Policy Update Dec 9, 2015

Testimony: H.R. 3668 California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act

Statement of David Lamfrom submitted for the record for the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing on December 9, 2015.

Chairman McClintock, Ranking Member Tsongas and members of the subcommittee, I am David Lamfrom, Director of California Desert and Wildlife Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). On behalf of our more than one million members and supporters across the country, I thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony in regard to our organization’s perspective on H.R. 3668, Representative Cook’s California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act. Founded in 1919, NPCA is the leading independent voice supporting, promoting, protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations.

The California desert is world renowned for its vast and scenic landscapes.1 It is home to three of the nation’s most iconic national park sites (Death Valley, Mojave, and Joshua Tree) and many famous BLM Wilderness areas; it frames the sheer vertical prominence of the Eastern Sierra; and is home to a spectacular diversity of natural and geologic features. These include sand dunes, natural limestone cave systems, lava flows and lava tubes, rugged desert mountains, forests of Joshua trees and yucca, cactus gardens, multi-colored mountains, wild and scenic rivers, and even stone arches and hoodoos. This richness has long drawn residents from urban areas to the California desert, and increasingly, visitors from around the world are traveling here to enjoy our open spaces, welcoming communities, and spectacular natural resources. A recent Sonoran Institute report estimated that the California desert hosted as many as seven million visits to its public lands this year. Joshua Tree National Park has reported that they expect over two million visitors this year, up from 1.6 million in 2014. Visitation to public lands is a significant economic engine in the California desert.

Like S. 414, Senator Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, the provisions represented in H.R. 3668 would build on this existing momentum for desert conservation, as heightened designations would certainly attract more economic activity. However, NPCA feels that the California desert would benefit if H.R. 3668 broadened its proposed positive impact by adopting language from S. 414 to create Mojave Trails National Monument rather than a Special Management Area, and by expanding the Castle Mountains addition to Mojave National Preserve to include more of the region’s spectacular Joshua Tree forests.

H.R. 3668 is a comprehensive land use policy bill that proposes new laws governing the management of important public lands across the California desert and Eastern Sierra, including broad and diverse geography from Riverside County to Mono County. The legislation is built on the fundamental framework of Senator Feinstein’s S. 414 and there are many similarities between the two bills; however, in a few instances, H.R. 3668 removes specific provisions or chooses to deal with designations using a different approach.

NPCA has worked closely with the offices of Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and Congressmen Cook, Ruiz, and Vargas, on both S. 414 and H.R. 3668. NPCA strongly supports S. 414 as a thoughtful and locally vetted proposal that has garnered widespread support across the Southern California deserts and mountains. S. 414 enjoys diverse endorsements from desert stakeholders ranging from the conservation community to OHV users, from local elected officials and small businesses to Southern California Counties and chambers of commerce. NPCA supports many of the provisions in H.R. 3668 as they were adopted from S. 414 and are commonsense approaches to desert management. We, and a broad constituency, also have substantive concerns with and are opposed to specific updated provisions within H.R. 3668.

We appreciate Congressman Cook’s proposal to increase the protection of over one million acres of remarkable public lands and waters across the California desert. We are encouraged that there is agreement by our most prominent elected officials that the public lands identified by S. 414 and H.R. 3668 are universally known to be of such quality and value that they deserve to be protected for the benefit of our residents and to be shared with the millions of tourists who visit our deserts each year. The concern, though, is the type of protection that would be afforded these lands by the less protective designations of H.R. 3668.

