A bipartisan conservation bill signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump that safeguards around 375,500 acres of public land and miles of free-flowing rivers in southeastern California will expand Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and give permanent protection to the Whitewater River in Riverside County.
Congress last month overwhelmingly approved the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act of 2019, which was championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and several congressional representatives, including Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley. It was part of a package of public lands bills — the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act — which the president signed into law.
“This legislation is a huge win for conservation,” said Geary Hund, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
“It ensures that some of the most important natural and cultural resources in the Mojave Desert will be protected and connected in perpetuity. It contributes to the creation of an interconnected system of reserves including Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Trails National Monument and the Mojave National Preserve. These areas are critically important to maintaining the health of desert ecosystems and more specifically, they are important to iconic desert species such as desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.”
Joshua Tree will be expanded by 4,543 acres, while 28.1 miles of the Whitewater River will be protected as a free-flowing river, which means that a dam cannot be installed on the waterway, according to the California Wilderness Coalition, also known as CalWild.
CalWild worked for years in support of the measure, which “not only protects sensitive desert water resources, fragile wildlife habitat and spectacular scenic vistas, but also bolsters tourism which is essential to the economies of desert cities by ensuring public lands remain in their natural state.”
Upwards of 40,000 acres will be added to Death Valley National Park under the legislation, which also establishes the 81,800-acre Vinagre Wash Special Management Area in Imperial County to protect ecologically sensitive areas and Native American heritage sites and designates the 18,840-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in Inyo County for continued recreational use.
“The public lands of the California desert draw visitors from around the world, who come to enjoy the area’s wildlife, scenic vistas, and recreation opportunities,” said Kelly Crawford of Joshua Tree Excursions, which provides group tours in Joshua Tree National Park and nearby public lands. “This has created a thriving tourism economy that seems to grow every year as more people discover the desert as a destination. The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act secures this important legacy for residents, businesses, and visitors.”
Joshua Tree is home to the desert tortoise, which was placed on both the California and Federal Endangered Species Lists in 1989 and 1990, respectively.
“Several factors conspired to diminish the population of the desert tortoise,” according to the National Park Service website. “As more people moved into the western deserts, the resultant loss of habitat made a serious dent in the number of tortoises. With more people came more ravens, large black birds with a keen appetite for hatchling tortoises. The number of ravens has exploded in recent years, due in large part to their ability to thrive in developed areas.”
Between 200 and 200 bighorn sheep live in Joshua Tree and survive on a variety of desert plants, including cacti.
The Whitewater River also hosts bighorn sheep, as well as a few federally endangered species, according to The Wildlands Conservancy. Endangered species include two birds — the Southwest willow flycatcher and Bell’s vireo.
“Some of the bill’s conservation measures were years in the making,” according to a statement released by CalWild. “Local conservationists first asked the Forest Service to study Deep Creek and the Whitewater River — two streams that flow from the San Bernardino Mountains into the Mojave and Coachella Valley — more than 30 years ago.”
Ryan Henson, CalWild’s senior policy director, noted that the legislation is being enacted on the 25th anniversary of the passage of Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act of 1994. According to CalWild, the legislation’s support was wide-ranging and included conservationists, tribes, the U.S. military, local governments, utilities, small businesses and off-road enthusiasts.
Brian Sybert, executive director of the Durango, Colorado-based Conservation Lands Foundation, said “efforts of grassroots groups across the West — powered by volunteers who want to protect the quality of life in their own communities — have resulted in one of the most significant conservation laws to be enacted in decades.”
“Because of this law, more children will be introduced to the outdoors, wildlife will benefit from intact migration corridors, and the histories and cultures encompassed within these lands will endure for future generations of Americans,” he said.
No additional resources were provided to the protected lands within the conservation bill, CalWild Assistant Policy Director Linda Castro said. She added that it may take a while for local agencies to change signage at the newly minted protected lands.