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Senator Feinstein Offers Legislation To Protect Desertscape in and Around Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Parks


This area of the Castle Mountains is being proposed for addition to the Mojave National Preserve. Photo by David Lamfrom.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced legislation that would create 90,000 acres of officially designated wilderness in Death Valley National Park, and buffer parts of Joshua Tree National Park with national monuments encompassing roughly 1 million acres.

If it makes its way to the president's signature, the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (attached below) would create a 941,000-acre "Mojave Trails National Monument" between Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve that would be managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; create a "Sand to Snow National Monument" covering 134,000 acres between Joshua Tree and the San Bernardino National Forest; would designate some 90,000 acres in Death Valley as wilderness, and add about 41,000 acres to the park's current footprint, and; would add almost 30,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve.

The proposal offered Monday was welcomed by the National Parks Conservation Association, which said the legislation would help to protect crucial wildlife corridors for animals such as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, while adding Joshua tree forests, rugged mountains, and cactus gardens to California’s desert national parks.

“Our desert parks are places of remarkable beauty, rich cultural history, and profound ecological importance,” said Michael Cipra, California Desert program manager for NPCA. “Senator Feinstein's bill seeks to ensure that we can walk with our children and grandchildren in a world where bighorn sheep and desert tortoises still roam wild, where the Milky Way still shines bright, and where intact petroglyphs and historic trails teach us about our collective past."

The additions to the national wilderness system and expansion of the parks also would benefit the local economies, the NPCA representative said, noting that Joshua Tree and Death Valley contribute more than $100 million each year to local economies in the form of tourist dollars, sustaining more than 2,500 jobs.

“This is a chance to protect our world-class tourist destinations and strengthen our economy, while passing on a priceless treasure to our children," Mr. Cipra said.

While NPCA is supportive of this legislation overall, the organization voiced concerns about provisions of the bill related to off-road vehicle use and commercial air tours. NPCA hopes to work with Sen. Feinstein and those who recreate in the desert to craft solutions that balance fair recreation with the health of the desert.

Title I: California Desert Conservation and Recreation

Sec 101: Amendments to the California Desert Protection Act of 1994

Title XIII: Mojave Trails National Monument.
• Establishes a national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) protecting 941,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Preserve along historic Route 66 in San Bernardino County.
• Protects approximately 266,000 acres of land that were donated to or purchased by the federal government over the last decade for conservation.
• Maintains existing recreation uses, including hunting, vehicular travel on existing open roads and trails, grazing, camping, horseback riding, rock collecting, etc.
• Permits the construction of transmission lines to facilitate the transfer of renewable energy generated in the California desert and adjacent states.
• Provides solar energy companies with potential projects currently proposed inside the monument boundaries to relocate to federal solar energy zones being developed by the Department of the Interior.
• Establishes an advisory committee to develop the management plan for the monument. The committee will be comprised of representatives from local, state and federal government, conservation and recreation groups, and local Native American tribes.

Title XIV: Sand to Snow National Monument
• Establishes a national monument covering approximately 134,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
• Maintains existing recreation uses, including hunting, vehicular travel on existing open roads and trails, camping, horseback riding, rock collecting, etc.
• The monument would be jointly managed by the BLM and the Forest Service with management guidance from an advisory committee comprised of local, state and federal government, conservation and recreation groups, and local Native American tribes.

Title V: Wilderness
• Designates approximately 250,000 acres in five BLM Wilderness Study Areas near Fort Irwin as wilderness as well as portions of Death Valley National Park (90,000 acres) and the San Bernardino National Forest (4,300 acres).
• Releases approximately 126,000 acres in the Cady and Soda Mountains that were designated wilderness study areas in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, thereby allowing vehicular access to these areas.

