Federal offices have been flooded with applications to install solar panels across the arid plains of southeastern California, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein won’t let that stop her from protecting the heart of the Mojave Desert from development.
Some of those projects came to fruition when Feinstein announced in 2009 plans to introduce legislation to establish national monuments on nearly 1 million acres of public lands that are home to bighorn sheep. , desert tortoises, extinct volcanoes, sand dunes and ancient petroglyphs.
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His campaign to create monuments amid ongoing desert land encroachment has been a long one, held back for years by conflicts with environmentalists, off-roaders, hunters and renewable energy interests. .
In the end, he won. President Obama in 2016 designated three new national monuments in the California desert, expanding protection to 1.8 million acres of the Mojave Desert landscape.
“Sen. Feinstein had a passion for the Mojave Desert — and everything in it,” said David Myers, president of the Wildlands Conservancy and a longtime friend of Feinstein, who died Friday. “It awakens his soul: the wild animals, the sand dunes, the wind, the people who work the land – the old California romance with the backcountry roads of adventure and beauty.”
“I visited the Mojave several times with Sen. Feinstein and her husband,” she recalled. “He’s comfortable there. No makeup. Absorbed the wonders of it all.
“He is a defender of the California desert like no other.”
Obama’s designation of the monuments was requested by Feinstein, who for a decade sought to protect land that was not included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. That measure, which he wrote, covered nearly 7.8 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status, and created the Mojave National Preserve.
Feinstein initially asked Obama in 2014 to use his authority to create protected zones, without Congressional approval, to break a logjam of vested interests that had stalled his previous bills.
His effort came on the heels of Obama’s designation earlier that year of much of the Angeles National Forest as a national monument. Urged by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) urged Obama to act after Congress showed its unwillingness to approve his legislation that would create a national recreation area to address the problems in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Earlier this year, Feinstein supported the request of Chu and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) for President Biden to add 109,167 acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
The move would increase the monument by nearly a third and extend its boundaries to the back door of San Fernando Valley neighborhoods including Sylmar, Santa Clarita and Pacoima. It would also give the US Forest Service greater ability to protect natural resources and manage human populations in areas outside of the 2014 monument designated by then-President Obama.
“California has lost a true champion for our state,” Chu said.
Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have encouraged the Antiquities Act to be waived by Congress to protect places of historic or scientific interest.
Such action, however, is almost always controversial, with critics saying the designations unreasonably limit logging, grazing, mining and other activities in vast swathes of the West.
In California, the development of solar-power facilities in the desert is a top priority of the Obama administration as it seeks to ease the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and prevent global warming.
The companies are racing to finalize their permits, which would make them eligible to get some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus funding designated for renewable energy projects. At stake was the creation of 48,000 jobs and enough new energy to power nearly 1.8 million homes, officials said at the time.
Despite fierce political and economic hardship, Obama in 2016 designated three new national monuments requested by Feinstein: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains.
Much of the land was purchased more than a decade ago by private citizens and Myers’ Wildlands Conservancy, then donated to the US Bureau of Land Management in anticipation that it would eventually receive the protection of national monument status.
A post-designation ceremony held in the Oval Office was “one of my proudest moments in conservation,” Myers said. “They had us take a picture – Sen. Feinstein was on Obama’s left, and I was on his right.”
“President Obama pulled us closer to him for a photo,” she added, “then smiled and said, ‘We’re all friends here, right?’ “