TWENTYNINE PALMS — After a Thursday visit to Joshua Tree National Park, U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael L. Connor approved the first step Friday to transfer public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service.
The Eagle Mountain area, adjacent to the park, was originally part of the Joshua Tree National Monument when it was established in 1936.
The area was taken over by the BLM in the 1950s due to mining claims in the area.
The return of the land would expand the park and allow park officials to manage the important area for migration of indigenous species.
The withdrawal application will cover approximately 22,500 acres and would also encompass lands privately owned, which would be used to develop a Federal Regulatory Commission-licensed hydroelectric-pump storage project.
According to Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith, the project would pump water from the Chuckwalla Groundwater Aquifer to a retention pond at a high elevation, at the times of day solar and wind energy is readily available and less expensive.
The water would then flow down through the hydroelectric pump to a lower retention pond to create energy.
The proposed project is in a section of the Eagle Mountain area that is privately owned by Eagle Crest Energy Company, and sits inside of the area proposed to be returned to the park.
Smith said the privately owned area was used to mine steel from the 1950s to the 1980s; the steel was used to build ships in the Long Beach area after being transported by rail. The mine closed in 1983.
In 1988, Kaiser Ventures began its effort to turn the open-pit mine into a landfill for trash brought in from Los Angeles by train. Residents launched a decades-long court battle, and the plans for the landfill eventually died.
The hydroelectric plant is the latest attempt by a corporation to turn the land into a profitable venture.
“As a conversation agency, the National Park Service had some concerns about this whole prospect because it would open up large bodies of water in the desert for ravens, seagulls and others that can threaten native species,” Smith said. “Another concern was taking water out of the Chuckwalla Aquifer, which is connected to two other aquifers in the park. We have shared those concerns with Eagle Crest and the Department of the Interior has decided they wanted to go ahead with this process; we are going to try to mitigate it as much as possible.”
Smith said it is a process that probably can’t be stopped from going forward even though it will probably have detrimental effects to the national park.
Because the land in question is privately owned, the Eagle Crest Energy Company has rights to use the land and could shop the property elsewhere or choose to use the land for alternative uses.
“There have been different energy proposals for that land,” Smith said. “We are looking at getting a hydro power plant there but what else could have happened in that area? It also gives continuity between mountain ranges where bighorn sheep migrate.”
Connor said the expansion of the park and the Eagle Crest proposal fall in line with the current directives from the executive branch of the federal government.
“There is value in the hydroelectric plant as a renewable energy source,” Conner said. “We understand the proposal, it has gone through the correct process and there is an opportunity at this point of time. There are places that can be developed and need to be used for renewable energy resources.”
Connor said the other advantage is getting property back to the national park to protect landscape and create corridors that will provide further protections for the park.
Recreational miners who use the Eagle Mountain area would be phased out slowly and no one would be able to establish new claims in the area taken over by the park.
Miners would have five to 10 years to withdraw from those areas to try to prevent an abrupt end to recreation in the land currently managed by the BLM.
The National Park Service has been preparing an environmental assessment for a boundary study on the Eagle Mountain area for nearly two years. The NPS expects to issue a finding of no significant impact in early December supporting the segregation.
An official notice of the proposed withdrawal will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 3, which initiates the two-year segregation period and begins the public comment period. The Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service will host a public meeting to gather comments related to the withdrawal process.
“National parks and other public lands are intimately connected to the communities and landscapes beyond their borders, and today’s announcement marks the first step in a process to more fully protect important areas near Joshua Tree, one of our nation’s iconic parks,” Connor said. “We look forward to thoughtful dialogue with the public and stakeholders on effectively managing and conserving this critical area.”