it will stand as a model for how to balance renewable energy development and conservation.”

The bill could make its way to President Obama’s by the end of the year, but with Congress focused on the economy, health care, and war in the Middle East, it’s nearly impossible to predict when it will rise to the top of the agenda. If you’d like to voice your support or follow the legislation closely, subscribe to NPCA’s action alerts at www.npca.org/get-involved.  For more information, visit www.californiadesert.org, a coalition including NPCA and other local and national conservation groups working to protect the California Desert.

Scott Kirkwood is National Parks' Editor-in-Chief.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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