WHITEWATER, Calif. (CN) – Southern California is known for its diverse landscape, including the tallest mountain peaks in the state down to the desert, which has been teeming with life since experiencing a super bloom after an unusually wet winter. But when the area connecting the two different landscapes was left unprotected from development – particularly by the energy sector – despite having support from varied groups including environmentalists and off-road enthusiasts, it took an executive order by former President Barack Obama to do what locals say Congress failed to: create the Sand to Snow National Monument.
The monument was formally dedicated a little over a year ago by Obama through an executive order under the Antiquities Act. The monument protects one of the 25 most biologically diverse regions in the world and is where the desert and the mountains meet.
President Donald Trump has since called into question public lands protected under executive orders made by Obama and Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, claiming the communities where the protected lands are located weren’t given enough opportunities to provide input to the government.
Trump’s executive order to review the lands leaves the sensitive landscapes vulnerable to development. And the Sand to Snow experts and visitors Courthouse News spoke to dispute the president’s claim that locals were not included in the vetting process, instead saying an executive order was the only way to ensure the land would be protected when Congress failed to do so.
Divided Congress Makes Legislation Impossible
Since 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, repeatedly introduced legislation in Congress to establish the Sand to Snow monument. When movement stalled in Washington, she wrote a letter in August 2015 asking Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect the sensitive landscape before he left office.
Though Feinstein said when Obama’s executive order was signed she had always preferred to designate the land though legislation, she noted she had tried to get a bill passed for six years which had “diverse stakeholder support” from local governments and officials, environmental groups, off-road enthusiasts, cattle ranchers and the like.
Feinstein hosted a public meeting at the Whitewater Preserve which was attended by 1,000 people, including hundreds who were bused in, in the months leading up to Obama’s executive order.
Her spokesman Adam Russell told Courthouse News after multiple media requests that the senator was traveling and unable to provide a statement on Trump’s executive order.
But San Bernardino County Supervisor Jose Ramos said in a statement to Courthouse News the local community was involved in “substantial vetting” when the monument was being considered by Congress.
“The county’s position has been that any national monument designations should go through the legislative process, rather than by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act,” Ramos said.
“The legislative process provides for substantial vetting and public input by stakeholder groups in the establishment of boundaries and permissible activities. However, this all took place when Sand to Snow Monument was being considered for a designation. Stakeholders were engaged and the community was supportive of the designation.”
Ramos said the monument brings tourism dollars to the surrounding cities. He said as the monument goes through Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review process, the concerns of local people should be considered.
Connecting Protected Landscapes
In a ranger cabin just steps from the Whitewater River, life-long conservationist and Wildlands Conservancy executive director David Myers and desert regional director Jack Thompson spoke about what makes the Sand to Snow Monument worth protecting – and whether the vetting process to do so was appropriate.
Myers said Sand to Snow “could probably stake claim to being the most diverse national monument in North America,” encompassing over 1,600 plant species along with the wildlife you’d find in the desert and mountains.
In many ways dedicating Sand to Snow “filled the gap” left when the San Gorgonio Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park were protected as public lands. Sand to Snow serves as the connector which helps facilitate wildlife corridors, where plants and animals can move from place to place to ensure genetic diversity, Thompson said.
“Very few, if any, governments in the world of their own kind of volition decide to protect places,” Thompson said.
“It’s driven by impassioned people who have decades-long process of bringing awareness to the features and the landscape and why they need to be protected. A lot of the knowledge people had of what you do to protect land over time evolved to include wildlife corridors and landscape connectivity being a key part of land protection. That perspective is one that’s evolving as time goes on, it didn’t necessarily exist 50 years ago.”
The duo recounted the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s fight to develop the land, which about 10 years ago wanted to put a power corridor through what is now known as the Sand to Snow National Monument.
Thompson said the locals who spoke out against the project are the reason the energy project wasn’t viable.
Contrary to popular arguments for preserving lands which often focus on ensuring “future generations” have access to diverse landscapes, Myers has more of a “right now” approach.
“What we do today determines if they even have a tomorrow. Part of that right now is educating children,” Myers said in noting the Conservancy’s free programs for school children.
“These boundaries we put around national parks and monuments is not what protects them through time, what protects them is how people feel about them in their minds and hearts, that’s why we need to constantly educate children.”
That sentiment was echoed by two hikers Courthouse News encountered while at the Whitewater Preserve, just 25 minutes northwest of desert resort town of Palm Springs.
The duo, who would only provide their “trail names” used among hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. “Chicago” and “Wander” had embarked on the months-long, 2,600-mile hiking trek three weeks earlier, and said they’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and wanted to experience the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes through Mexico into California, Oregon and Washington state to Canada.
“There are a number of areas along the PCT that are threatened. We should try and protect everything we do have,” Wander said.
To protect those lands, Thompson and Myers agreed the Antiquities Act was used appropriately in designating the Sand to Snow Monument, pointing out there had been meetings and engagement with those affected by the monument’s creation as part of the legislative process which never came to bear.
Many “opponents” eventually supported creating the project, including an unexpected ally: utility company Southern California Edison.
Concessions were made to get more supporters on board, Myers said, including designating areas within the monument that could be used by off-road riders of quads and other bikes.
“That was such a large compromise that a lot of environmental groups didn’t support, but that was fairly symbolic of the bending that people were willing to do to protect the land overall,” Myers said.
“The desert also went through one of the biggest discernment processes through what land should be protected and what land should be exploited for energy development through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. That was a plan put together with a lot of stakeholders from every group.”
Ultimately, Myers said they “were trying to pass legislation in a divided Congress” and Obama protected the land through an executive order, which the conservationist noted has been used equally by eight Republican presidents and eight Democratic presidents.
He said protecting land is “not a partisan issue” and that public lands “are the landscapes that give Americans a sense of place.”
“What’s most unique about America is you don’t need to be rich or well born in order to enjoy public lands,” Myers said.
“We’re the richest people on earth, we own 626 million acres of public lands. What Donald Trump doesn’t understand about Joshua Tree or the San Gorgonio wilderness is that’s a lot of people’s Mar a Lago,” he added, referring to Trump’s resort in Florida. “That’s what they take pride in, that’s what they get inspired by, that’s the beauty they adore.”
Two people echoed Myers’ thoughts, both highlighting the beauty of the monument and how lucky they feel to be able to visit it as a public land.
Sierra Keylin, a Joshua Tree resident by way of Seattle who was checking out Whitewater to see if it’s “dog friendly” since National Parks like Joshua Tree are not open to canines, said the “oasis” was a reprieve from the heat close to home.
“It’s nice to have so many kinds of places to go with totally different landscapes. There are so many people moving to Joshua Tree and other areas around here we need to keep as much open space as possible,” Keylin said.
At the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, bird-watching enthusiast Gloria Heller said she’s “keeping an eye” on Trump’s executive order and is “very upset” protected lands could potentially lose their protected status.
Heller, a self-described “birder” who became interested in bird watching in the 1970s and has traveled to 47 countries and seen 4,500 species of birds, was dropping off some bottles and cans which the preserve recycles and gives the proceeds to the monument.
“For Southern California, this is a wonderful oasis, and you know how scarce water is, which makes this place worth protecting. We’re steadily losing habitat to agriculture and sprawl of homes, so whatever we can preserve as natural places for people to visit is important,” Heller said.
After listing off different birds she’s seen in her visits to the preserve, Heller said the “consensus” when the monument was designated was that locals were pleased it would be protected.
Courthouse News has been providing in-depth features on some of the national monuments targeted for closure or reduction by the Trump administration, including the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona and Giant Sequoia National Monument in California.