Washington Post: Biden expands two California national monuments crucial to tribes

By Maxine Joselow

President Biden on Thursday expanded the boundaries of two national monuments in California by nearly 120,000 acres, using his executive authority to protect vast swaths of land of cultural significance to Native American tribes and nearby communities.

During a ceremony in the Oval Office, Biden signed two proclamations enlarging the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, both of which were originally designated by President Barack Obama. The Washington Post first reported last month that the proclamations were imminent.

The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, east of Los Angeles, encompasses roughly 346,000 acres, mostly in the Angeles National Forest. Its trails offer stunning mountain vistas for hikers, mountain bikers and campers. It will grow by 105,919 acres under Biden’s plan.

The Berryessa Snow National Monument, northwest of Sacramento, covers nearly 331,000 acres of oak-studded hillsides and steep canyons. In the summer, its trails explode with vibrant wildflowers. The proclamation will expand the site by 13,696 acres.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) have championed legislation to enlarge the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, but the measure has stalled in the divided Congress. Biden used his executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to bypass the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

“What a momentous day for Angelenos!” Chu said in a statement, adding that the proclamation follows decades of advocacy by a “vibrant, diverse coalition of indigenous leaders, community activists, and nature-lovers.”

Padilla said in an interview that the expansion will benefit thousands of low-income families in the Los Angeles area who lack access to other green spaces.

“It’s strengthening access to the outdoors for so many low-income working families in the greater Los Angeles area,” Padilla said. “I think it’s about 15 million people in the Los Angeles area who are within a 90-minute drive of the San Gabriel Mountains.”

The mountains are only an hour’s drive from East Los Angeles, which is 95.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to census data. Olivia Juarez, public land program director at GreenLatinos, an advocacy group, called the expansion “the biggest success for Latino communities’ conservation priorities that has gotten done by the Biden administration.”

Rudy J. Ortega Jr., tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, said he had worried that industrial development would encroach on lands near the San Gabriel Mountains that his people have cared for since time immemorial. The expansion, he said in a statement, “would also further protect areas that are critical for our environment and the wildlife and plants that depend on this landscape.”

The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and other tribes helped lead the campaign to expand the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. They called for adding 13,753 acres and changing the name of an additional 11-mile ridgeline from “Walker Ridge” to “Molok Luyuk,” which means “Condor Ridge” in the Patwin language.

Molok Luyuk and surrounding lands are part of the ancestral homeland of the Hill Patwin people. Condors once soared in the skies there, but their population has declined because of lead poisoning, habitat destruction and poaching. The area is also home to bald eagles, tule elk, mountain lions and other species.

Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) have led legislation to enlarge the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and allow for tribal co-management of the site. The presidential proclamation will officially rename the additional ridgeline Molok Luyuk and will direct the Interior Department “to explore costewardship of the area with Tribal Nations,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The proclamation honors “the years of effort that tribes have invested in protecting the land of our ancestors and would reflect a commitment on the part of the Administration and the Bureau of Land Management to build stronger relationships with California Tribes that will ultimately benefit all California residents,” Anthony Roberts, tribal chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, said in a statement.

Biden has set an ambitious goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and he has previously designated five new national monuments. Most recently, the president in August created the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument near the Grand Canyon, safeguarding the site from new uranium mining.

Conservation groups, tribes and Democratic lawmakers have praised these actions while calling for more. Many have urged Biden to designate more than 1 million acres of wilderness in southeastern Oregon as the Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument, and to designate 627,855 acres of desert in Southern California as the Chuckwalla National Monument.

Padilla said he has spoken with administration officials about Chuckwalla and remains optimistic about the possible designation.

“We’ve been in touch, and they have given us some positive signals,” he said. “We know it’s a process.”

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