More than 1,000 people packed the Whitewater Preserve on Tuesday, enduring the lingering October heat as they cheered — or booed — Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s calls for President Barack Obama to establish three national monuments in the desert.
Feinstein has introduced three desert protection bills over the last six years, which would create the Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails national monuments. But those bills have gone nowhere, victims of the Senate’s chronic gridlock. So earlier this year Feinstein changed tactics, urging Obama to create those monuments and one other via executive authority.
The controversy stirred by that possibility was on full display at Tuesday’s boisterous event, which took on a rally-like atmosphere as dozens of public commenters told Feinstein, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, and other policymakers what they think should be done to protect California’s deserts. The vast majority of attendees supported the creation of the three national monuments, but a vocal minority opposed the use of executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
An enthusiastic Sen. Dianne Feinstein addresses a large crowd during a public forum about designating three new national monuments at the Whitewater Preserve on Oct. 13, 2015. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
“The current political climate is making it difficult to move any lands legislation through either body of the Congress,” Feinstein said. “My intention is to continue to push the bill, while simultaneously pushing a presidential designation. But let me be clear: My preference is very much to push the legislation.”
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The Sand to Snow National Monument would stretch from the desert floor near Joshua Tree National Park to Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino National Forest, encompassing 135,000 acres. The Mojave Trails National Monument would cover 965,000 acres between Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, including a historic stretch along scenic Route 66.
“This area is beautiful. It includes Sleeping Beauty Valley, a timeless desert landscape. It has habitat for the desert tortoise, and it is surrounded by stunning mountains and dunes,” Feinstein said, describing the proposed Mojave Trails monument. “What this desert carries is the tradition of the West that founded California, and we aim to keep that going.”
Dianne Feinstein proposes California national monuments
The third proposed monument, Castle Mountain, is a smaller area that was originally carved out of the Mojave National Preserve due to a since-closed gold mine. Feinstein’s bill would add Castle Mountain to the preserve, but that option isn’t available via the Antiquities Act. Renewable energy development would largely be prohibited within all three monuments.
A diverse array of local groups — including conservationists, off-roaders and Native American tribes — support Feinstein’s bill, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act. But while conservationists generally support the Antiquities Act route, some other groups are skeptical that their interests would be protected by the blunter tool of executive action.
This part of the the Pacific Crest Trail, near the Whitewater Preserve, would be included in the Sand to Snow National Monument if the area receives that designation. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
Randy Banis, a representative of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, praised Feinstein for working hard to incorporate public input in her bill — a theme echoed by many speakers Tuesday. But he also questioned whether monument designations under the Antiquities Act would create adequate protections for off-road vehicle areas. He urged Feinstein to give the legislative process more time, and to work with Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, who has introduced his own desert lands bill in the House.
“I feel like we’re not yet in the seventh inning stretch of the game,” Banis said. “We can have that meeting of the minds, and that melding of viewpoints, so we can get a bill through Congress to protect these lands for all of us, and for recreation.”
Omar Gomez speaks in favor of creating three national monuments in the desert at a public forum at the Whitewater Preserve on Oct. 13, 2015. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
Some Antiquities Act critics rallied around Cook’s bill, which would create the Sand to Snow National Monument while giving the Mojave Trails a lesser level of protection, allowing new mining operations on 10 percent of the area.
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John Sobel, Cook’s chief of staff, expressed hope that his boss and Feinstein will be able to craft a compromise bill that can clear both houses. He also criticized the idea of using the Antiquities Act, which he said would create “second-rate monuments because they lack the adequate support of locals and of Congress.”
In an interview following Tuesday’s event, Ruiz reiterated his support for Feinstein's bill, although he wouldn’t take a position on the potential use of the Antiquities Act. But while many public commenters opposed the use of executive action, it was clear from the cheers and boos that most of the people gathered at Whitewater supported the idea. Bureau of Land Management organizers pegged attendance at more than 1,000.
Representatives from the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments also spoke. While they didn’t say one way or another whether Obama will create the three proposed monuments via executive authority, they reiterated their support for Feinstein’s bill, and said the administration is committed to protecting the desert.
“We know we have a gridlocked Congress at times,” said Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior. “So we have to think about other ways to protect a landscape of this magnitude and this importance.”
Sammy Roth writes about energy and water for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com, (760) 778-4622 and @Sammy_Roth.