Politicians, environmental activists and community members gathered under a packed tent north of Palm Springs on Tuesday afternoon to comment on a proposal to designate three new national monuments in the desert.
If designated, the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments would set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of land. The habitat protected would include alpine peaks, Joshua tree woodlands, riparian woodlands and desert scrub.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has called on President Obama to make the designations under the Antiquities Act, saying the desert is a key part of the region’s identity.
“What this desert carries is the tradition of the West that founded California, and we aim to keep that going,” Feinstein said.
The call for national monument designations is the second of a two-armed approach to seeking protections for the area. Feinstein submitted a bill earlier this year the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015. That bill was heard by a Senate committee last week.
Feinstein explained her preference for the bill to pass Congress, because it sets aside more land for protection than a monument designation would give. She said her pursuit of a monument designation would not change her goal to get the bill passed, but that it is necessary to garner some form of protection.
“The present political climate is proving extremely difficult to move any public lands legislation through both bodies of the Congress, so as we approach the end of President Obama’s term, it became important to pursue a dual-track strategy,” Feinstein said. “My intention is to continue to push the bill while simultaneously pushing a presidential designation — but let me be clear, I very much prefer to move the legislation. That has always been my preference.”
The lands in question are considered vital habitat for a multitude of species, some endangered, including golden eagles, desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. The Snow and Sand National Monument would protect two wildlife corridors that could aid movement of plants and animals adapting to climate change.
Exequiel Ezcurra, a desert ecologist who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, said protection of desert systems is necessary because of the long timescale it takes for the ecosystem to develop.
“Damage on desert ecosystems takes a very, very long time to recover,” Ezcurra said. “Desert vegetation and desert biota is like a non-renewable resource. Its dynamic is so slow that for all practical purposes, once we destroy it, it’s gone forever.”
The proposed monument lands include a variety of historical and cultural landmarks, such as a large stretch of Route 66, 25 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and Native American archaeological sites. As such, the public meeting was expected to draw speakers from a wide variety of interests, including off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, hikers and conservationists.
Ezcurra, who did not attend the meeting, said he thinks the decision to form new national monuments would make sense.
“Developing sustainable opportunities through tourism and visitors and at the same time preserving a heritage like the deserts of the American Southwest, it seems like a very easy decision actually to make,” he said.
Correction: One of the monuments was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story. KPCC regrets the error.