California Desert protection moves forward with bill introduction

A multi-colored expanse of sand dunes, wildflowers, woodland, and craggy rock formations lies across the California desert, among the bustling cities of the American Southwest. Here, the sheer variety of life and exotic landscape belies typical associations with the word “desert.”

After years of hard work by The Wilderness Society, this vast expanse of wildlands would be permanently protected under legislation from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act would preserve about 1.6 million acres for future generations, including two new national monuments; additions to two national parks and a national preserve; several new wilderness areas; and protection for wild waterways like the Amargosa River.

Culmination of years of effort

“This legislation is the result of years of effort by Senator Feinstein to honor the needs of local communities and preserve the desert’s unparalleled treasures - from its scenic beauty and outstanding natural resources to its historic and cultural landmarks,” said Dan Smuts, California senior regional director at The Wilderness Society. “Her legislation will help ensure that the desert’s rare and spectacular scenery will continue to attract visitors from around the world.”

Photo: The Badlands east of Denning Spring, inside the proposed Avawatz Mountains Wilderness. Credit: John Dittli.

The bill would create the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow national monuments, protecting a mix of habitat covering everything from desert scrub to pine forest. It would also expand the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and Mojave National Preserve, which were first protected under Sen. Feinstein’s Desert Protection Act in 1994.

The new monuments would preserve vital wildlife corridors from the Coachella Valley through Mojave National Preserve and the San Bernardino Mountains, and 70 miles of new wild and scenic river designations would protect clean water in the region.

These land protection measures will also preserve the incredible cultural legacy of the California desert, including sites of Native American significance and the longest remaining stretch of Route 66.

See more: 12 "Desert Treasures" in California

The California desert already draws millions of worldwide visitors each year; outdoor enthusiasts and tourists at Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the regional economy. The new bill is poised to further strengthen the cache of the region nationally.

Take a look at some photographic evidence of how special this area is:

Credit: John Dittli.

The new Mojave Trails National Monument would include the Cady Mountains  which are home to a range of stunning desert plant life as well as bighorn sheep, eagles, falcons and a variety of reptiles.

Credit: John Dittli.

The proposed Mojave Trails National Monument would also surround the existing Bigelow Cholla Garden and Kelso Dunes wilderness areas as well as the Pisgah Lava Flow, Marble Mountain Fossil Beds and famed Route 66 corridor.

Credit: Mitch Barrie, flickr.

The existing San Gorgonio Wilderness, which was among the original  wilderness areas protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act, lies within the boundaries of the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument. It is a great spot for outdoor recreation, with over 100 miles of established trails.

Credit: Randy McEoin, flickr.

The wilderness area’s eponymous San Gorgonio Mountain is a hiker’s hidden gem--the tallest mountain in Southern California, a respite from urban tumult not far from Los Angeles. This tract of land, a highlight of the San Bernardino Mountains, contains abundant wildlife habitat.

Credit: Jack Thompson (The Wildlands Conservancy).

Whitewater Canyon, as well as the namesake river that runs through it, would also be a part of the new Sand to Snow National Monument. The canyon itself is a vital wildlife corridor connecting the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.

Credit: Matt Artz, flickr.

Big Morongo Canyon would also be included in the Sand to Snow National Monument. Officially designated as Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and Area of Critical Environmental Concern, this rugged patch of wild terrain is one of the places where the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert meet, an area that boasts great biodiversity.

Credit: John Dittli.

The California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act would add about 39,000 acres to Death Valley National Park, one of the most beloved national parks in America. This newly protected land would include part of the region known as the “Bowling Alley.”

Credit: mlhradio, flickr.

Under the bill, Mojave National Preserve, a million-acre expanse of shifting sand dunes and colorful plants, would be expanded by almost 30,000 acres. Among wildlife native to the area are bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbits, and chuckwallas.

Credit: Larry McAfee (NPS).

Wildly popular Joshua Tree National Park, another transitional area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts, is known for its iconic namesake trees and bounty of wildlife. It would be expanded under the new bill.

Credit: Kirk Kittell, flickr.

The legislation would also preserve about 77 miles of Deep Creek, Amargosa River, Surprise Canyon Creek and other important waterways as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Surprise Canyon carries one of precious few perennial desert streams that flow from Death Valley National Park to the Panamint Valley in the west.

Credit: John Dittli.

The proposed Soda Mountains Wilderness would also gain official wilderness status under Sen. Feinstein’s bill.

Credit: John Dittli.

The area that would be protected as the Soda Mountains Wilderness under the new bill, like much of the Mojave Desert, is home to a remarkable variety of colorful desert plants.

Credit: John Dittli.

A view of what would become the Avawatz Mountains Wilderness under the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act.

Credit: James Marvin Phelps, flickr.

The proposed Ibex Wilderness would be protected within Death Valley National Park if the new bill passes.

Credit: Steve Berardi, flickr.

Roughly 18,800 acres of the Alabama Hills region in Inyo County would be protected as a national scenic area under the bill, preserving it for recreational use for future generations.