Desert Conservation Languishes As Industrial Uses Expand

As the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to facilitate the march of industry into relatively remote corners of America's desert wildlands, efforts to set aside these natural treasures are slow going as Congress has been jammed up by partisan squabbling, and the President has been shy about using his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate monuments.   Waiting for conservation by executive or legislative action may seem worthwhile when you consider that those protections will be more permanent, but what seems to be most lacking in our deserts is proactive conservation through the land management process administered by the BLM; other than islands of critical habitat designated for some endangered species, land use management plans seem to do little to prevent industrial-scale development on land considered to hold important wildlife, scenic and recreation values.

New Mexico Gets a Monument, and May Get A Second This Year

Despite the President's overall reluctance to establish monuments under the Antiquities Act, New Mexico appears to be fairing well - the state is home to one of the largest monuments the President has created so far, and many in the conservation community appear confident that the President will designate a second.  These are long overdue protections, but even if the second monument is granted there are still  plenty of treasured places vulnerable to energy development in New Mexico.

President Obama designated New Mexico's newest national monument - Rio Grande del Norte - in March 2013,  before his 2014 State of the Union pledge to protect even more of America's public lands.  There are rumors that President Obama may again use his power under the Antiquities Act to establish a second monument in southern New Mexico in the Las Cruces area, a conservation proposal that is also the subject of legislation introduced by New Mexico's representatives on Capitol Hill.  It is not clear how much land would be protected by a Presidential order, but legislation proposes protections for three swaths of desert around Las Cruces - the Organ Mountains, Potrillo Mountains, and a "desert peaks" complex.  What is not clear from speculation in the press is whether the President's monument would protect all three swaths of land that New Mexico's representatives seek to protect - totalling nearly 498,000 acres - or just a portion.  You can view maps for the proposed conservation designations accompanying New Mexico Congressperson Martin Heinrich's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks conservation bill by following these links: Organ Mountains, Desert Peaks complex, Potrillo Mountain complex.

[Click on image to expand]  The map above shows the general areas of the lands to be protected under conservation bills introduced by Senator Udall and Congressman Heinrich of New Mexico (Organ Mountains, Potrillo Mountain, and the desert peaks area), and the Otero Mesa region to the west.
The beautiful Otero Mesa in the southeastern corner of the state, however, remains vulnerable to fossil fuel exploration, despite a strong grassroots effort to seek monument status for one of the largest intact desert grasslands in the United States.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to establish an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC) in Otero Mesa, but the ACEC proposal would not exclude energy industry use.  In the BLM's draft environmental impact statement, it identified only 11,000 acres in the Otero Mesa region with "wilderness" qualities, even though the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified over 700,000 acres of land with wilderness qualities.

The Google Earth image above shows an area of approximately 68 square miles industrialized by oil and gas extraction in southeastern New Mexico near Carlsbad.  This scale of development would wreak havoc on Otero Mesa, which is not yet afforded protection from the energy industry.
Arizona Conservation Bill Awaits Congressional Action

Arizona congressperson Raul Grijalva introduced legislation last year to protect over 950,000 acres of Sonoran desert habitat, mostly west of Phoenix.   The Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act, like most legislative efforts, is stalled on Capitol Hill.  Grijalva's bill would create two new National Conservation Areas, two Special Management Areas, and thousands of acres of new wilderness designations.  The new designations would bring more conservation into the balance where military training ranges, urban sprawl, and agriculture have dominated.  The population explosion has also placed greater demand on open space for recreation, with hikers and OHV riders competing for the same trails. Outdoor shooting is also taking a toll as Arizonans drive out to the desert for target practice, often taking aim at the iconic saguaro cacti that dot the landscape.  All of this begs for better resource management, and conservation of what is left of desert wildlands.

You can download a map of Grijalva's proposed conservation measures below.

Nevada Waiting in Line

The last time Nevada enacted conservation measures for its southern desert was in 2002, and it was a double-edged sword.  The Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002 protected 452,000 acres of desert with 18 new wilderness designations, but it also released thousands of acres of wilderness study areas and further cemented plans to accommodate an unnecessary airport proposed for the Ivanpah Valley, over 30 miles from the city.   Las Vegas' sprawl has destroyed a significant swath of desert habitat in southern Nevada, and the swelling population has contributed to "edge effects," with hundreds of miles of OHV trails etched into the surrounding desert.  Plans for massive new renewable energy projects, transmission lines and transportation infrastructure threaten to further fragment what is left, potentially rivaling the amount of land destroyed in the city's sprawl if all of the projects are approved and built.

