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.


  1. Your final comment speaks deep truth and demands we work tirelessly to protect these treasures. "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." Thank you, Shaun.

  2. How does the cook bill promote mining? Mining is already permissable out there. If you actually read his bill, you would know that it actually reduces the amount of mineable acreage because it excludes catellus lands from mining. And, if you actually read the Feinstein bill, you'd know that she also creates national ohv areas like cook's bill. I would read the bills before writing an article (I use this term loosely) such as this. Speaking of political ransom, how is feinstein's antiquities push going? You enviros are such hypocrites.

    1. Unknown,
      The BLM through the DRECP preferred alternative would designate the Mojave Trails areas as part of the National Landscape Conservation System, significantly limiting mining, recognizing public support for conservation there. And the public widely supports a monument designation, which would prohibit mining. So when Cook introduces a bill that would override the DRECP designation and prohibit a monument in order to allow dozens of square miles of mining development, that - to me - sounds like an effort to promote mining.

      And you are correct that Feinstein's bill would establish the OHV areas, but her bill would not add 95 additional square miles of OHV areas.

    2. Given that Feinstein has requested Obama to act unilaterally to establish the monuments, both Cook's bill and Feinstein's would be irrelevant. In other words, mining would be eliminated in the designated areas. Regarding the Antiquities push, wait and see.

      You non-enviros are so hyperbolic.

    3. New mining would be eliminated. Valid existing rights would, by law, still be honored. Where did I engage in hyperbole?


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