Whitewater Preserve spared from president’s executive order

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke says the Sand to Snow National Monument should remain a protected area.

The 154,000-acre monument, which stretches from the floor of the Sonoran Desert at the eastern border of Joshua Tree National Monument to the 11,500-foot heights of the San Bernardino Mountains, is one of several monuments established in the final years of the Obama administration.

Using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Obama created the monument in February 2016 by executive order.

Trump issued his own executive order in April calling for a review of all national monuments created since 1996. He talked about opening up the protected land to mining and other development.

Interior Secretary Ron Zinke had until Thursday to review plans for the five other California monuments. But he issued a statement last week recommending no changes be made to Sand to Snow.

“The land of the Sand to Snow National Monument is some of the most diverse terrain in the West, and the monument is home to incredible geographic, biologic and archaeological history in our nation,” Zinke said.

It includes three preserves operated by the Wildlands Conservancy, including the Whitewater Preserve near Cabazon, Mission Creek west of Highway 62 and Big Morongo Canyon to the east.

“All are open to the public for free,” said David Myers, executive director of the conservancy.

Thirty miles of the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada, winds through the monument.

Myers doesn’t think of Zinke’s decision as a reprieve.

“I don’t think it should have been an issue at all,” he said.

Many presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have used the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments.

“And never has a president thought he had the power to eliminate national monuments without congressional action,” Myers added.

The other California monuments under review are Mojave Trails, Berryessa Snow Mountain, San Gabriel Mountains, Carrizo Plain and Giant Sequoia.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been pushing for the protection of the desert for years. In a letter to Zinke co-signed by Sen. Kamala Harris in June, she argued that the economic benefits of tourism and recreation outweigh the potential for mining and development.

Feinstein cited a report by the nonpartisan Sonoran Institute said three desert parks — Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Park — were “major tourism and recreational magnets, attracting more than 3.2 million visitors in 2014.”

A report by the Outdoor Industry Association says the sector contributes $887 billion a year to the economy and $125 billion in taxes.

A national monument designation doesn’t preclude existing mining claims, but prevents new ones. It also stops new residential development.

Myers said national monument status is great for tourism and helps free up public funding. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service were able to add a staff position to oversee the national monument after Obama’s proclamation.

San Gorgonio Wilderness is one of the most botanically diverse areas in the world, with more than 1,600 unique plant species — more than anywhere in North America, he said.

More than 12 federally endangered or threatened species inhabit the area, including the California spotted owl, according to the Forest Service Web site. More than 240 species of birds frequent the forest, which also is home to southern-most stand of Quaking Aspen trees.

Not everyone is happy with Zinke’s recommendation.

Ron Kliewer, president of Public Lands for the People, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mining and recreation on public lands, said Obama’s action was inappropriate. He supports Trump’s push to open federally held land to mining.

“It was a blanket abuse of the Antiquities Act,” Kliewer said. “Obama couldn’t get congressional approval, so he made an end run.”

Kliewer agreed that the region is rich with flora and fauna. But it’s also rich in minerals — gold, silver, other metals and valuable rare earth materials, he said.

“There’s less and less land that people can do things on, and they’re taking away more and more space,” he said.

Myers recalled recently hiking up the San Gorgonio Trail with 10 friends, a trek of 19.6 miles and elevation gain of 5,600 feet.

“You just experience such heroic scenery for the entire stretch and it’s right here in our own backyard for everyone to enjoy,” he said.

Staff Writer James Folmer may be reached at jfolmer@recordgazette.net or at (951) 849-4586.

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