California outdoors enthusiasts fear Washington is poised to put up roadblocks on some of the Golden State's most treasured trails by designating three desert destinations totaling more than 1 million acres national landmarks.
The Obama administration is considering using the federal Antiquities Act to bypass the legislative process at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose efforts to have the Mojave Trails and Castle Mountain, both in the Mojave Desert, and a section of the Sonoran Desert named federal sites were repeatedly blocked by Republicans. A White House move could put the land under federal control, which critics say could cut funding for upkeep or even restrict access.
“Bypassing the legislative process using the Antiquities Act would be as disastrous as it is undemocratic, creating winners and losers with the stroke of a pen,” said Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., who has sponsored a bill that bears some similarities to Feinstein's, but would ensure off-roading and mining could continue on the land. Cook’s bill would also allow the state to create water projects for wildlife conservation.
“Any time you take away the consensus of the local community they are left with something they did not ask for."
The Mojave Trails lie in the desert of the same name in eastern California and are part of a 140-mile road that stretches from the Colorado River to Mojave River. The Sand to Snow Monument would cover 135,000 acres from the Sonoran Desert floor in Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, in the San Bernardino Mountain range. The Castle Mountains lie on the Border of Nevada and California near the famed Joshua Tree region and reach an elevation of 5,543 feet.
While the Obama administration has not said publicly if the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountain national monuments will be designated, Feinstein asked the president in August to take the action. The Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, and gives the president authority to create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. It has been used more than 100 times, including for such landmarks as the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helen's and a stretch of the Underground Railroad in Maryland. Given that President Obama has invoked the Antiquities Act to name 19 sites national monuments since 2009 and as recently as July, Cook and other critics have reason to believe the White House could do so again, especially at the invitation of a powerful Democratic ally.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which has been fighting the legislative proposals for two years. "More and more of the desert is being taken away from the people. If you look at the entirety of the desert, there has always been a no-win when the Antiquities Act has been put in place.”
Cook supports the designation, but through legislation and on terms that allow current uses to continue. He said a White House decree based on the Antiquities Act “sets in motion a Washington-based management plan" that will ultimately leave the recreational area unfunded - and unkempt.
“ ... the roads and facilities will be left to degrade to a point where public use is unsafe or impossible,” he said. “Anyone who’s read the recent reporting on the newly-created San Gabriel National Monument’s dire situation can attest to this. Use of the Antiquities Act will create more “orphan” monuments like San Gabriel, this time in the heart of the California desert.”
One example of the Antiquities Act not helping to improve an area can be seen at the San Gabriel Mountains, range of mountains located across Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and separates the City of Angels and the Mojave. It has been just over a year since the White House designated the mountainous region as a National monument but the area has still not received any federal funding. The 970-square-mile region badly needed the funding to combat growing blight in the area, but is still plagued by garbage and vandalism. And with no federal funding in sight, the National Park Service does not have the means for proper upkeep.
Feinstein is not without support in her home state. An Antiquities Act designation for the three landmarks could actually bolster recreational activities, according to the Campaign for the California Desert.
“The point that Rep. Cook and other opponents of the monument designation are missing is that when our shared public lands are protected, it’s for the continued use and benefit of all Americans," the group said in a statement. "It is only when our public lands are sold off or leased by a developer does the public’s access to our public lands becomes restricted.”