Recognition and Protection for the California Desert

by Linda Castro and Andrea Iniguez

There’s a new national monument campaign in the California Desert! On September 25, 2023, Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz announced that he introduced a bill that would designate a new national monument in his Congressional District – the Chuckwalla National Monument – and would expand Joshua Tree National Park. He made this announcement at a public gathering of about 150 supporters in Indio, California. Those who spoke in support of the proposal at this event included the Mayor of Indio, Oscar Ortiz, and the Secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, Wade Crowfoot. Representatives from several Tribes also attended and spoke on behalf of the proposal, including President Jordan Joaquin of the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe.

The Sierra Club and CalWild are members of a coalition of local, regional, and national organizations that are working to designate about 660,000 acres of BLM-managed lands as the Chuckwalla National Monument. This coalition of organizations is also working with approximately a dozen tribes that have affiliations with the lands included in this proposal. As of the date of this article, five Tribes have formally expressed their support for this proposal.

The currently proposed boundaries of the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument

California Wilderness Coalition

c. Map of proposed Chcukwalla Monument copy

The Chuckwalla National Monument would extend from east of the Salton Sea to near the Colorado River, primarily south of Interstate 10. The lands that comprise the proposed Monument hold a multitude of cultural, historical, and scientific values and are incredibly worthy of a national monument designation.

Approximately 40% of the proposed national monument is existing Wilderness, which is the highest level of protection for federal public lands. The monument would not change the management of the Wilderness areas that overlap with its boundaries. In 2016, by means of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated almost all the non-Wilderness BLM-managed lands within the proposed monument boundaries as either California Desert National Conservation Lands and/or Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and Special Recreation Management Areas. This action was taken in recognition of the important ecological, cultural, historical, and recreational values these lands hold. This raises the question, “So then, why bother with a national monument designation?” The answer to that question is simple: the protections that are provided by the DRECP are not permanent. In other words, the management directives can be changed by a future BLM plan amendment. The monument designation would provide permanency for the existing BLM management and permanently withdraw all of the lands within the monument from extractive uses. While the DRECP set aside virtually all of the lands within the proposed monument for conservation and recreation purposes, it also designated other lands in the same region of the Colorado Desert for renewable energy development. The Chuckwalla National Monument proposal abides by the compromises reached by the DRECP.

The Chuckwalla initiative also aims to expand Joshua Tree National Park by about 17,000 acres by transferring what is currently BLM-managed lands on the northeastern boundary of the Park to the National Park Service. This expansion would be based on a Boundary Study that the National Park Service completed in 2016 that found that it would be feasible and appropriate to expand the Park in the Eagle Mountain region. This expansion would not include any of the private lands that hold the Eagle Mountain mine or the ghost town.

If achieved, this proposal would protect essential habitat and wildlife linkages for desert bighorn and other species that call this region home. Specifically, the proposal aims to protect the connectivity between seven existing Wilderness areas, like the Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness and the Mecca Hills Wilderness, and in turn, protect the connectivity of these areas to Joshua Tree National Park, by “cementing” the region’s gaps (i.e., non-wilderness lands) with a monument designation.  In fact, the original boundaries of the proposed Monument were drawn with the intent of preserving habitat connectivity for wildlife, particularly for one of the desert’s most emblematic species, the desert bighorn sheep. These magnificent creatures’ most prominent feature is their immense curling horns, which can weigh up to 30 pounds on full-size males. As one of the region’s largest animals, they are fervently admired by visitors, and others, worldwide. These nomadic species, which thrive in the steep and rocky habitat of desert mountain ranges, rely on vast and uninterrupted landscapes to maintain a healthy population. In other words, habitat connectivity, or the species ability to move between mountain ranges, is important for maintaining the populations’ genetic diversity and supporting recolonization in the event of local extinction.

The Monument is marked by striking geological formations produced by the San Andres Fault. Places like the Mecca Hills Wilderness highlight the regions remarkable beauty. These areas are natural labyrinths that offer visitors interesting canyons, washes, and trails to explore. Furthermore, the Monument’s topographic diversity creates habitat for at least sixteen species of bats, including several species which are California Species of Special Concern and/or Bureau of Land Management Sensitive Species. For instance, the California leaf-nosed bat, whose preferred habitat is distributed within the Monument, depends on desert dry washes (i.e., microphyll woodlands) and its surrounding area for resources. These captivating large-eared creatures do not migrate due to the anatomy of their wings, which is not suitable for long distance flights. Therefore, their roost sites are normally located within a few kilometers of their foraging areas. The national monument would increase protection for arid habitat that is essential to multiple bat species in the region. These marvelous mammals serve as pollinators and provide other important benefits to the desert’s ecology. As ecological indicators, their presence is invaluable to understanding the health of our environment.

