Sunday, October 11, 2015

Supervisor Lovingood Lays Out Hollow Case Against Monuments

San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood traveled to Washington last week to testify against the potential establishment of national monuments in the California desert, but his concerns rang hollow.  His most concrete complaints centered on the prospects of a long-shuttered gold mine located over 70 miles from the nearest San Bernardino County city and owned by a Canadian company.  Lovingood's testimony reveals that his opposition to the monuments is politically motivated, rather than practically rooted and that he is out of touch with his constituents.

Lovingood Picks a Battle Over Castle Mountains

Most San Bernardino County residents would fall in love with the Castle Mountains if they saw them.  But Supervisor Lovingood's testimony suggests he has a different vision for this remote stretch of the county.  Lovingood expressed concern to officials in Washington that the nearby Castle Mountain gold mine may have difficulty operating if a desert monument is established around this portion of Joshua tree-studded wildlands.  The monument proposal would not impede mine operations, according to the Senate, but Lovingood worries that the monument would scare away the mine's international investors and a chance at 300 jobs and $250 million in tax revenue.  Lovingood failed to mention that the tax revenue would be unreliable and that the jobs would probably go to Nevada, not San Bernardino County residents.

Joshua trees frame the Castle Mountains in the eastern Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County, California.  A Canadian mining firm has won County Supervisor Robert Lovingood's support to revive a gold mine here, over 70 miles from the nearest County town, and next to a national park. Photo by David Lamfrom.
Mining has been a centerpiece of both Lovingood's and Congressman Paul Cook's opposition to the desert monuments, yet San Bernardino County acknowledges that mining jobs accounted for approximately a tenth of one percent of the county's employment in 2014.  And even if the Castle Mountain mine's Canadian owners can wrangle the millions of dollars it needs from investors to resume operations, its remote location probably will draw workers from Nevada, not California.   The mine is located between the Nevada town of Primm and the California town of Needles.  Needles has a population of less than 5,000 people and is located over 70 miles from the mine.  The next nearest California city is Barstow, over 130 miles away.  You'll spend the money you earn at the mine on the gas it takes to get there.

The gold mine's proponents seem to be chasing a quick buck.  Gold prices are just now rising but could drop yet again, leaving the mine closed and workers out of a job.  Lovingood is pinning up the mine as some economic hope when it is barely more than a mirage. Nonetheless, the Senate has worked with the mining company to ensure that the monument proposal would not affect its operations.  The mine could begin operations today, if it so desired.  And even if it does, I bet most of the workers will be from Nevada, and most of the money will flow to Toronto.

Passing the Buck on Road Repairs

Passing the buck for his own leadership failures, Lovingood stated that the monument proposals would make it difficult to repair county roads and that the Department of Interior has a long list of deferred maintenance that impacts county transportation.

The stretch of Route 66 in San Bernardino County represents one of the most pristine segments of this historic road, coursing through desert wildlands that are preserved as earlier generations experienced them early last century.  The route courses through an area rich with history, from Native American cultural sites, the experiences of economic refugees in the Great Depression, and where Patton trained his troops for World War II.
Lovingood indicated that a monument designation would make it more difficult to repair Route 66 because the county would not be able to mine raw materials immediately adjacent to the road.  This seems like a ridiculous argument.  How often do road repair crews ask to mine your front yard for raw materials needed to fix the road?  Even if this were a valid argument, Lovingood has no excuse for the fact that the county has closed a significant portion of Route 66 for over a year because of damage caused by a rain storm in 2014.

The County is responsible for repairs to Route 66, but has failed to do so for over a year on a 30+ mile portion of the Mother Road.  County Supervisor Lovingood has no excuse for this failure. Image from San Bernardino County.
The county's closure of Route 66 is significant because tourists from all over America and the world travel to see this pristine stretch of Route 66, only to be turned around by bright orange traffic signs.  The last time I went camping in the desert I had to turn around and find an alternate site, turned back by the road closures.  Lovingood is busy spending county money on travel to Washington to oppose a monument, but he can't find the money to repair this road and advance the county's tourism economy?  Mojave Trails National Monument would protect a stretch of American heritage along this historic route.  It's time that the County also act as a good steward of this national treasure and repair Route 66.

