The Loma Prietan - May/June 2010

California Desert Preservation Moves Forward

Feinstein Proposes New Wilderness and Two New National Monuments

by John Wilkinson

Springtime show of golden bush and California poppies in Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Thomas Wiewandt, Green Stock Media
Springtime show of golden bush and California poppies in Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Thomas Wiewandt, Green Stock Media

New legislation under consideration in Congress would preserve almost 400,000 acres of new wilderness and create two national monuments in the California desert. Last December Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) of 2010. The legislation includes new wilderness designations and will help protect the Catellus lands recently acquired by the Federal government for conservation purposes. In 1994 President Clinton signed the original CDPA, also sponsored by Senator Feinstein The CDPA of 1994 crowned years of work by citizen activists and Congressional friends of wilderness. It preserved over 7 million acres of California desert, upgrading Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status and adding 69 new wilderness areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Unfortunately, the CDPA of 2010 also contains some troubling provisions, including designation of off-road vehicle areas and allowing renewable energy production in the area. The Sierra Club is optimistic about the potential land protection designations and is working closely with Senator Feinstein to fix the problems with the Act. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar told Senator Feinstein at a budget hearing in early March, "We've come to understand that your legislation is exactly the right approach. There are right places for...development, there are places ...not to have development and I think, in working closely with you and the stakeholders in Southern California, we have achieved that balance."

New National Monuments: The Catellus Lands

In 1864, to encourage the construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railway, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The act granted to the railroads the odd-numbered sections of land for 10 miles on each side of the route, creating a checkerboard ownership pattern in a 20-mile swath along the railway line.

Canyon in the proposed Wilderness Study Area in the Avawatz Range. Photo: John Dittli

The Catellus Corporation was the real-estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Between 1999 and 2004, the Wildlands Conservancy purchased desert lands from Catellus and donated them to the Department of the Interior for conservation purposes. To keep these conservation lands from being pre-empted for development, including renewable energy development, Senator Feinstein seeks to designate Catellus lands as two new National Monuments.

The larger of the two new monuments, the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails, would link Joshua Tree National Park on the south to the Mojave National Preserve on the north. Long before the railroads were built, trails in the Mojave crossed the desert along what later became Route 66, which Smithsonian Magazine has called one of the "15 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures." It is an important wildlife corridor linking Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

Another block of Catellus lands is near the western boundary of Joshua Tree National Park. It runs along a portion of now-abandoned railway running through the Palm Springs area. This links Big Morongo Canyon and Whitewater Canyon, two Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, to the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The Sand to Snow monument would thus link Joshua Tree (sand) with Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California (snow).

New Wilderness

The Feinstein bill would add almost 400,000 acres to the National Wilderness System by granting wilderness designation to a number of former Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), among them the Avawatz and Kingston Range Additions, near the southern end of Death Valley, and the Great Falls Basin, on the west side of the Panamints.

Palo Verde Tree near Buzzard’s Peak. Photo: John Dittli

Room for Improvement?

The Sierra Club applauds the vision and sheer hard work that Senator Feinstein has devoted to this historic preservation effort. Like most recent public lands bills, however, the Feinstein bill contains some provisions that the Sierra Club would like to see changed. In a major concession to off-road vehicle interests, the bill would designate five Off Highway Vehicle Areas, setting an undesirable legislative precedent. Also, wilderness protection was withdrawn from the Cady Mountains WSA and from part of the Soda Mountains WSA; and Conglomerate Mesa, near Saline Valley, would remain unprotected.

John Wilkinson is the Chapter's wilderness chair.