Microphyll woodlands, which support bat species, are an indispensable resource for other wildlife as well. These desert plant communities are comprised of small-leaved trees, like ironwood, that provide important habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife. In addition, microphyll woodlands help transport water, seeds, and other nutrients throughout the desert, so they are essential to the health of many nearby ecosystems. Although microphyll woodlands account for a small percentage of the desert, they support an abundance of life. Migratory birds, like the Summer Tanager, rely on the microphyll woodlands in the proposed monument as refuge during their annual spring and fall migration. Resident birds and other animals, like the Gila Woodpecker, depend more exclusively on the resources and services these habitats provide. The Monument includes areas, like the Chuckwalla Valley Dune Thicket Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), which contains remarkably dense pockets of microphyll woodlands. Many of these avian species are in population decline, so protecting their habitat is a priority for conservation.

Beyond microphyll woodlands, the proposed monument would include protection for other important habitat areas, like the Chuckwalla Bench which is located within the Chuckwalla ACEC. This place is well known among scientists for its rich biological diversity, especially its wide-ranging vegetation. The area is home to at least 158 different plant species, including the endemic Munz’s cholla. This unique 10-foot cactus is native to California and is only found at 2,300 feet elevation in the Chuckwalla and Chocolate Mountains. In addition, the Chuckwalla Bench is one of the largest and most intact desert tortoise habitats in the region. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) identified approximately two-thirds of the proposed monument as critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. These desert creatures, which were once abundant in California, are severely threatened by habitat loss and human activities.  These lands are one of the last important strongholds for the desert tortoise in the California deserts; therefore, safeguarding these lands from future development is extremely important.

Moreover, USFWS selected the Chuckwalla Bench as a re-introduction site for the iconic and critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn. Although its appearance resembles other “American antelopes”, this subspecies is smaller and lighter in color. The Sonoran pronghorn is native to the Sonoran Desert; however, it was extirpated from California before 1950. Today, this subspecies is only found in Arizona. Several places in California were evaluated before the Chuckwalla Bench was chosen as the best landscape for re-establishing this iconic animal in the state. In other words, the presence of key resources, including suitable plant communities and watering sites, marked this area as having the highest potential for success. Thus, the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument is fundamental to the recovery of a species.

The importance of this region extends beyond its flora and fauna.  The landscape is saturated with cultural significance and places that are deeply sacred to people of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Mojave, Quechan, and Serrano Nations. Also, woven into the region’s history is the nation’s ties to World War II. Nearly ten percent of American soldiers who participated in World War II were trained in the deserts of California, Arizona, and Nevada. Remnants of this history are scattered throughout the proposed monument and can be seen by visitors to this day. The area proposed for protection includes about forty miles of the Bradshaw Trail National Back Country Byway, which was originally an indigenous route and later became an important stagecoach route that connected California to Arizona. Since it offers spectacular views of the region, this trail is primarily enjoyed for outdoor recreation today. In fact, there are several other areas within the Chuckwalla National Monument that are treasured for their outstanding recreational value, including Painted Canyon and Box Canyon. Safeguarding these public lands will help ensure more equitable access to nature for residents of nearby communities, like those in eastern Coachella Valley.

Much like the chuckwalla, a lizard whose charismatic appearance sets them apart from others, this region is unlike anywhere else in California. The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument is distinguished for its vast and diverse array of values that benefit us all. Increasing protections in the region will go a long way in advancing the administration’s 30x30 goal, an initiative to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

Please join us in urging President Biden to designate the Chuckwalla National Monument and protect lands adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park through his use of the Antiquities Act.

Linda Castro is the Assistant Policy Director for CalWild.  She gets to work throughout California, but has chosen to live in the California Desert.  She loves working to protect and conserve California’s wild places and considers herself fortunate to have found her dream job with CalWild.

Andrea Iniguez serves as the Riverside County Public Lands Fellow for CalWild.  For over a year, she has been working with local, regional, and national organizations on an effort to designate the Chuckwalla National Monument and protect lands adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Through her work, she hopes to empower her community by enhancing access and opportunities to public lands for everyone.