If you’ve ever been to the deserts of Southern California, you know they are remarkable places filled with stunning vistas and wildlife found nowhere else.
As a scientist, these places hold additional value for me: More than 2,500 plant and animal species – including over 100 known threatened and endangered species – have been documented in these deserts, with new discoveries happening regularly.
I was pleased, therefore, that President Barack Obama proposed protecting 1.8 million acres under the Antiquities Act by designating three new national monuments: Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains. The designation, if enacted, will mean these areas will receive permanent protections to preserve their rich biological heritage – a boon to the wildlife that live there and future generations of people who seek out these places for solace, recreation and beauty.
California’s desert region includes the Mojave, Colorado and Great Basin deserts – 29 million acres in the eastern third of the state with elevations ranging from 250 feet below sea level to nearly 12,000 feet at the highest peaks. By protecting California’s desert lands through designation of these national monuments, we’re safeguarding key connections between landscapes that allow for species to migrate and survive in a changing climate. After nearly a decade of subsidizing draconian scorched-earth solar installations that have destroyed plant cover, soil and groundwater patterns – a process continuing under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan – we finally have a decision that protects the desert’s biological and ecological resources.
The Mojave Trails National Monument is home to the iconic and federally threatened desert tortoise. Protecting 1.4 million acres of prime desert tortoise habitat within Mojave Trails National Monument would significantly protect and preserve crucial occupied habitat and essential linkages to other populations. In addition, the proposed monument will permanently protect habitat for desert bighorn sheep, prairie falcons, golden eagles and more than half of the 330 plants added to the list of California flora in the past 20 years.
The Sand to Snow National Monument provides important habitat for wide-ranging species such as bighorn sheep, bears and mountains lions, as well as endemic plants. Regional scientists, such as those with the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology, have documented nearly 100 rare, sensitive, threatened or endangered plant and animal species within or next to the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument. The proposed monument protects essential wildlife corridors between the desert and the mountains and allows for migration and colonization under predicted climate changes.
The Castle Mountains National Monument will protect some of the finest Joshua tree, pinyon pine and juniper forests in the entire California desert. The area’s vast native desert shrublands and grasslands have been identified as a prime location to reintroduce pronghorn, the second-fastest land mammal in the world, as well as home to several other animals.
In this age of climate crisis, the proposed national monuments will allow for increased carbon sequestration. To match the increasing CO2, plants send down roots and microbial partners deep to tap groundwater. Those roots and microbes respire much of the CO2 that was absorbed. But instead of that CO2 simply diffusing back to the surface, as in a tropical rainforest, it binds with calcium, producing caliche. There may be as much carbon in calcium carbonate (the base mineral in caliche) in soils as there is CO2 in the atmosphere. By destroying the plant cover and ripping up the soil layers for development, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere – a measurable fraction of the gain from going solar.
There will be no shortage of benefits to creating these three national monuments and as a scientist – and a lover of these great landscapes – I know that future generations will be grateful we had the foresight to ensure these special places remain protected forever. It is critical to remember that it takes continued action over centuries to protect the environment, and it takes decades to centuries to restore disturbed habitats – but it takes only a few hours to weeks to destroy an ecosystem.