Title VI: Vinagre Wash Special Management Area
• Designates a “special management area” covering a total of 76,000 acres in eastern Imperial County in order to conserve, protect and enhance plant and wildlife management as well as nationally significant ecological, recreational, archeological, and cultural resources. The area also contains approximately 49,000 acres of potential wilderness and approximately 12,000 acres of former private land donated to the federal government for conservation.
• Permitted uses would be hiking, camping, mountain biking, sightseeing, hunting, off-highway vehicle use on designated routes and horseback riding. Prohibited uses would include new mining, permanent roads, commercial uses, or activities that would preclude the potential wilderness areas from becoming wilderness in the future.

Title VII: National Park System Additions
• Adds approximately 74,000 acres of land to the National Park System, including:
• Death Valley: Approximately 41,000 acres, including a narrow strip of land between the southern boundary of the park (31,000 acres known as the “Bowling Alley”) and Ft. Irwin that was designated a wilderness study area by the Desert Protection Act and a former mining area (6,400 acres known as the “Crater Area”) in the north that is entirely surrounded by park wilderness.
• Mojave Preserve: Almost 30,000 acres on the northeastern corner of the park known as Castle Mountain, which was left out of the Desert Protection Act due to mining which has now ceased.
• Joshua Tree: Approximately 2,900 acres in multiple small parcels of BLM land on the northern boundary of the park that have been identified for disposal.

Title XVIII: Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas
• Designates five existing, administratively designated off-highway vehicle areas in San Bernardino County, covering approximately 314,000 acres, as permanent off-highway vehicle recreation areas. Land management would remain as it exists today, but the BLM would be given discretion whether to require a new site specific management plan or simply modify its existing desert-wide management plan.
• BLM lands under consideration for the expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms would not be incorporated into the Johnson Valley OHV area until it is determined that they are not needed for military training.
• Requires the Secretary to conduct a study to determine what, if any, lands adjacent to these recreation areas would be suitable for inclusion and authorizes the Department to do so.

Title XIX: Miscellaneous

Section 1901: State land transfers and exchanges.
• Requires the Department of Interior to work with the state to complete the exchange of approximately 3700,000 acres of state school lands located in California desert over the next ten years. Small isolated parcels of state land in wilderness, national parks and monuments would be exchanged for federal lands elsewhere that could potentially provide the state with viable sites for renewable energy development, off-highway vehicle recreation or other commercial purposes.
• Transfers 934 acres currently designated as a BLM wilderness study area to Anza Borrego State Park to be managed as state wilderness, which surrounds it on three sides.
• Requires the Department of the Interior to work with local government to potentially transfer BLM lands for municipal infrastructure needs.

Section 1902: Ensures continued military training activities.
• Ensures the right of the Department of Defense to conduct low-level overflights over wilderness, national parks and national monuments.

Section 1903: Climate change and wildlife corridors.
• Requires the Department of the Interior to study the impact of climate change on California desert species migration, incorporate their results and recommendations into land use management plans, and consider the study’s findings when making decisions granting rights of way for projects on public lands.

Section 1904: Prohibited uses of donated and acquired land.
• Prohibits the use of donated or acquired lands for development, mining, off-highway vehicle use (except designated routes), grazing, military training and other surface disturbing activities. This prohibition would apply only to public lands within the California Desert Conservation Area.
• The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to make limited exceptions in cases where it is deemed in the public interest. Comparable lands would have to be purchased and donated to the federal government as mitigation for lost acreage.
• Authorizes the Secretary to accept easements and deed restrictions on donated lands within the California Desert Conservation Area in the future.

Section 1905: Tribal uses and interests.
• Requires the Secretary to ensure access for tribal cultural activities within national parks, monuments, wilderness and other designated within the bill.
• Requires the Secretary to develop a cultural resources management plan to protect a sacred tribal trail along the Colorado River between southern Nevada and the California-Baja border.

Section 520: Native groundwater supplies.
• Protects the Mojave Preserve’s native groundwater supplies by prohibiting the Department of the Interior from processing rights-of-way applications for nearby projects that are likely to use more groundwater than is naturally restored to the local aquifer each year.

Section 102: Wild and scenic rivers.
• Designates 76 miles of wild and scenic rivers, including Deep Creek and the Whitewater River in and near the San Bernardino National Forest and the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley National Park.

