A majority of Californians have expressed support for three new monuments proposed for California's desert and under consideration by the President. Voices opposing the designation of new national monuments, however, appear to be driven by misinformation and a distorted faith in Congress to act as a responsible steward of our wildlands. They claim that conservation has run amok, that monument designations will lock out the public, and that only Congress should decide which lands to protect.
Tyrannical Conservation Designations?
The first claim - that conservation is some oppressive land management regime that has run amok - is relatively easy to dispute. National Parks, monuments, and wilderness areas - wildlands that are
protected from most types of industrial development - account for about
4% of the total land area of the United States. With that number in mind, consider that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of wildlife species on Earth. This is mostly driven by habitat loss, among a host of other human impacts that - combined - have led scientists to declare that humans have pushed the planet into a new geological epoch. In other words, it is a miracle that we even have the opportunity to visit the California desert and experience a landscape and ecosystem that stretches beyond the horizon.
Without permanent protection from industrial uses, this landscape will remain vulnerable. We will not be able to guarantee that future generations will share the same experience that we - and our ancestors - have enjoyed on these widlands. Why should my daughter visit the Mojave Trails area 30 years from now if the prized section of Historic Route 66 is surrounded by a sea of solar panels and wind turbines, and the mountains have been carved open by open pit mines? Beyond the priceless experiences that generations of humans have to gain from desert conservation, there is still the intrinsic value of a healthy ecosystem where wildflowers erupt in a riot of color in the spring and natural springs feed bighorn sheep and migrating birds.
Conservation Locking out the Public?
Desert monuments would maintain our access to public lands, not lock us out. California's desert is a popular landscape that attracts millions of visitors each year for hiking, photography, 4x4 touring, rock climbing, camping, wildlife watching, and astronomy. Monument status would ensure that future generations get to enjoy these same activities without the threat that some energy company will come along and bulldoze our favorite camping spot.
Most voices against desert monuments, however, fret that monument status would significantly limit vehicle access to desert wildlands. This fear is probably encouraged by "land grab" rhetoric from the same folks that brought us the Bundy militia. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already manages the lands within the boundary of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, and would continue to do so once a monument is established. The BLM has long-favored vehicle access on lands that it manages (sometimes a bit much), and there is nothing inherent in the monument proposal that would lead to a significant loss in vehicle access. Some of the monument opponents may be confusing monument designations with wilderness designations, which do prohibit most vehicle access. But the monument proposals do not include wilderness designations; wilderness would have to be established by Congress.
Others fear that other recreational activities would be prohibited. As an example, some in the rock hound community believe they'll be shut out and not allowed to collect gems and minerals. However, rock hounding would almost certainly still be permitted in the Mojave Trails National Monument as it is in other monuments managed by the BLM. Just like horseback riding, ATV riding on designated routes, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, and plenty of other outdoor activities. The idea that monuments lock out the public is simply misinformed.
Congress or the Antiquities Act?
Finally, many argue that the President should not use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate new monuments in the desert, claiming that Congress would be a superior and more transparent way to bestow conservation designations. I agree that it would be nice if Congress would act to protect our public lands, but there is no reason for me to believe that we could accomplish that without undue cost and sacrifice. Representative Cook's own "compromise" legislation would open up thousands of acres in the Mojave Trails area to mining and prohibit the President from granting permanent protection status to this iconic stretch of Historic Route 66 and the surrounding desert vistas.
This Congress has moved multiple times to undermine the Endangered Species Act and has encouraged the privatization of public lands. There is little appetite in Congress for the scale of conservation that is necessary to protect the beauty of the California desert. How can I tell? The California Desert Protection Act has been festering in a toxic Congress since 2010 with no movement forward. Why should I believe that suddenly Congress has a genuine interest in protecting public lands in the desert?
Furthermore, the claim that Congress is a more transparent route to conservation is false. Industry lobbyists have plenty of access to the halls of the Capitol building, and can negatively influence conservation provisions of the bill at various stages of the legislative process. Legislative horse trading can occur last minute without public input before a bill is put up for a vote, so we could end up with an anti-conservation rider in a bill at the last minute. In short, be careful of what you wish for. Now is not a good time to give Congress an opportunity to re-write how we manage and protect our desert wildlands.
It is time to grant permanent protection to these desert wildlands from industrial destruction. If Congress had shown any sincere appreciation for our public lands over the past few years these monument proposals would not even be on the President's desk for consideration. Instead of watching Congress kicking the can down the road, I hope that the President will soon establish the Mojave Trails, Sand-to-Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments.