California has managed to retain its iconic status as the land of golden opportunity in the face of earthquakes, droughts, wildfires and an economy that has lurched between boom and bust. Despite, or perhaps because of, all this, the state remains one of the most desirable places in the United States to live, work and visit, thanks in great part to its natural beauty.
On Feb. 12, President Obama took a critical step toward buttressing the state's legacy of environmental protection and resilience by designating three new national monuments in the California desert, adding to a corridor of protected land that now stretches north from Joshua Tree National Park to the edge of Death Valley National Park.
These new monuments are an important part of a broader approach by federal, state and local agencies to integrate land and wildlife conservation with the development of renewable energy sources in the California desert. The monuments will complement the administration's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which identifies lands for potential renewable energy development and conservation.
Combined, these monuments encompass a total of nearly 1.8 million acres — the largest monument designation secured by the Obama administration — safeguarding a recreation area for millions of people and contiguous habitat needed to support dozens of native species.
The monuments contain a wealth of cultural and biological treasures.
The Mojave Trails National Monument links Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, protecting pristine scenery, important archaeological sites and critical habitat for bighorn sheep and desert tortoises. In addition, it is the home of North America's youngest volcano, as well as the 550 million-year-old trilobite fossil beds of the Marble Mountains.
The Sand to Snow National Monument rises dramatically from the Sonoran Desert floor to the snowy heights of Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California’s tallest peak. The entire area is a critical wildlife corridor for species such as pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep. It also boasts rare desert rivers, a 25-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, and irreplaceable cultural sites, including Native American petroglyphs and artifacts. Opportunities abound for hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, fishing, birdwatching, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
The remote Castle Mountains National Monument, surrounded on three sides by the Mojave National Preserve, offers rocky peaks, native desert grasslands, Joshua trees, and pinyon pine and juniper forests. It includes the historic gold-mining ghost town of Hart and is home to golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats.
Monuments, like national parks, bring tangible benefits. Public lands in the California desert already contribute significantly to the state's tourism economy: In 2014, more than 3.2 million people visited Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve, adding $194 million to the region's economy and supporting over 2,700 jobs, according to the National Park Service. In 2013, areas of California managed by the Bureau of Land Management drew almost 4.2 million visitors.
These numbers reflect national trends, which show that public lands generate millions of dollars for local and regional economies, bolster the $646 billion-per-year outdoor recreation sector, and raise private property values in surrounding areas.
The designation of Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains by Obama will undoubtedly bring further attention and more visitors to the area. As filmmaker Eva Soltes said at a public meeting on the benefits of monument designation, hosted by California Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D), "Designation equals destination."
Importantly, the three new monuments were created with strong local support from both sides of the political aisle and from business, citizen groups and various other interests — sending a strong message that protection of places like these does not simply benefit one group or political party. Rather, they are part of our nation's natural patrimony, to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of political persuasion. It was in this spirit that a bipartisan group of elected officials, including Republican and Democratic mayors and city council members, worked for nearly a decade on legislative efforts to protect the California desert.
President Obama's announcement means that the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments will be permanently protected from extractive activities and will remain accessible to the public for the bountiful variety of recreation activities that has helped California's parklands attract tourists from around the world. And it is one of the reasons why California will remain the Golden State for years to come.
Reichert leads the environmental work at the Pew Charitable Trusts.