U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein threatened Monday to ask President Obama to create two national monuments in the Mojave Desert, without approval of Congress, if lawmakers again fail to pass legislation protecting the land.
Feinstein said Monday she wants to break a logjam of interests that stalled two previous bills to create the two protected zones, the largest of which is Mojave Trails National Monument on 921,000 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.
The bills, introduced by Feinstein, have been held up by Republicans and by conflicts among environmentalists, off-roaders, hunters and renewable-energy interests.
Feinstein said she would ask Obama to use his authority to create monuments without congressional approval “if we find that by this time next year we cannot find momentum on our bill. That is exactly what we will do.”
Her comments came on the heels of Obama’s designation last month of much of the 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.
Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have invoked the Antiquities Act to sidestep Congress to protect areas of historic or scientific interest. Such action is nearly always controversial, with critics saying the designations unreasonably limit logging, grazing, mining and other activities on wide swaths of the West.
Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled House failed in an attempt to scale back presidential authority to invoke the act.
The proposed Mojave monuments, about a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, would protect overlapping biological zones ranging from desert scrub to yellow pine forests, and diverse terrain and historic features including year-round streams, rugged mountains, extinct volcanoes, sand dunes and ancient petroglyphs.
The regions are habitat for mountain lions, bighorn sheep, California desert tortoises, arroyo toads and rosy boa constrictors.
If approved, Mojave Trails would be managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Sand to Snow would be managed jointly by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, a spokesman for Feinstein said. The legislation does not include authorization for funding the monuments.
If Obama creates the national monuments, his action will not include a number of other protective measures that are found in the legislation, which Feinstein expects to introduce in January. Those include establishing an 18,600-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and designating as wild and scenic rivers a total of 77 miles of waterways, including White Water Creek and Deep Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The legislation also would designate about 250,000 acres near the Army’s training center at Fort Irwin as wilderness and make permanent four existing off-highway vehicle areas covering 135,000 acres. There are about 90,000 off-highway vehicles in the area, and they need a place to do that, or else they’ll tear up the desert,” Feinstein said.
Obama administration officials did not respond to request for comment about Feinstein’s remarks.
Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Feinstein, said, “She has not specifically discussed the use of the Antiquities Act with the White House, but the White House knows this bill is a priority of hers.”
The language in Feinstein’s bill to protect the Alabama Hills was taken from a separate bill introduced in the House earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley), and she said she hoped the congressman would back her legislation.
Cook would not go that far.
“I’m happy that Sen. Feinstein also recognizes the tremendous importance of the Alabama Hills, particularly to residents of Inyo County,” he said. “Her involvement with my legislative proposal is likely to increase bi-partisan support and improve its chances for passage.”
As for Feinstein’s threat to seek a monument designation from Obama, he said, “I’m not supportive of the president using executive orders as a means of protecting public lands.”