Title II: Desert Renewable Energy Permitting

Section 201: Authorizing Renewable Energy Permitting Office funding and specifying uses for funds generated by renewable development. This section would authorize the Department of the Interior to:

• Fund its new Renewable Energy Permitting Offices with revenues in the existing BLM Permit Processing Improvement Fund, which can currently only be used for Oil and Gas permitting.
• Establish new memoranda of understanding with states to expedite permitting of renewable energy projects.
• Use the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Fund to expedite Fish and Wildlife Service permits for renewable energy proposals on private lands.
• Use 50 percent of income generated from renewable energy projects on Federal Land to (1) replenish the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Fund, (2) increase the size of the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and (3) establish a fund for the purpose of reclaiming any abandoned renewable energy project sites.
• Return the remaining 50 percent of income to state and county governments for the purpose of improving permitting and increasing conservation.

Section 202: Establishes a process to eliminate the backlog of renewable energy development proposals on Federal Land. This section would establish deadlines on both Federal agencies and applicants to expedite the environmental review of renewable energy development proposals, to prioritize development proposals in which the developer makes significant progress, and to turn down ill conceived and speculative proposals. Applicants who fail to meet deadlines will be rejected in favor of developers who make progress on their sites. The Bureau of Land Management would replace its first-come, first-serve permit review process with a process that would give priority to renewable energy developers who have (1) completed their biological and cultural studies, (2) submitted an accepted development plan and a plan for securing necessary water, and (3) applied for an interconnection to the power grid. The Secretary of the Interior has used similar criteria to declare renewable energy proposals on a permitting “fast track.”

Section 203: Establish a coordinated plan to develop renewable energy on Federal Land. This section would require the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Forest Service to undertake Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements of renewable energy potential on Federal land, with the goal of identifying zones where renewable energy production is in the public interest, and where environmental approval of renewable energy projects can be expedited.

Section 204: Requires the Department of Defense (DoD) to Study Renewable Energy Potential. This section would instruct the DoD to study the viability of developing a renewable energy program on Southwest military bases. Military bases in California and Nevada have thousands of disturbed acres which cannot be used for training and may be good places for renewable energy development. Base leaders are working to develop renewable energy as a result of a DoD goal to generate 25 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2025. But the efforts are not coordinated, and this study would focus personnel on this matter formally.

Section 205: Pilot Program to Establish Endangered Species Mitigation Zones: In order to better coordinate endangered species protection and reduce barriers to shifting development from Federal land to private land, renewable energy developers proposing to develop private lands would contribute money to an endowed fund that would be used to better manage, in perpetuity, habitat for desert tortoise and other endangered or threatened species on at least 200,000 acres of specified public lands. Recent research indicates that, especially for protection of the Desert Tortoise, better and more active management of existing federal land is a more effective way to protect the species than acquiring additional mitigation acres in an uncoordinated manner. BLM would adopt a management plan for each zone in consultation with the Fish & Wildlife Service and an expert advisory panel.

Section 206: Bonding: Developers proposing renewable energy projects on Federal land would be required to purchase and hold a bond to fund the eventual clean up and restoration of projects proposed on public lands.

Section 207: Clarify Permitting Requirements for Temporary Weather Measurement Equipment: This section would permit the Bureau of Land Management to expedite the permitting of wind and solar measurement devices.

Section 208: Report: The Secretary of the Interior shall have to report regularly to Congress on progress permitting renewable energy projects on public lands.

Section 209: Establish loan guarantees and grants for advanced technology and underground transmission lines. New technologies could upgrade the capacity of the electricity transmission grid without requiring the permitting and construction of massive new towers. Newly designed higher capacity wires can be strung from existing towers, and new technologies allow for more cost effective underground transmission. However, utilities resist deploying these new technologies because they are not yet proven and they remain more expensive. By providing support for these innovations, grants and loan guarantees would help prove these emerging technologies in a cost effective public-private partnership.


So whats the latest with this proposal? What happened to the proposal that was passed by Bono?

