Local Leaders Oppose Rep. Cook’s California Desert Legislation in Advance of House Subcommittee Hearing Today

Broad Support grows for Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow & Castle Mountains National Monuments

(Joshua Tree, CA, December 9) – California Desert community, business and faith leaders, local residents and others today expressed continued opposition to legislation proposed by Congressman Paul Cook (CA-8). H.R. 3668, the “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act” (CMORCA), is set to be heard at 2 p.m. EST today by the Subcommittee on Federal Lands of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

CMORCA varies significantly from the widely supported “California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act” (CDCRA) proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein. For example, CMORCA would leave 150 square miles (96,500 acres) of the Mojave Trails area open to mining, which could expand mining in the area by as much as nine times current levels.  In addition, CMORCA does not include provisions from CDCRA that would protect certain California Desert aquifers, thus leaving those groundwater supplies vulnerable to being over-pumped and exported out of the desert to places such as Orange County. CMORCA would also add 8,000 fewer acres to the Mojave National Preserve than Senator Feinstein’s CDCRA bill proposes, thus neglecting thousands of acres of beautiful Joshua Tree woodlands and remarkable wildlife.

CMORCA would also restrict use of the Antiquities Act, a tool used by both Republican and Democrat presidents to protect many of our nations’ iconic natural treasures, including Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Along with other provisions, such as removing protections for 35,000 acres of public lands in Inyo County, CMORCA would ultimately damage unique cultural and historic resources, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.

Conversely, Senator Feinstein’s CDCRA would designate Mojave Trails as a National Monument, thus ensuring continued public access for outdoor recreation activities, protection of public lands for future generations, and greater benefits for the desert region’s vital tourism and outdoor economy.

Because of these and other differences between the two pieces of legislation and the diminished track record of recent Congresses to pass legislation protecting public lands, Senator Feinstein has asked President Obama to designate Mojave Trails, along with Sand to Snow and the Castle Mountains, as national monuments using his authority under the Antiquities Act. Public support for this action was strongly demonstrated at an October public meeting near Whitewater, CA, attended by over 1,000 people.  Four of five written comments and three of four verbal comments received at the meeting supported national monument designations.

“Congressman Cook’s attention to our desert’s public lands is appreciated but this House legislation is a non-starter on several fronts,” said ‘Death Valley Jim’ Mattern, a desert explorer, author, hiking guide and resident of Joshua Tree. “The bill would impact recreation opportunities including hiking, viewing wildlife, hunting, horseback riding, rock collecting, and backroad exploring by leaving a large portion of Mojave Trails open to mining and by removing protections for 35,000 acres of public lands in Inyo County.”

A recent poll showed strong support (75% statewide and 70% in the desert region) for Senator Feinstein’s call to the President to permanently protect Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains as National Monuments. In that poll, voters solidly opposed (67% statewide and 66% in the desert region) using 100,000 acres of public lands in Mojave Trails for new mining rather than protecting those lands as wildlife habitat, for recreation, and for its historic value.

While designating Mojave Trails a national monument would safeguard natural resources and help expand the region’s tourism economy, it would not impede existing mining claims or operations. In addition, vast stretches of the California Desert would remain open for new mining and other development. This represents a very balanced approach given that mining’s contribution to the desert region’s economy is modest. In fact, a recent study found that, in the last 25 years, mining has contributed no more than 0.25% of the region’s overall employment. Within the California Desert only five mining operations each employ more than 100 employees.

Conversely, protected public lands in the desert are an important economic asset and add to local quality of life. Already, Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve are significant economic drivers. Visitors come to these parks from across the country and around the world, contributing $194 million to the region’s economy and supporting over 2,700 jobs (2014).  Millions of visitors annually to Bureau of Land Management areas additionally contribute to these spending and job numbers.

“Protecting Mojave Trails as a national monument would benefit the desert region’s tourism economy,” said Peter Spurr, a real estate broker with Joshua Tree Realtyin Joshua Tree. “Unfortunately, the COMRCA bill misses this historic opportunity by proposing a Special Management Area open to new mining. Visitors won’t travel here to visit a Special Management Area.”

Senator Feinstein’s request to designate the national monuments is widely supported by business leaders, elected officials, veterans, Native Americans, Latino organizations, historians, archeologists, biologists, and community members. Just this week a group of over 100 faith leaders released a letter expressing their strong support for the proposed monuments.

“I look at our desert lands and see God’s creation,” said Pastor Hector Manzo of the Centro Cristiano De Fe (Christian Center of Faith) in Hesperia. “These lands are teeming with history, and all they hold is ours to protect – from the shifting sand dunes in Mojave Trails to the majestic bighorn sheep and wide open skies filled with stars. That’s why I urge the President to designate new national monuments in the California desert.”

The differences between Congressman Cook’s and Senator Feinstein’s proposals make it clear that local communities cannot rely solely on the legislative process to effectively protect the California Desert for future generations. Local leaders will continue their call for President Obama to designate the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains National Monuments.