MORONGO VALLEY — On a quiet swath of land in Morongo Valley, wildflowers, boulders and sky stretch for miles. Water trickles down a hill, coating the pebbles below with moss.
The Little Morongo Canyon area is designated as federal wilderness area, but its designation leaves it vulnerable to competing interests.
Conservationists and a slew of supporters are hoping to change that.
The California Desert Protection Act of 2011, originally introduced by Senator Diane Feinstein in 2009, would designate the Morongo Valley wilderness area and all of Big Morongo Canyon and Whitewater preserves as a 133,524-acre Sand to Snow National Monument, while adding 2,904 acres to Joshua Tree National Park.
The federal act would set aside this land as well as nearly 1.6 million acres of other scenic and critical-wildlife land throughout California.
Monuments bring money, advocates say
The California Desert Protection Act of 2011 would be a huge accomplishment for conservationists, but advocates say the Sand to Snow Monument itself could be a boon for the Basin. Giving the land monument status would close it off to future development or threats to wildlife, but it would also keep activities like hunting, mining and off-road vehicle use intact.
“This important bill does two important things. Number one, it balances recreational needs in the desert and number two, it enhances opportunities for regional tourism,” Seth Shteir, a field representative for National Parks Conservation Association, said.
Shteir led a presentation about the Sand to Snow Monument proposal at a community meeting Jan. 31 at Morongo Valley Elementary School. Shteir and four panelists urged the audience to get involved with the National Parks Conservation Association in its effort to move the California Desert Protection Act forward.
“In 2010, there were 1.4 million visits to Joshua Tree National Park. For every dollar invested in national parks, it generates another $4 in revenue. That’s a really sound economic investment,” Shteir said.
An Economic Oasis study found $230 million was spent by outdoor recreationists in 2003, he said.
Shteir isn’t the only one who recognizes the role that natural landscapes play in the region’s economy.
He cited data from the 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West poll, which found that “Western voters across the political spectrum ... view parks and public lands as essential to their state’s economy and support upholding and strengthening protections for clean air, clean water, natural areas and wildlife.”
As the bill sits in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, advocates are pushing for stronger support.
Everyone from local agencies like chambers of commerce, Copper Mountain College, Riverside County’s Board of Supervisors and even large-scale energy companies like Edison and Sempra Energy are backing the bill, but San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors isn’t convinced yet.
“When we say we need to do some work, we need to work on the other two supervisors,” Alan Rasmussen, field representative for 3rd District Supervisor Neil Derry, said during Tuesday’s meeting. Rasmussen said Derry embraces the Desert Protection Act, but Supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt and Josie Gonzales have not yet agreed to support the bill.
“I’m embarrassed to say that Riverside County embraced it and we weren’t able to do that,” Rasmussen said.
Supervisors voice energy concerns
Gonzales and Mitzelfelt, who oversee the county’s 5th and 1st Districts, respectively, have yet to take an official stance on the bill, citing concerns over gridlocking renewable energy projects. Mitzelfelt said he takes no issue with the proposed Sand to Snow Monument, but is concerned about limiting new mining claims in what would become Mojave Trails National Monument.
The proposed monument would cover 941,413 acres in an eastern portion of the county along an undeveloped stretch of Route 66.
“I don’t want to limit the opportunities for economic development,” Mitzelfelt said by phone Thursday.
Proponents of the bill say California has more than enough space available for renewable-energy development.
“As far as renewable-energy development, there is zero conflict. There is more than enough land in the desert available for renewable-energy development,” Frazier Haney of the Wildlands Conservancy said by phone Friday.
Haney said the bill does not interfere with two potential solar zones identified by the federal government, or the ones being identified by the state.
According to the California Energy Commission, it will take nearly 128,000 acres of desert land to meet California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard with solar technology. The Bureau of Land Management has identified more than 350,000 acres of land in its solar energy study areas.
Mojave Trails’ mining wouldn’t be compromised either, Haney noted.
“Inside the Mojave Trails there are existing mines. The monument designation wouldn’t affect their operation at all. It would lock in existing uses, whether it’s mining or ORV use of trails. Furthermore, it would legislatively designate those five new off-road vehicle areas in the California desert, which has never been done before,” Haney said.
New energy generation is a major concern for state and county officials.
“As much as I love animals and I love nature, do I sacrifice human needs? Do I sacrifice meeting the community growth demand?” Gonzales said by phone Thursday. “Balancing the needs of both is the trick. They both have to come together in a symbiotic relationship,”
Supporters like Shteir say the number of symbiotic relationships is dwindling.
“We lie sandwiched between two major metropolitan areas,” Shteir said, noting the Basin’s proximity to Los Angeles on the west and Las Vegas toward the east. “We’ve got almost 25 million people here in Southern California … so those two areas of the country are really putting the squeeze on the California desert.”