Democrat and GOP politicians want to keep more wilderness wild forever
Republicans and Democrats disagree on a lot of issues, but protecting deserts in Southern California doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Legislation was introduced this month in both chambers of Congress, by members of both major parties, with the goal of protecting 716,000 acres of regional desert, adding a swath nearly as big as Rhode Island to regional land that’s already under protection. New protected zones would include off-highway vehicle recreation areas and wilderness, and an expansion of several National Parks.
The identical bills, sponsored by Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, in the House of Representatives and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, in the Senate, are the result of years of work with the off-roading community, conservationists and local governments. For different reasons, all of those interests want to see the protections in place.
Cook’s bill has the support of Democrat Reps Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, Juan Vargas, D-Imperial Valley and Raul Ruiz, D-La Quinta. Feinstein’s bill is co-sponsored by fellow California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Cook and Feinstein introduced separate desert protection bills in 2017, but failed to gain approval in the Senate.
So, over the past couple of years, work was done to reconcile the bills. Now, supporters hope the matching language and bipartisan support will boost its chances of passing out of Congress and getting approval from President Donald Trump.
With the federal 35-day partial shutdown over — for now — Cook is hopeful a larger public lands package, of which the bills are a part, can move forward in the Senate, said Tim Itnyre, legislative director for Cook, who represents the 8th Congressional District, which includes Mono and Inyo counties as well as part of San Bernardino County.
The fastest route to the desert bill becoming law, Itnyre said, would be for the Senate to take up and pass the lands package followed by the House taking it up. Introducing similar bills in both chambers also expedites the process of getting the legislation passed, he said.
“I think that despite the partisan conflicts in Washington, this looks like it’s going to be an area where we’re going to be able to have people on both sides come together and get a big win for all the people who live, recreate or care about the California desert,” Itnyre said.
Although the bills are supported by off-highway vehicle and many environmental groups, the Sierra Club continues to have concerns about the amount of land being set aside for off-road recreation.
Feinstein’s bill also builds on her California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That bill established Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave national parks and officially protected more than 7.6 million acres of desert wilderness.
In an emailed statement, Feinstein said she promised off-roaders and environmental groups that her office would complete the long-term effort to better manage the desert, which is exactly what she expects this legislation would do.
“The beauty of California’s desert is unmatched, and we have a responsibility to keep it pristine for future generations,” Feinstein said. “Unlike many deserts, ours is full of life — from desert tortoises to bighorn sheep, breathtaking wildflower blooms to Joshua trees — that define its unique beauty. The California desert deserves protection.”
Cook is confident Trump will sign a desert protection bill into law.
More land for off roading
The legislation on the table would designate six Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas including: Johnson Valley, Sprangler Hills, El Mirage, Rasor, Dumont Dunes and Stoddard Valley.
This would be a win for off-highway vehicle users, as it would ensure permanent access to more than 300,000 acres in the desert for recreation. Currently, this protection applies to about 100,000 acres in Johnson Valley, a result of a 2013 compromise between off-roaders and the Marine Corps.
Plans to expand the Twentynine Palms Marine base were scaled back to allow off-roaders to keep nearly 100,000 of the area’s 188,000 acres for recreational use. The base expansion covered 88,130 acres once used for off-roading, while also allowing the Marine Corps access to 56,000 acres up to twice a year for training.
“Everybody went along with it, but boy Cook really recognized, and Feinstein too, that (off-highway vehicle use) took a huge hit,” said Randy Banis, an off-roading enthusiast and member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Desert Advisory Council.
“Because of the cooperation (the off-roading community) showed on that, we sort of had one coming to us. Hence the piece of the bill that will actually expand some of these (off-roading) open areas.”
Johnson Valley would be expanded by 21,600 acres if the bill is signed into law.
The El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, which features a popular dry lake bed on more than 24,000 acres near Adelanto, would be expanded by about 680 acres. Spangler Hills in Ridgecrest, which is more than 57,000 acres, would expand by 41,000 acres.
Banis, who represents recreation interests on the Desert Advisory Council, has been involved in the effort since the beginning and has high hopes for the current legislation.
“To see this thing so close to passing, and with the expansions in place and the protections in place, it really invigorated me and renewed by enthusiasm over this whole thing,” Banis said.
While off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists have different ideas about how to use the vast desert land, the relationship between the groups has improved over the years as off-roaders have learned to stay on the designated trails, Banis said.
“I believe that managing off-highway vehicle use is a progressive cause,” said Banis, who describes himself as a New England Democrat. “It keeps people out of the places that you want to protect and that you want to preserve.”
Still, Banis said, there are some in the off-roading community who are skeptical of Feinstein’s intentions, while some environmentalists remain unhappy with the off-road protections.
