Obama designates 3 new monuments. What will California do with them?

The president designated a large swath of California's Mojave Desert for federal protection. But his action changes how the land may have been used under similar protection proposals from California lawmakers. 

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
The full moon sets behind a wind farm in the Mojave Desert in California in this Jan. 8, 2004 photo. President Obama designated much of this barren desert into three national monuments.

President Obama designated three new public monuments in California on Thursday, making short work of the process that California officials have continued for years with slightly different aims. 

The designation of 1.8 million acres of barren Mojave Desert land overrides ongoing legislation at the state level, where legislators were enthusiastic about protecting the pristine desert but had worked for years to balance local interests, Carolyn Lochhead reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. Obama's unfunded action under the 1906 Antiquities Act also includes a larger tract of land than the California government had intended to protect. 

The designation of three new monuments show "the administration’s strong commitment to aggressive action to protect the environment for future generations," the White House said, according to The New York Times. The largest of the three, the Mojave Trails National Monument, runs along an undeveloped portion of the old Route 66 and was designated to preserve trade routes once used by Native Americans and military training camps from World War II. 

The other two monuments include tribal ruins and are home to desert species such as golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and bobcats, reported Mark Landler for the Times. The Bureau of Land Management will administer them, meaning the agency will begin to hammer out details in the coming months. 

Where Obama's move emphasizes protection of old or even ancient sites and animals, the state government was working on legislation to balance land protection with land use. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California had spearheaded a proposal to protect 1.3 million acres of land, and Rep. Paul Cook (R), who represents the affected area, had also proposed designating the same three monuments for environmental protection, but his legislation would have opened one of the monuments to mining, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

A self-described "city girl," Senator Feinstein asked Obama to take unilateral action and expand on the land designations made by the California legislature in 1994, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"The effort to preserve the California desert has been a long one, and today is a major milestone," Feinstein said, according to the LA Times.

But some local stakeholders worry it steps over years of work at the state level. Randy Banis had worked on Feinstein's bill for years as a representative of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, but he fears that bill is now dead.

"I don't see a path forward with the crown jewel that held together the diverse parties being cherry picked out,” Mr. Banis told the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Obama's designation of the monuments emphasizes the environmental protections that conservation groups and legislators around the state had also wanted, but it lacks proposals to both maintain and build new roads and further develop the land as a national park and wilderness area.

"When it’s time for me to go back to the desert to camp and recreate, there will be fewer places for me to go in my Land Rover because of roads being closed," Banis told the Chronicle. 

Other local officials are more optimistic about the impact of the new monuments on the area's residents and visitors.

"Thanks to President Obama designating three new National Monuments, attractions such as Route 66 in Mojave Trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in Sand to Snow, and the ghost town of Hart in the Castle Mountains will permanently be protected for generations to come," Eva Soltes, a former president of the Joshua Tree Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "The history and beauty of these new designations will add to the quality of life for all who experience them and contribute greatly to the economies of the surrounding communities."

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