Some more conservation may be on the horizon, but probably at a cost.  A bi-partisan group of Nevada representatives are supporting a bill that would create the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument that would protect 22,650 acres of ecological and archaeological resources north of Las Vegas.  However, the legislation would allow construction of a transmission line right through the monument,  and designate additional land to support the proposed airport in the Ivanpah Valley.  A separate bill introduced by Senator Reid would create the Gold Butte National Conservation Area (NCA) in southeastern Nevada, protecting valuable wildlife habitat and recreation areas.  The bill would also designate 129,500 acres of wilderness within the NCA, and another 92,000 acres of new wilderness areas within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  The prospects of this legislation are less certain because it lacks the same bi-partisan support that the Tule Springs legislation enjoys.

[Click on image to expand]  The proposed Gold Butte National Conservation Area and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument would protect additional desert habitat, although compromises in the legislative process would put other lands at risk.

California Desert Protection Act, Part II?

The California desert is a popular place.  Nearly 1.4 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park in 2012, and over 900,000 made the trek out to the remote Death Valley National Park - the fifth largest park in the United States.  The Mojave National Preserve is the newest of California's desert parks - created by Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act in 1994 - but still hosted over 500,00 visitors in 2012.  But enjoyment of the desert is not restricted to these parks, as millions of people hike, tour by 4x4, race off-highway vehicles and hunt all throughout California's desert lands.  A recent surge in renewable energy construction has also showcased the fact that California's wilderness and National Park units seem insufficient to protect the feeling of remote escape that is achieved by 360 degree views of largely unspoiled wildlands.  Energy projects proposed for the region would be visible from miles away, and shatter the solitude of vast swaths of the desert by introducing industrial-scale development to a place where desert peaks and a sea of creosote bushes should dominate the view.

Nearly two decades after the first California Desert Protection Act cleared a contentious debate on Capitol Hill, Senator Feinstein has pledged continued support for additional desert conservation, and introduced the second California Desert Protection Act in 2010.  The Senator has not yet reintroduced the bill in the current legislative session, but she penned an op-ed on her plans to do so in November; it is not clear why the introduction of the bill has been delayed.  Assuming the reintroduced bill mirrors the 2010 version, the new California Desert Protection Act would create two new national monuments protecting lands donated by the Wildlands Conservancy for conservation purposes, designate new wilderness areas, and slightly expand the existing desert parks.

A map of the 2011 version of the California Desert Protection Act below shows the new monuments and wilderness designations that would greatly enhance conservation. 

Conservationists are also anxiously awaiting the release of the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).  Initially expected to be released late last year, the roll out of the draft has been delayed, but is expected to propose some of the most significant changes to the way California's desert is managed since the California Desert Conservation Area Plan was implemented in 1980.  Initial alternatives floated for public consideration in late 2012 ranged from makeovers that would encourage industrial development in some of the most remote corners of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, while other options would protect desert mountains and open valleys with National Landscape Conservation System and Area of Critical Environmental Concern status.  The DRECP could turn out to be a nightmare for the desert's millions of visitors if it encourages the destruction of treasured places, but it could also turn out to be a model for landscape-level planning and conservation.

We frequently hear the term "multiple use" when the Department of Interior talks about managing our deserts, but some uses are clearly more exclusive than others and it seems little thought has been put into preserving some of the most fragile qualities of our public lands - solitude and spectacular vistas.  BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project can be seen from miles away by those trying to enjoy the solitude of the Mojave National Preserve.  It will kill migrating birds that are beloved by people throughout the western hemisphere.  Oil and gas exploration in New Mexico will carve miles of new roads into a delicate grassland ecosystem and sprout noisy well pads throughout entire vistas, altering the character of the land for a very long time.  Although land management is indeed a balancing act, it seems most wise to error on the side of conservation since it is a form of management sure to result in the least regret.


  1. Thanks for the updates Shaun - your Gold Butte map is off a bit though - it should be on the other side of the river to the right on that peninsula - that is generally known as the Gold Butte Peninsula. The historic site of Gold Butte is down towards the center of the peninsula.

  2. jazbo, thank you for the correction! I updated the map.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Plants Species in the Desert?

Mowing Vegetation as Mitigation: Trump Administration Practice Goes Unchallenged

The Absurdity of the Cadiz Water Export Scheme