Senator Feinstein this week introduced a revised version of her desert bill that would protect beautiful and remote stretches of the California desert while also setting the stage for significant land exchanges intended to allow for industrial development elsewhere in the state. The bill would create two new national monuments, designate six new wilderness areas, and add acreage to existing national parks. The new conservation areas would provide welcomed protection for over a million acres of desert wildlands that industry is eyeing for development. However, the bill will also leave open the potential that new transmission lines will bisect the new monuments, and requires the Department of Interior to transfer nearly 370,000 acres of public lands elsewhere in California in exchange for parcels of land owned by the State of California that currently fall within the boundaries of desert wilderness, monuments and parks.
The bill is a reincarnation of the California Desert Protection Act, but it is renamed the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 (CDCRA). If passed by Congress, the Mojave Trails National Monument and Sand-to-Snow National Monuments would protect over one million acres of desert wildlands. It would also establish 250,000 acres of new wilderness areas throughout the California desert, and add 75,000 acres to Death Valley National Park, the Mojave National Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park. Earlier iterations of the bill have already impacted how the BLM is managing the desert, essentially establishing de facto conservation areas within the footprints of the two new proposed monuments. Solar and wind energy applications proposed along the Route 66 corridor between Ludlow and Goffs, for example, have since been abandoned or are unlikely to be processed because they would fall within the boundary of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
However, the bill also includes a provision that could open up other lands in California to development. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land managed by the California State Lands Commission (CSLC) are interspersed throughout desert conservation areas established by the original California Desert Protection Act of 1994, as well as the conservation areas that would be established under the CDCRA of 2015 (see the light blue squares on the map above). California has not been able to develop and profit from these stranded parcels because they are surrounded by Federally protected conservation lands. The new bill would require the Department of Interior to make a good faith effort to acquire those stranded CSLC lands within ten years by swapping them for other Federal lands in the state. The exchange would ensure the integrity of desert conservation lands, but encourage development – renewable energy or mining, for example – on the Federal lands that the California acquires as part of the exchange. What is not clear is which Federal lands in California will be most vulnerable to exchange, and thus, development.