I just came across Anonymous's Christmas Day post: "if oil wells were being discussed instead of solar panels, would you still be as 'pragmatic'?"

Yes. For any energy-producing activity, including oil drilling or solar-panel installation, one should tally the benefits and costs. If the benefits exceed the costs according to whatever criteria exist—for example, if the benefits of enriching the economy, reducing dependence on insecure foreign energy sources, and obtaining less energy from overseas sources where environmental standards are lower exceed the costs of air pollution, heating, damage to wildlands, and degredation of iconic American landscapes—then one should proceed. Whether it's oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or solar installations in the Mojave Desert, the answer is always the same.

Of course, one always wants to maximize benefits and minimize costs and to consider both criteria as broadly as possible, so these calculations must consider the availability of alternative energy sources, the country's ability to reduce demand, etc. In principle I favor drilling for oil in ANWR over importing it from Nigeria or Angola, because I suspect we have higher environmental standards and we're paying ourselves, not Nigerians or Angolans, for the resource. But if we're drilling oil from any source simply so that people can drive around wastefully in oversized SUVs and pickup trucks, then I don't like drilling at all. (I hasten to add that I realize some people have legitimate uses for these vehicles. Here in California, however, blinged-out SUVs and snarl-grilled jacked-up pickup trucks are often used as tacky status symbols or markers of aggression and are not put to their intended uses.)

Cost-benefit analysis may come across as a bit abstract, and I know that many people dislike this problem-solving method. I understand why homo economicus is commonly perceived as a distasteful bloodless technocrat. Yet economics often shows us the best answer among unpalatable alternatives. Economics, in a word, involves exploring trade-offs. One can't both (as I am doing) operate a computer in a nice warm lit room on a short winter day and not get energy from somewhere. Cost-benefit analysis points to the best solution, even if it's not ideal.

I think the term "environmentalist" would carry a lot more credibility than it currently does if that badge weren't a label that people can just attach to themselves willy-nilly but a title that requires formal training and expertise in a relevant area, e.g., economics, engineering, or biology, physics, chemistry, or similar scientific fields. Environmental problems will be solved by people with those kinds of training, and not by "policy analysts," "activists," and the like.

I don't think it's as easy as a 'purist' versus a 'pragmatist'. Pragmatists need to ask themselves this question: if oil wells were being discussed instead of solar panels, would you still be as 'pragmatic'. I think all industrial uses of wild lands need to be evaluated on the same criteria. How much of a footprint will the development have. How unsightly will it be. How disruptive to wildlife. (Birds hate wind farms). How much traffic. How many potential visitors will be affected. Is it a short term use or long term. There cannot be a double standard, one for solar and wind and another for oil or coal.

It probably is a bit churlish to bring up a contentious subject on Christmas Eve (happy holidays to everyone, by the way). It seems to me, however, that the Dianne Feinstein bill casts light on a split in American environmentalism. On the one hand, you have the pragmatists, who want to preserve nature but recognize that human beings have a will to survive and that we Americans, moreover, demand a certain living standard and won't easily relinquish it. On the other hand, you have the purists who believe in an Edenic ideal and, I suspect, wish there weren't so many humans around to disrupt it or that to the extent humans' presence must be tolerated, their economic activity should be suppressed.

Thus, representing the purists, you have Anonymous, above, who writes, "We have to keep wild land wild. No development, not even so-called 'green' development." That's the essence of the ultrapure philosophy of that particular strain of environmentalism—a strain that might be called temperance-movement environmentalism. Representing what might be called the view of pragmatic environmentalism, Casey Verdant writes, "Solar farms could easily and inoffensively be placed on these lands without affecting native species."

I hew to Casey Verdant's view, though I can't go so far as to agree that there won't be any effect on native species. At some point a truck will drive over a desert tortoise. The question is whether there will be too much of an effect, and if we don't know, do we err on the side of caution (as many environmentalists are legendarily wont to want to do) or take a chance?

