David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy walks in Sleeping Beauty Valley,… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The…)
Reporting from Barstow — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) says she plans to introduce legislation today to establish two national monuments on roughly 1 million acres of Mojave Desert outback that is home to bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, extinct volcanoes, sand dunes and ancient petroglyphs.
Its centerpiece, Mojave Trails National Monument, would prohibit development on 941,000 acres of federal land and former railroad company property along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66, between Ludlow and Needles.
The smaller Sand to Snow National Monument, about 45 miles east of Riverside, would cover about 134,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Its diverse habitats range from desert scrub to yellow pine forests 9,000 feet above sea level.
The legislation, which had been delayed by efforts to resolve conflicts among environmentalists, off-roaders and renewable energy interests, would also designate 250,000 acres of public land near the Army's training center at Ft. Irwin as wilderness; add 41,000 acres to the southern boundary of Death Valley National Park and add 2,900 acres to northern portions of Joshua Tree National Park.
In addition, it would designate as permanent five existing off-highway vehicle areas in San Bernardino County covering 314,000 acres.
Feinstein, author of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, vowed to make the legislation a priority. "In the best-case scenario, this legislation could be approved by late 2010," she said in an interview.
"This magnificent land and its lonely beauty are a significant part of our history, and we shouldn't give it up," Feinstein said, adding that private donors helped acquire the former railroad parcels "with the belief they would be protected from development. We have an obligation to keep them that way."
The railroad land was purchased between 1999 and 2003 with $45 million in private donations collected by the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy and $18 million in federal funds, then donated to the Department of the Interior.
The Bureau of Land Management is reviewing 130 applications for solar and wind-energy development in the California desert, covering more than 1 million acres of public land.
At least 19 renewable-energy projects have been suggested within the boundaries of the proposed Mojave Trails monument, according to Feinstein, who has discussed her concerns with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Feinstein's legislation would assist companies with projects currently proposed inside monument boundaries in relocating to federal energy zones being developed elsewhere. It would also permit construction of transmission lines within existing utility rights of way to facilitate the transfer of renewable energy generated in the Southern California desert and adjacent states.
Some congressional Republicans accused Feinstein of engaging in a not-in-my-back-yard campaign when her plans for legislation restricting renewable energy projects in California deserts surfaced earlier this year.
The senator countered that she "strongly" supports such projects, but only if they are built on "suitable" lands.
In an effort to avoid conflicts, BrightSource Energy Inc. and Stirling Energy Systems recently scrapped plans to build massive solar and wind farms on a panoramic stretch of the proposed Mojave Trails monument known as Sleeping Beauty Valley.
"We had a project within what we understand to be the boundaries of the monument, but we recently decided to withdraw it," said Sean Gallagher, Stirling's vice president of marketing strategies and regulatory issues. "We're trying to be respectful of what Sen. Feinstein has been doing in that area of the desert."
Environmentalists, hunters and off-road vehicle enthusiasts expressed support for Feinstein's legislation.
Elden Hughes, an honorary vice president of the Sierra Club, described it as "good news -- and darned important because it means this land would never be built on or fenced off."
James Conkle, founder of the Route 66 Alliance, which seeks to protect the historic route linking Chicago with Southern California, said the bill would "open up the desert to more travelers, sparking interest in fascinating, out-of-the-way places like Ludlow, Amboy and Essex."
Megan Grossglass, spokeswoman for the Off-Road Business Assn., was more cautious in her appraisal. Her group "has not had a chance to fully analyze the bill," she said, "so we cannot give it our endorsement, but we are supportive of the balanced approach it seems to take."
Mojave Trail, a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, includes such environmentally sensitive areas as Afton Canyon, a four-mile ribbon of green wetlands wedged between weathered rock walls, and Amboy Crater, a dormant volcano.
Then there is Sleeping Beauty Valley, a 150-square-mile expanse roughly 60 miles east of Barstow. It contains bighorn sheep, a newly discovered species of lupine that features showy purple blossoms in the spring, and unusually dark lizards that appear to have genetically adapted to the volcanic terrain.
During a tour of the area Sunday, David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, scrambled up a rocky hill at the base of a row of snaggletoothed mountains freckled with clumps of brittlebush.
"Heroic country, isn't it?" he said. "Just a few months ago, there were plans to cover this entire landscape with solar and wind farms. Instead, with this legislation, we are striking a balance with the insatiable demands of population growth."