Recent public meetings, polls, and media all underscore the fact that the communities that would be directly affected by additional protections for the California desert are overwhelmingly in support of those actions. As a result, we do not feel H.R. 3668 fully supports the perspective of the community. Our primary concerns include:

  • H.R. 3668 designates Mojave Trails as a Special Management Area (SMA) rather than a national monument. There is broad support across the California desert for the designation of Mojave Trails as a national monument. The Special Management Area would allow up to 10% of Mojave Trails to be designated as a mining district, an action that is broadly opposed in the California desert.2 The designation as a Special Management Area would preclude many of the tourism benefits that would be realized from permanent protection of the area as a national monument. Creating an open area for mining that does not respond to known mineral resources or current needs by the mining industry, unnecessarily jeopardizes world-class natural and cultural resources, and distracts from more important and viable mineral resources.
  • The reduction of the Castle Mountains proposed addition to Mojave National Preserve. This difference between S. 414 and H.R. 3668 is significant and reduces the proposed transfer from BLM to NPS to roughly 50% of the original landscape that was excluded from Mojave National Preserve in 1994. The additional seven thousand acres not included for transfer in H.R. 3668 excludes remarkable natural and cultural resources, and prioritizes mining over conservation in a spectacular region, which diverse parties agree has significant values to warrant becoming a national park site.
  • H.R. 3668 proposes the reduction of the Bowling Alley addition of Wilderness to Death Valley National Park from 33,000 acres in S. 414, to only 28,000 acres. This reduction is primarily focused on providing vehicular access to the Avawatz Mountains, an area proposed as designated Wilderness in H.R. 3668. This proposed reduction to Death Valley National Park is not consistent with the management regime in the area, and is not consistent with the proposed expansion of Death Valley National Park and designation of Wilderness for the Avawatz, as proposed by H.R. 3668.
  • H.R. 3668 does not protect Mojave National Preserve’s water resources from export. Such a provision is widely supported across the California desert; the protection of Mojave National Preserve’s water resources is a key issue for wildlife, Native American tribes, ranchers, local communities, such as Needles, CA, and rural landowners in the East Mojave.
  • H.R. 3668 places limitations on the use of the Antiquities Act, one of our nation’s most bipartisan conservation tools. Two of the California desert’s iconic national parks (Death Valley and Joshua Tree) were created using the Antiquities Act. Those parks currently bring millions of visitors and well over a hundred million dollars of annual economic activity to the region. In fact, recent polls confirm there is broad support for the Antiquities Act across the California desert.3
  • H.R. 3668 does not include an important provision directing the Department of Interior to study climate change impacts to California desert migratory species, and thereafter to incorporate those results in the consideration of future Right-of-Way decisions. This provision is included in S. 414.
  • Again, unlike its Senate counterpart, H.R. 3668 increases the release of Wilderness Study Areas from six areas (120,000 acres) to 12 areas (154,000 acres). This increase is unacceptable, and diminishes the longstanding wilderness character of this landscape.
  • H.R. 3668 does not include the Grass Valley Wilderness Area, but instead hosts the Malpais Mesa Wilderness Area. While we strongly support the designation of Malpais Mesa, there is significant support for the designation of Grass Valley Wilderness as proposed in S. 414. NPCA supports the designation of both areas.

As noted, NPCA has worked closely with the lead offices and stakeholders on S. 414 since 2009 and has worked closely with Congressman Cook and his office on H.R. 3668 since its introduction. Many of the provisions in H.R. 3668 mirror S. 414 language, and while we support provisions in both bills, we remain concerned that the substantive differences between these two bills will result in additional delays of legislative protections for the California desert.

Many of the H.R. 3668 provisions outlined above will introduce unnecessary opposition to Congressman Cook’s legislation from a broad suite of stakeholders. This conflict could undermine the significant consensus Senator Feinstein has built for her legislation and the protection of the region. Support for S. 414 was developed through years of discussions, compromise, and listening to and responding to the needs of the desert community. Unfortunately, we remain concerned that Congressman Cook’s legislation has not had the time or community vetting to gain traction locally and develop significant support.

We appreciate the opportunity H.R. 3668 presents to discuss the terrific conservation opportunities in the California desert. Unfortunately, we feel it falls short of what this region deserves. Thank you for the chance to provide comments for the committee on this important legislation.

1. http://www.sbcounty.gov/bosd3/newsroom/newsletters/201308/RamosReview

2. http://www.vetvoicefoundation.org/press/new-poll-shows-overwhelming-support-for-designating-california-desert-national-monuments

3. http://www.vetvoicefoundation.org/press/new-poll-shows-overwhelming-support-for-designating-california-desert-national-monuments

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