I feel confident that solar and wind farms can be built in the Mojave without undue risk to the habitat. They should be built absent an evident and strong reason not to build them. Americans need energy.

Moreover, I cannot help but feel that a number of the people who oppose solar panels in the Mojave will find fault with every other energy source as well—even as they type on a computer that uses electricity (and I presume they're not freezing in the dark on this Christmas Eve either). People identifying themselves as environmentalists recently killed a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Los Angeles County—the Sierra Club called this a "victory at sea" (see source below)—and they're opposed to nuclear power, they don't like coal, and at the extreme they don't like wind or solar either. Meanwhile, the Chinese, according to a fine article in this week's New Yorker magazine, are racing to develop clean energy. The Chinese are unburdened by Puritanism and Calvinism, though they have their own culture-based hindrances.

The New York Times has run two items on the Feinstein bill this week, the one rather uncomplimentary toward her and the other more equivocal, saying her plan could even accelerate clean energy development (though I don't quite see how). The rather uncomplimentary article alleges that Feinstein is introducing the legislation to block clean energy to fulfill a prior commitment to keep the land undeveloped (a purported reason that I'm skeptical of, since politics so rarely hews to such lofty principles). To me the unanswered questions are (1) what's her real rationale for the bill, and (2) if it is to block solar and wind farms, something that would seem bizarre on the surface, at whose behest is she acting? Is it on behalf of temperance-movement environmentalists who rather dislike the advancement of civilization? If anyone knows the answers, please post them.

I would point out, moreover, that Feinstein's writ stops at the California-Nevada border, because in the ultramontane region (from a California perspective) that the Silver State constitutes, it's Senator Harry Reid who decides things. If she blocks clean energy development in the California Mojave Desert for whatever reason, the facilities can easily be built across the state line if they're economically viable. Quite likely it will just constitute another verse in the long chapter of California's economic decline since the 1970s.

Here are links to the two Times articles:

Here is the source for the quotation showing the Sierra Club's happiness about blocking the liquefied natural gas terminal:

Acres of solar panels and the roads and buildings and transmission lines necessary to service them are hardly 'inoffensive' to wild lands. I applaud Senator Feinstein for not caving in to industrial uses of wild lands no matter how currently trendy those industrial uses are. Conservators of wild lands must not permit political correctness or the current fads of a political party to sway us from our purposes to protect wilderness and wildlife. Solar farms in the Mojave would have been more damaging to more people's need for wild spaces than drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The solar farms would have taken more acreage, and done damage in an area that really needs wild lands and open space more than Alaska does. Few people will ever visit ANWAR, but the Mojave is in the most populous state where people can actually use and enjoy the experience. Those who oppose drilling in the ANWAR should also oppose the same sorts of intrusive uses in the Mojave.

Sen. Feinstein’s bill to create Mojave Desert monuments ruins the prospect of subtle, non-invasive solar projects on federal lands. Solar farms could easily and inoffensively be placed on these lands without affecting native species.
If you’re interested in solar energy or any other alternative energies, check out It has hundreds of case studies on emerging green technology and solar power. It’s also the largest b2b green directory on the web.

This bill has been vetted with folks in the off-road and 4WD recreational community for about two years. Legitimate, existing routes in the proposed wilderness areas are all being cherry-stemmed in... by folks who actually know and drive these roads. There is zero desire to cut people off from these places. R Stefancik: Sir, Death Valley is a beautiful and amazing place, and I encourage you to explore all of its roads. Bring several spare tires. In fact, I encourage you to explore the existing roads in the three California desert National Parks and the five dozen or so wilderness areas outside of parks in the California desert. That would take you years, but it would be an amazing journey.

In my opinion, this is a good bill that protects the things about the desert we love most: diverse recreation including 4X4 Driving to remote areas, wildlife like bighorn sheep, untamed national parks, and dark night skies. As someone who has traveled into many of these remote areas, from Avawatz to the Castle Mountains, I'd say it's about time we protected them properly.

I'm all for creating for designated wilderness, but those names for the proposed national monuments are lame.

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