The bill appears to be an effort to counter the desert conservation and recreation legislation introduced by Senator Feinstein, who decided earlier this year to seek establishment of desert monuments through the Antiquities Act because of roadblocks in Congress. Contrary to misinformation I have seen spread online, the monuments would not "restrict access" for people that enjoy and explore desert wildlands. I say this as a person that uses designated routes to access remote areas of the desert for camping, hiking and photography. Unlike the monument proposals, Cook's bill would promote the mismanagement of our public lands and do irreparable damage to the landscapes that we treasure.
No Mojave Trails Monument; Mining Instead
The community widely supports a monument designation for Mojave Trails to protect a swath of intact desert wildlands from Ludlow to Needles from industrial-scale development. But Cook's bill would explicitly prevent a monument designation, and instead establish a "Mojave Trails Special Management Area" where mining would be encouraged on nearly 150 square miles of this remote and pristine stretch of desert along Historic Route 66. Mining, like large-scale solar projects, can involve significant and long-lasting disturbance of the land that is often visible for miles around.
Allowing so much mining in such a remote area would undermine the very qualities people from all over the world appreciate about this stretch of Route 66 and surrounding wildlands. Cook's own bill recognizes these qualities, stating its intent "to secure the opportunity for present and future generations to experience and enjoy the magnificent vistas, wildlife, land forms, and natural and cultural resources of the Management Area." But this intent is immediately undermined by the inclusion of language pandering to the mining industry.
The bill also includes provisions to facilitate the expansion of the Castle Mountain Mine next to the Mojave National Preserve. This gold mine ceased operations in 2001 because of falling gold prices, but a Canadian company is pushing to re-open strip-mining operations and tap new water wells. The mine is in the remote Lanfair Valley, over 80 miles from the nearest city. Conservationists had hoped to include the reclaimed land in the Preserve and protect the Joshua tree studded landscape. Cook's bill will allow the Canadian company to strip more of the mountains before eventually including them in the Mojave National Preserve.
Expanding Motorized Free-for-All Zones
Mining companies would not be the only interest robbing us of desert wildlands. Cook's bill would also expand Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Areas by 95 square miles, adding to over 220 square miles of existing OHV Recreation Areas. Let's be clear - there is a stark difference between maintaining access to public lands through designated routes, which I support, and the destructive free-for-all that is encouraged within Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas.
|An example of a high-disturbance area in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area. There are no limits to where vehicles can travel within OHV Recreation Areas.|
There is no shortage of options for off-highway vehicle use in the California desert, and it can be accommodated responsibly and sustainably. Many visitors to the desert respect the wild qualities of the landscape that make it worth the trip, staying on designated routes to visit places for camping, hiking, rock hounding, etc. In the western Mojave alone there are more miles of designated routes than there are miles of roads in Los Angeles. There are even off-highway vehicle races that are held in the desert on some of these designated routes.
Given how destructive and self-indulgent OHV Recreation Areas are, it's a bit of a stretch to think that we even have 220 square miles of such zones in the California desert. The existing OHV Recreation Areas encompass a combined land area more than three times the size of Washington, D.C. Adding 95 more square miles is overkill.
Political Ransom, Not a Balanced Compromise
Cook's bill is representative of a political process that holds conservation hostage on behalf of private interests. Every acre of land that we simply let be in its natural state for future generations to enjoy requires the immediate sacrifice of some other area. Even Feinstein's California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act includes compromises that would allow utility companies to build transmission lines across the untarnished vistas of the Mojave Trails area. Cook's bill also includes this gift to the utility companies.
This is not a new dynamic but it is one that seems to be getting worse. You want to protect some canyons for future generations? Tell me what public lands we should sacrifice to oil and gas companies. You want to protect this desert valley? Then pick which mountains we should carve up for a wind energy facility.
The political narrative driving this hostage taking suggests that being good stewards of public lands is some diabolical plan by the Federal government to take our rights and prohibit access to the land. Our elected representatives hide behind false notions that they are making a balanced compromise, or defending public access or property rights. But what they are really doing is handing over our natural treasures to private interests.
Public land managed for future generations is an American treasure. It means that two or three generations from now a distant relative can visit your favorite camping spot in the Mojave and experience the same quiet sunset that you did. Future generations will not fault us for protecting wildlands, but they will blame us for the scars that our reckless decisions leave on the landscape.
|Wildflowers in bloom along the lava rock near Amboy Crater in the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.|
|Taken from atop Amboy Crater, looking north toward the Bristol Mountains. Route 66, barely visible, lies between Amboy Crater and the mountains in the distance.|