How Dianne Feinstein helped preserve the California desert

A hawk soars over a a desert road as mountains rise in the distance.
A red-tailed hawk soars over the historic Mojave Road in Mojave National Preserve in April 2020.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Federal offices were flooded with applications to place solar mirrors across the arid flatlands of southeastern California, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein was not going to let that stop her from protecting the heart of the Mojave Desert from development.

Some of those projects were headed toward fruition when Feinstein in 2009 announced plans to introduce bills to establish national monuments on roughly 1 million acres of public lands that are home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, extinct volcanoes, sand dunes and ancient petroglyphs.

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Her campaign to create the monuments amid the unfolding desert land rush turned out to be a lengthy one, held up for years by conflicts among environmentalists, off-roaders, hunters and renewable energy interests.

Ultimately, she prevailed. President Obama in 2016 designated three new national monuments in the California desert, expanding protection to 1.8 million acres of Mojave Desert landscape.

Joshua trees rise from the desert as a snow-capped mountain looms in the distance.
Joshua trees rise from the desert floor as a snow-capped San Jacinto Peak looms in the distance at Joshua Tree National Park in January 2022.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“Sen. Feinstein had a passion for the Mojave Desert — and everything in it,” said David Myers, president of the Wildlands Conservancy and a longtime friend of Feinstein, who died on Friday. “It stirred her soul: the wildlife, the sand dunes, the wind, the people who worked the land — the old California romance with backcountry roads of adventure and enchantment.”

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“I visited the Mojave several times with Sen. Feinstein and her husband,” he recalled. “She was comfortable there. Wore no makeup. Absorbed the wonders of it all.

“She was a defender of the California desert like no other.”

Obama’s designation of the monuments was requested by Feinstein, who for a decade had sought to protect land that wasn’t included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. That measure, which she authored, covered nearly 7.8 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status, and created Mojave National Preserve.

A lone figure treks across a sand dune.
A photographer hikes the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park in December 2014.
(Los Angeles Times)

Feinstein had initially asked Obama in 2014 to use his authority to create the protected zones, without approval of Congress, to break a logjam of interests that had stalled her previous bills.


Her effort came on the heels of Obama’s designation earlier that year of much of Angeles National Forest as a national monument. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) had urged Obama to act after Congress appeared unwilling to approve her legislation to create a national recreation area to address problems in the San Gabriel Mountains.

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Earlier this year, Feinstein supported a request by Chu and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) for President Biden to add 109,167 acres to San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

The move would increase the monument by roughly a third and extend its boundaries to the back door of San Fernando Valley neighborhoods including Sylmar, Santa Clarita and Pacoima. It would also give the U.S. Forest Service greater ability to protect natural resources and manage crowds in areas left out of the 2014 monument designation by then-President Obama.

“California has lost a true champion for our state,” Chu said.

A lizard clings to bare branches of a bush.
A desert spiny lizard clings to twigs at Joshua Tree National Park in September and 2022.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have invoked the Antiquities Act to sidestep Congress to protect areas of historic or scientific interest.

Such action, however, is nearly always controversial, with critics saying the designations unreasonably limit logging, grazing, mining and other activities across wide swaths of the West.


In California, the development of solar-power facilities in the desert had been a top priority of the Obama administration as it sought to ease the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.

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Companies were racing to finalize their permits, which would qualify them to obtain some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus funds designated for renewable energy projects. At stake was the creation of 48,000 jobs and enough new energy to power almost 1.8 million homes, officials said at the time.

Despite fierce political and economic headwinds, Obama in 2016 designated the three new national monuments Feinstein had requested: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains.

A person leaps forward on a giant rock formation.
A giant rock formation occupies White Tank Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Much of the land had been purchased more than a decade earlier by private citizens and Myers’ Wildlands Conservancy, then donated to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in anticipation of its eventually receiving the protection of national monument status.

A post-designation ceremony held in the Oval Office was “one of my proudest moments in conservation,” Myers said. “They had us pose for a photograph — Sen. Feinstein was on Obama’s left, and I was on his right.”


“President Obama pulled us closer to him for the photo,” he added, “then smiled and said, ‘We’re all friends here, right?’ ”