Feinstein in the News

Our Voice: Protect the desert - Palm Springs Desert Sun

Visionary proposals to preserve pristine lands and expand renewable energy in California deserve support

By the Editorial Board
Originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun

The Coachella Valley is surrounded by protected wilderness. We have the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument to the south, Joshua Tree National Park to the north and several pristine areas in between, such as the Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Whitewater Preserve.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein visited the Whitewater Preserve on Thursday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the California Desert Protection Act, which turned the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks. The act also created the Mojave National Preserve.

She released the draft of a bill to expand the act and create two new national monuments: Sand to Snow, which would stretch from Mount San Gorgonio almost to Joshua Tree National Park, and Mojave Trails, between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve. She will introduce the bill in January.

Attending the celebration was Jim Kenna, California director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who is conducting hearings on the draft of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The plan would map out 22.5 million acres of the Colorado, Sonoran and Mojave deserts for large-scale renewable energy projects and conservation and recreation areas.

Known as DRECP, the plan has been in the works since 2008. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell released the draft in September, standing amid windmills in North Palm Springs.

The Desert Sun supports both of these efforts.

Feinstein’s proposal would not only protect pristine land for future generations, it also would boost ecotourism, which has become a large part of the region’s economy. The DRECP is a smart approach to locating renewable energy projects to help California reach its goals in reducing carbon emissions.

Sand to Snow

The Desert Sun endorsed the Sand to Snow National Monument soon after Feinstein first proposed it in 2009. Mount San Gorgonio rises to 11,503 feet above sea level. It is the seventh-highest mountain in the continental United States. The monument would cover 134,000 acres stretching to the desert oases of Big Morongo Canyon and the Whitewater Preserve.

Sand to Snow would help complete the circle of protected wilderness around the Coachella Valley.

Overall, Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act would protect more than 1 million acres of California desert. It would designate four off-highway vehicle recreation areas. And it would order the Department of the Interior to swap 370,000 acres of federal land for state land that could be developed as renewable energy projects.


The proposed national monuments would include areas covered by the DRECP, which ranges from the Mexican border along the Arizona border to Owens Valley, wrapping around the eastern edge of the Coachella Valley.

“The holy grail of this would be to have alignment with local government, state government and federal government,” Kenna told The Desert Sun. “All of that fits together in terms of energy generation and transmission systems, and the conservation design.”

He said it was appropriate to reveal the draft of DRECP in the Coachella Valley.

“The Coachella Valley has a habitat conservation plan and a natural communities conservation plan integrated with a BLM land-use plan,” he said. “And you have some of the physical attributes. In the Banning Pass, you have wind development that is feeding into the populated areas to the west. And in close proximity to that, in Big Morongo and up in Whitewater Canyon, you have very important conservation areas.

“It’s about fitting the pieces together in very logical ways.”

The DRECP is a super-sized version of the Coachella Valley Multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan, which balances development with protection of endangered species.

The California Energy Commission has provided grants to counties to help map out their part of the DRECP, said Commissioner Karen Douglas. The commission has been working with counties for several years.

“These grants support the counties to engage in their own land-use planning, whether it’s developing policies or amendments to their planning documents,” she said.

Some opposition

In a hearing in Imperial County, farmers objected to plans for placing renewable energy projects on what is now productive farmland. Kenna explained that when water rights are transferred to San Diego County after 2017, some of that land will be fallowed, which is ideal for renewable energy.

Some wind energy advocates were disappointed in a decision to ban windmills between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains. That area is used heavily for training of military pilots, he said. Jets and windmills don’t mix.

The Salton Sea

Douglas said she believes the DRECP can help develop renewable resources to create a revenue stream to revitalize the Salton Sea.

“The hope I think we all have is that renewable energy around the Salton Sea can be part of revitalizing that area,” she said. The geothermal resources there are some of the best in the world and there’s tremendous opportunity for solar power.

The big picture

With the new Republican majority in the Senate, it may be more of a challenge for Feinstein, a prominent Democrat, to revise the Desert Protection Act. But it’s not really a political question. After all, one of Republican Mary Bono’s finest accomplishments in Congress was the creation of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

Also, protecting wilderness areas can boost the economy. Since Joshua Tree became a national park in 1994 as part of the Desert Protection Act, visitors have increased year after year. In 2013, nearly 1.4 million visitors spent nearly $63 million in the surrounding communities, according to an economic benefit report by the U.S. National Park Service.

Developing renewable resources also is an economic driver for the Coachella Valley. The DRECP is a wise approach for reaching compromises between competing interests in California’s vast desert. The Desert Sun hopes it will set a standard for the rest of the nation.