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Mecca Hills by Evan B. Dudley.


California’s Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin Deserts are among the most unique and fragile lands in the world. The iconic desert bighorn sheep and threatened desert tortoise are found across colorful mountains and vast, sandy expanses that are essential for trapping atmospheric carbon in the climate change era.

World-famous landmarks like Joshua Tree National Park, Kelso Dunes, and Trona Pinnacles (made notorious thanks to nearby Hollywood) only scratch the surface of this public lands playground that also contains hidden oases, seasonal springs and rivers like Mission Creek, and impressive wildflower displays.

The California desert is an often misunderstood and under-appreciated landscape, constantly under threat of energy development, industrial-scale mining, encroaching urbanization, and habitat fragmentation.


These lands are well-known among scientists for their rich biological diversity, especially their wide-ranging vegetation. This area, for example, is home to at least 158 different plant species including the endemic Munz’s cholla (endemic means that it is limited to a certain region). 


The deserts of Riverside and Imperial Counties are havens for many unique animal species as well, including the beloved desert tortoise. These highly treasured desert creatures, which were once abundant in California, are severely threatened by habitat loss and human activity. They are now listed on both the Federal and State Endangered Species Acts. 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 almost the entirety of the proposed monument as a “critical habitat” for the threatened desert tortoise, meaning that the agency considers these lands essential for the conservation of a listed species.


Additionally, the arid lands in the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument provide excellent habitat for burro deer, a subspecies of mule deer found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. The USFWS also selected the lands in the proposed monument as a re-introduction site for the iconic and critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn.

The Protect California Deserts campaign is composed of local, state, and national organizations, including CalWild, that are working together to preserve Bureau of Land Management (BLM)--managed desert lands in Riverside and Imperial Counties. The highlight of the campaign, the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument, would consist of about 700,000 acres bordering the southern edge of Joshua Tree National Park. National Monument designations are effective tools to protect these lands from new energy development, mining claims, and other harmful development while maintaining public access for recreational activities such as camping, cycling, and off-road exploration.


The monument designation would honor the homelands of the Iviatim, Kwatsáan, Maara’yam, Nüwü, Pipa Aha Macav (the Cahuilla, Quechan, Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Mojave) peoples. Our coalition regularly engages with Tribal nations whose homelands are within the proposed monument so that future management plans implement Tribal input and stewardship practices. This will help ensure that their traditions, sacred sites, trails, and plant and animal relatives in this cultural landscape are preserved in a manner that respects Tribal priorities and sovereignty.


The proposed monument includes many places that are enjoyed for outdoor recreation activities, including the Painted Canyon in the Mecca Hills and Corn Springs Campground. As part of our effort, we’re proposing that the BLM conduct a study to assess recreation needs in the area.


We’re also seeking to expand Joshua Tree National Park in the Eagle Mountain area (to the east) by about 17,000 acres, which will connect the Park with the proposed national monument and other existing protected areas. This would help ensure connectivity for desert bighorn sheep, burro deer, and other wildlife in the face of climate change. The National Park Service has already identified these lands as a suitable addition to the Park.


Ever since our work with Senator Dianne Feinstein on her California Desert Protection Act of 1994, CalWild has consistently played a significant role in conserving the desert’s wild places. That bill protected a number of areas throughout the desert by designating them as wilderness including the Chuckwalla Mountains, Nopah Range, Owens Peak, and Surprise Canyon Wilderness areas. The bill also established Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks.


In more recent years, we’ve helped designate Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains National Monuments, sought and obtained conservation wins with the BLM’s historic Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), and successfully achieved passage of the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act in 2019, again with Sen. Feinstein.


The proposed national monument holds historical significance. Within a few months of its entry into World War II (WWII), the United States identified and developed more than 18,000 square miles (or nearly 12,000 acres) of the California and Arizona deserts as an Army training facility. Operating between 1942 and 1944, the facility was originally intended to prepare troops for battle in the North African deserts and was therefore given the name of the Desert Training Center (DTC).  More than one million men were trained at the facility, roughly 10 percent of all U.S. servicemen who served in WWII.


The entirety of the proposed monument lies within what was the DTC, and this new designation would also protect two DTC divisional camps (Camps Young and Coxcomb). Numerous artifacts and features from those historic years can still be found in the California desert today, including remnants of divisional camps, airfields, and maneuver areas, as well as more ephemeral features, such as tank tracks.


The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument also contains about 40 miles of the Bradshaw Trail, a historic route that connected the deserts of southern California and Arizona. For centuries, native people traveled between the deserts in what is now Arizona and California to the Pacific coast. One of the most important trails that connected these lands was a route that extended west from the Colorado River region and wound its way past the Mule Mountains, through an area now known as the Chuckwalla Bench, and then east to the Dos Palmas Springs and beyond. This trail was later used as an overland stage route. The trail was used extensively between 1862 and 1877 to haul miners and other passengers to the gold field in La Paz, Arizona.


The route was also sometimes referred to as the La Paz Road, but it was never given that name officially. The BLM designated the surviving part of the route in California as a National Back Country Byway in 1992. About 40 miles of the Bradshaw Trail lie within the proposed national monument, most of which constitute its southern boundary across the Chuckwalla Bench. Of the original 180-mile route, 65 miles can still be traveled today.


The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument also holds approximately 36 miles of a historic railway, known as the Eagle Mountain Railroad. This railway was built to deliver ore from the Eagle Mountain mine, which was located near the existing northeastern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park and the proposed expansion thereto, to a steel mill in Fontana, California so that it could be refined and used in the United States war efforts in WWII. A significant amount of rails and related ruins exist for the modern-day visitor to see and explore in the western one-third of the proposed national monument.

The Presidential Proclamations that designated Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow National Monuments required the BLM to develop monument management plans for them. BLM is expected to begin those planning processes soon, with the Mojave Trails management plan coming first. These planning processes will provide several opportunities for the public to weigh in about how they would like to see the BLM manage the resources and values that the monuments were designated to protect.  


In September 2023, a press conference was held with Congressman Ruiz to announce efforts in launching the designation of the Chuckwalla National Monument. CalWild, coalition members, state and local officials, community members and more came together to celebrate. 


At nearly 700,000 acres, the Chuckwalla National Monument represents a critical part of our overall efforts and the largest and one of the most significant proposals on the table under the state's 30x30 plans.

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