Lovingood also complains that the Federal government has not been able to pay for maintainance on roads and infrastructure within existing national parks.  This is indeed a problem, but Lovingood seems to forget that Congress controls Federal spending.  He could have spent his time in Washington asking Congress to properly fund the Department of Interior.  Cutting a fraction of tax loopholes that allow corporations to do their banking in the Cayman Islands would quickly fill any funding shortfalls for our national parks, and much more.

Time for Leadership

It is time for San Bernardino County's leaders to shepherd the economy into a sustainable future and not drag it into an outdated past.  Mining is a big part of San Bernardino County's history, but it is not a big part of our modern economy.  San Bernardino County's website contains images of mining activities and the most recent image on the website (below) is from 1919.  Even if the county posted more recent photos, its own reports acknowledge that mining now constitutes a mere fraction of one percent of the county's employment.

A photo of miners from 1919. Image from San Bernardino County website.
San Bernardino County is home to some of the most beautiful, pristine landscapes in the nation. Tourists travel across the world to see our national parks and county residents enjoy spending weekends under starry night skies, or riding down a 4x4 route in the desert for rejuvenation or solitude.  But the county has done little to recognize these treasures.  I mentioned earlier that a portion of Historic Route 66 has been closed for over a year.  County Supervisor Lovingood has also not shown any leadership in pressing Washington to fund our national parks or to encourage tourism.  Instead, he is flying to Washington to protest his own constituents' efforts to protect our public lands from destruction.

It is not too late for Lovingood to step up to the plate and represent his District.  It should not be difficult. Nature has blessed San Bernardino County with an increasingly rare treasure - peaceful, pristine open space.  Let's manage this space responsibly for future generations.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What are you doing on Tuesday?

Now is our moment to protect public access to desert wildlands for future generations to enjoy.   Tuesday is an important opportunity to tell government officials that we cherish the vast open landscapes that the California desert has to offer.  Our presence will send a message that we are tired of losing public lands to private, for-profit destruction.  At stake will be the White House's consideration of the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand-to-Snow National Monuments.  Without these monuments, our desert will transition from a humbling, natural landscape to an industrial checkerboard. 

The desert that early inhabitants experienced was a lot more expansive than the desert we know today, and if we don't take action now, our grandchildren will inherit a landscape unrecognizable to us and preserved only in our photographs.  Since 2009, dozens of square miles of our desert wildlands have been bulldozed and converted into energy projects and subdivisions. The alternative to these monuments is to continue bleeding away our wildlands through a thousand cuts.  Allowing mining here, transmission lines there, and more energy projects over there.  Soon enough, the sense of solitude and the vistas that we cherished will be gone.

Please show your support for our desert public lands on Tuesday, October 13, 1:00PM at the Whitewater Preserve.  Government officials will be on hand to hear comments about our desert wildlands and discuss the monument proposals.  For more details and to RSVP, please visit the following link: October 13 Public Meeting

The map below shows the solar and wind energy projects proposed as of 2008, at the height of the renewable energy rush on wildlands.  It is illustrative of the extent of destruction that is possible if we do not take steps to protect our public lands.  At least 24 of the proposed projects fall within the proposed boundaries of the monuments, and the map does not depict other destructive proposals, including pipelines and mines.  Without monument status, these lands may be unrecognizable in another 30 years.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cook's Desert Bill is a Political Ransom Note

A new bill introduced by Congressman Paul Cook would encourage the destruction of over 246 square miles of desert wildlands in exchange for widely supported conservation designations.  The bill - the California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act - panders to harmful, for-profit uses of public lands, including in the heart of the Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66.

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.

An example of a designated route in the Mojave Desert. There are thousands of miles of such routes across the California desert.  Designated routes provide access to outdoor recreation and solitude, but noticed that desert vegetation and soils are healthy.  Designated routes can be enjoyed responsibly.  OHV Recreation Areas will turn the desert into a Mad Max-like free-for-all with no regard for nature.
The additional square miles would be added to the Johnson Valley and Spangler Hills OHV Recreation Areas.  These are unnecessary expansions that will lead to the degradation of wildlands over time.  Most of the desert - other than official wilderness areas - are accessible through thousands of miles of designated dirt roads.  But in OHV Recreation Areas, motorized vehicles do not adhere to designated routes.  Hundreds upon hundreds of off-trail trips by motorized vehicles convert a healthy desert ecosystem into a severely disturbed area that will take a long time for nature to repair.

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.