Representatives of the Sierra Club, which did not support the previous bills, are pleased with the wilderness protections and National Park expansions included in the new legislation.
However, in a letter to Feinstein on Nov. 30, the organization’s leaders said they remain unable to offer the organization’s full support.
“Our opposition is pretty much the same as before,” said Joan Taylor, vice chair of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee. “It’s a qualified support, you can say, but there are certain sections of the bill we simply cannot support.”
In the letter, the Sierra Club said some of the bill’s proposed off-road expansion would saddle future land managers with “a designation that often causes great damage to the landscape.” The group also isn’t pleased with the Cady Mountains being released as a wilderness study area, which could leave it at risk of new utility corridors and motorized vehicle routes. And, according to the letter, the group doesn’t like the idea that incentives are offered for developing renewable energy on public land instead of private land.
“We feel that is a mistake,” Taylor said. “It’s an incentive to do the wrong thing.”
More wilderness protections
In addition to the off-road areas, the bills aim to protect more than 375,500 acres of wilderness area. This includes 280,360 acres that would be protected by the creation of eight new Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas in the region. Death Valley National Park Wilderness would grow by 88,000 acres, while the San Gorgonio Wilderness in the San Bernardino National Forest would gain 7,141 acres.
The areas are home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and some endangered species, and they include Native American cultural sites.
“These areas would be for hiking and backpacking and non-motorized recreation, so that’s the part that we’re most excited about,” said Ryan Henson, policy director for the California Wilderness Coalition, which has helped craft the legislation.
The bills also would require the Bureau of Land Management to develop a plan for maintaining wildlife corridors, Henson said.
The wilderness protections would prevent future presidential administrations, BLM management, and U.S. Forest Service management from opening the areas for mining, off-highway vehicle use or other kinds of development, Henson said.
“It will be protected in perpetuity for the American people to enjoy and also for the plants and wildlife that’s there,” he said.
Protections for Vinagre Wash
The Vinagre Wash Special Management Area would be formed to protect 81,800 acres of public land in Imperial County. The wash area, near the part of the Colorado River that borders Arizona, is home to a large microphyll woodland and attracts migratory songbirds, endangered species and species that seldom come into California, such as the Gila Woodpecker.
Henson said the area also is part of the Sonoran Desert, where the iconic Saguaro Cactus is an indigenous plant.
“Folks plant (Saguaro Cactus) in their yards,” he said. “But where they naturally occur is in this part of California, down near the Vinagre Wash and a little north there.”
The bill also includes provisions that would protect Native American and other cultural resources along the Colorado River, Henson said.
While the California Wilderness Coalition is supportive of the protections in the bill, Henson said all sides had to make some compromises, a process that might explain the length of time it took for the plan to take shape.
“Sen. Feinstein was quite adamant about keeping all the parties at the table, and trying to make people accept a compromise,” he said.
“It ended up being a finely balanced Swiss watch of various compromises.”
One of those compromises, Henson said, is the release of the Cady Mountains as a wilderness study area.
Lands considered wilderness study areas can be officially designated later as wilderness by Congress, or they can have their wilderness study status lifted and be opened to other uses.
The Coalition, like the Sierra Club, initially did not support the release of Cady Mountains, but the organization is hopeful that the land’s location, within the Mojave Trail National Monument, keeps it protected from future development and off-roading.
“We’re not anti-off-road vehicles,” Henson said. “We just believe they should stay out of certain places.”
Land for National Parks; protections in Inyo
Under the proposed bills, Joshua Tree National Park would gain 4,518 acres, plus the privately established Joshua Tree Visitor Center. Death Valley National Park would grow by 35,292 acres, including 1,600 acres donated by the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
The legislation also would designate 18,610 acres of BLM land in Inyo County as the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area. The area has been a popular filming location, and can be seen in Iron Man, Django Unchained, Tremors, westerns and more. An old mining area on the site is also popular among recreational prospectors and the land has been enjoyed for other activities such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, hunting fish and authorized motorized vehicle use, Itnyre said.
The designation would prevent large scale projects, like renewable energy generation, which has been a big concern among locals, he said. Filming and recreational uses, however, would continue, he said.
The legislation would also:
-Prohibit the development of renewable energy facilities on about 28,000 acres of BLM land near Juniper Flats.
-Convey 934 acres of BLM land to the state to be added to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
-Direct the Secretary of Interior to negotiate with the California State Lands Commission on land swaps involving state school properties within the California Desert Conservation Area.
-Establish a Desert Tortoise Conservation Center near the California-Nevada border.
-Designate 77 miles of wild, scenic and recreation rivers in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Death Valley.