Palm Springs Desert Sun: National pressure mounts for Biden to create Chuckwalla monument, protect other lands

By Janet Wilson

Anxious to gain ground ‒ lots of it ‒ before the November Presidential Election, a broad coalition of conservationists and tribes will “present” an 800,000 signature petition to President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, urging them to quickly use their powers to protect large swaths of lands and historic sites, including creation of a new Chuckwalla National Monument in the California desert, and an expansion of popular Joshua Tree National Park.

“We feel very excited, because this is a monument that can bring multiple benefits to the local community, and to area tribes. It can bring a boost to the local economy, and provide easy and affordable public access (to recreation), especially for communities in the eastern Coachella Valley that already border these areas,” said Frank Ruiz, Audubon California’s desert and Salton Sea program director, who has helped lead efforts to win regional support, including a key agreement with energy groups.

To placate solar companies, 40,000 acres has been shaved off the original Chuckwalla monument map in the past month to steer clear of solar development and transmission zones along Interstate 10.

As for wildlife, as much as 620,000 acres of rare desert woodlands and washes that provide critical habitat for millions of migrating birds could be protected in the Chuckwalla National Monument, stretching across “a confluence of two ecosystems, where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado and the Sonoran Desert,” Ruiz said. “Millions of migratory birds use these areas for their survival in this region.”

Sacred tribal sites also would be protected, with potential co-management of the public lands by the Bureau of Land Management, the Torrez-Martinez tribe, the Quechan tribe and others. The southern portion of the popular, increasingly crowded Joshua Tree National Park could also be expanded by 17,000 acres.

Desert push part of national effort to save lands in 7 states

The coalition will press Biden to use his executive powers under the Antiquities Act to designate lands in the California desert as well as to expand the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park, along with expected additions to the San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monuments.

All told, the groups are pushing for new or expanded designations of 11 wilderness and historic sites in seven states, including California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Illinois and Maryland. Advocates point to the rollback by President Donald Trump of numerous monument and wilderness designations made by departing President Barack Obama as reason for Biden not to delay on the designations. He and Trump are facing off again in November.

A spokesman for Interior Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the proposed lands, referred questions to the White House. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond. But national backing is growing.

“Our public lands are some of California’s greatest natural wonders, helping to preserve generations of cultural history, combat climate change, and provide crucial access to green spaces,” said U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California. “The San Gabriel Mountains, Molok Luyuk (near Berryesea), and the Chuckwalla Mountains desert landscape represent some of our state’s most treasured landscapes, and it’s past time we provide them full protection and official national monument designation.”

He added,” Our proposals reflect the input of tribal leaders, local officials, and partners who have fought for years to protect these lands. I look forward to working with the Biden Administration to ensure these marvels are protected for future generations to enjoy.”

Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International, said in an email, “Achieving California’s decarbonization goals by 2045 requires rapidly expanding the energy grid to connect solar, wind and other renewables. The Chuckwalla National Monument will protect environmental resources and tribal lands while creating an energy corridor for the electric power lines essential for the state’s clean energy future.”

Edison is the parent company of, among others, Southern California Edison, which increasingly is replacing out-of-state, highly polluting coal power with solar power from large-scale developments and transmission lines along I-10.

Key elected officials and environmental groups have a back-up plan if Biden fails to act. Padilla and U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, along with others, will jointly introduce legislation this week dubbed the “Chuckwalla National Monument Establishment and Joshua Tree National Park Expansion Act of 2024” that would aim to preserve the lands via an act of Congress.

“Our proposal reflects the input of tribal leaders who have fought for years to protect these sacred landscapes, and from our partners in the energy industry who worked with us to carefully craft the Monument’s boundaries to ensure we can meet our shared clean energy goals,” Padilla said. “I look forward to working alongside federal officials, tribes, veterans, and local businesses to secure these protections as soon as possible.”

“Thanks to Sen. Padilla and Rep. Ruiz, we are now closer to protecting the home of the Chuckwalla lizard, the desert tortoise and the Sonoran pronghorn. We urge President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to act quickly,” Laura Deehan, state director of Environment California, said.

But the chances of the combined bills passing both houses this session are not high, said Ruiz with Audubon California.

Chuckwalla map loses 40,000 acres to placate energy companies

To win the support of renewables and other energy companies, the boundaries of the proposed Chuckwalla monument have shrunk by 40,000 acres, per an agreement struck “in the past month” between a coalition of environmental groups and energy groups, said Audubon’s Ruiz. The boundaries were adjusted to avoid and keep a buffer between solar development focus areas identified in an earlier Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, and to forestall objections by large scale commercial solar companies and trade groups.

“We must find a common denominator, and that is exactly what is happening here,” said Ruiz. “We’ve achieved a balance. Not everything needs to be conservation, and not everything needs to be development.”

Scores of area tribal leaders, agencies and elected officials have now signed on to support the Chuckwalla efforts. One exception? The Coachella Valley Water District. In a November 15, 2023, letter to Padilla and fellow U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler, CVWD’s general manager, Jim Barrett, said the monument boundaries as drawn “have the potential to interfere with” the agency’s ability to protect and maintain the large Coachella Canal, to “provide reliable water supply and stormwater protection” and to construct new facilities to serve future developments in the east valley. The agency also sought to have portions of scenic Mecca Hills removed from the monument, saying as the climate changes, more severe storms will require better access for their work.

Ruiz said buffers have been included, and the agency has now chosen to stay neutral, neither supporting or opposing the open spaces.

Others said the new designations could be a boon for balanced conservation and development, noting portions of the monument would be adjacent to both low income farmworker communities like Mecca and Oasis and planned eastern Coachella Valley developments.

Biden creating the monument “would be a crucial step in fulfilling his pledge to prioritize under-resourced communities and tackle climate change,” said Sendy Hernández Orellana Barrows, conservation program manager with the Council of Mexican Federations in North America, in an email. “These awe-inspiring landscapes within the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument are of great importance to all who consider the desert our backyard, as they provide a rich tapestry of natural wonders and cultural heritage and support a part of our well-being.”

Joan Taylor, chair of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee, said, “I think the national monument is going be huge for the Coachella Valley, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley. We’re going to see new ‘gateway’ cities out there, and it should be a great benefit for tourism and will guarantee permanent access for recreation for residents.”

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