Here in the High Desert, we enjoy many landscapes and natural wonders that are the envy of many throughout the country. With the desert’s unspoiled geologic features, recreation opportunities, unique wildlife, and starry skies in our national parks, wilderness areas, and other public lands, we are truly fortunate.
Unfortunately, the California desert is facing major challenges today — proposals to export groundwater from desert aquifers, air pollution, rapid community development and encroachment from renewable energy developments — that jeopardize its future.
This past May, several Victorville, Apple Valley and Hesperia Latino faith leaders, along with youth from their congregations, joined me for a hike at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. The day provided us with the opportunity to form a spiritual connection with God’s creation and underscore the need to protect the California desert.
The experience was eye-opening for the 25 young participants, like Esmeralda Rodriguez, who took videos of the outing and regarded the visit to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve as a spiritual journey.
“It was a beautiful experience,” said Rodriguez. “I learned that it is easier to feel God’s presence outdoors, the freedom of listening to the sounds of nature, and more than anything, the feeling that we are all together in this.”
But even with the challenges facing the High Desert, there is hope.
Earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to President Obama asking that he use the office’s authority under the Antiquities Act to designate three new national monuments — Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.
Sen. Feinstein has sought greater desert protections for several years, and while she is still pursuing congressional support for the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, the Antiquities Act provides new possibilities, as Congress has not yet acted.
Established by Congress in June 1906, the Antiquities Act is an important tool to preserve open space, natural treasures and historical sites in the U.S. It has been used by 16 presidents — eight Republicans and eight Democrats — to create over 130 national monuments, including the inspiring Grand Canyon and the iconic Statue of Liberty. It was also used to provide the original protection for Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks.
Moreover, presidents are permitted only to designate national monuments from existing federal public lands — meaning that new national monuments are designated from public lands American taxpayers already own.
In this time of changing demographics — Latinos make up about 50 percent of the desert’s population — we have an important voice when it comes to our public lands. Poll after poll shows a vast majority of Latinos support protecting these resources.
For instance, the 2015 Colorado College State of the Rockies Poll found that when it comes to specific environmental priorities, there is nearly unanimous Latino support for protecting and conserving natural areas for future generations (97 percent), protecting and conserving wildlife habitat (96 percent) and making sure that rangers have the resources they need to take care of public lands and provide services to visitors (96 percent).
As a pastor, I believe that all of the designations made by presidents under the Antiquities Act protect beautiful landscapes and historic sites where we can connect with our past and our faith. President Obama now has the opportunity to protect these special, inspiring places in the desert.
It is our moral obligation to protect the California desert. Without taking further steps to protect the natural resources, cultural heritage, quality of life and economic benefits the California desert provides, future generations will not be able to enjoy it as we do today.
I applaud Sen. Feinstein’s leadership and respectfully urge the president to act.
Raul Velazquez is pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Iglesia Nuevos Comienzos in Victorville.