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Lands package includes Senator Feinstein’s desert bill, completes 25-year effort to protect California desert

Washington—President Trump today signed into law a package of public lands bills that included four bills authored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area Act, the Santa Ana Wash Plan Land Exchange Act and the Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act.

“This is a major victory for California’s public lands,” said Senator Feinstein. “The lands package secures new protections for our desert, creates California’s first National Heritage Area, develops smarter ways to manage the Santa Ana Wash and facilitates safety upgrades to the Contra Costa Canal. I’m grateful that these four bills were included in the lands package and are now signed into law.

“I’m particularly pleased our effort to better protect and manage the desert is now complete. The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act is the culmination of more than two decades of work. I consider it a fulfillment of promises I made when I took office, and I’m proud to finally see this process come to fruition.”

The lands package passed the Senate on February 12 and the House of Representatives on February 26.

California Desert Protection and Recreation Act:

The legislation builds upon the legacy of the California Desert Protection Act, Senator Feinstein’s landmark bill passed in 1994 that established Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and protected more than 7.6 million acres of California desert wilderness.

“When I first came to the Senate, former Senator Alan Cranston asked me to take his bill to protect the desert and make it my own, so that’s what I did,” said Senator Feinstein. “It was clear from the start that the only path forward was if everyone had a seat at the table. We had to find ways to expand protections for pristine ecosystems and cultural resources while still maintaining access for recreational activities and local businesses.

“I reached out to environmental groups, the off-road community, cattle ranchers, mining interests, energy and public utility companies, and state and local government officials. To get all of those competing interests to buy in required a delicate balancing act, but we finally got there.”

 In 2016, Senator Feinstein asked President Obama to expand protections for the desert by creating the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments. Those new public lands will also benefit from this legislation.

This legislation completes efforts started in 1994 to restore and protect the desert and its surrounding communities. It is the result of years of engagement with a range of stakeholders including local and state government officials, environmental groups, off-highway recreation enthusiasts, cattle ranchers, mining interests, the Department of Defense and California’s public utility companies.

Key provisions of the legislation:

  • Protects more than 375,000 acres of wilderness: Creates eight new Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness areas totaling 280,360 acres, expands Death Valley National Park Wilderness by 88,000 acres and adds 7,141 acres to the San Gorgonio Wilderness within San Bernardino National Forest.

  • National Park land: Expands Joshua Tree National Park by 4,518 acres and Death Valley National Park by 35,292 acres, which includes 1,600 acres donated by the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

  • Off-highway vehicle recreation areas: Permanently designates six existing off-highway vehicle recreational areas covering more than 200,000 acres, ensuring off-highway enthusiasts will have continued access to those areas to enjoy trail riding.

  • Alabama Hills National Scenic Area: Designates 18,610 acres of BLM land in Inyo County as the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, preserving it for continued recreation and conservation.

  • Vinagre Wash Special Management Area: Designates 81,800 acres in Imperial County that provides for wilderness preservation, vehicular use on designated routes, and limitations on extractive uses of the land within the management area.

  • Wild and Scenic Rivers: Designates 77 miles of waterways as Wild and Scenic Rivers.  

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area Act

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area Act establishes the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as California’s first National Heritage Area. It authorizes $10 million in federal assistance over 15 years to provide matching grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations. This federal funding is necessary to help implement the locally developed National Heritage Area management plan to promote environmental stewardship, heritage conservation and economic development projects throughout the Delta.

The bill has no effect on water operations in and around the Delta, water rights, water contracts or property rights, nor does it create any new regulatory authority or burden on local government or private citizens. The bill also has no effect on fishing and hunting within the National Heritage Area.

Santa Ana Wash Plan Land Exchange Act

The Santa Ana Wash Plan Land Exchange Act directs the Bureau of Land Management to exchange approximately 300 acres of land with the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District in the Santa Ana Wash, at the junction of the Santa Ana River and Mill Creek.

The 4,500-acre Santa Ana Wash is a patchwork of land parcels owned by the water conservation district or BLM. The land exchange will help consolidate 1,347 acres of open space to preserve and protect habitat along the river’s floodplain as part of the broader Santa Ana River Wash Plan.

The area is also occupied by two mining companies that extract materials for cement and concrete production. The bill allows these commercial operations to continue in the Santa Ana Wash in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act

The Contra Costa Canal Transfer Act transfers the title of the Contra Costa Canal System from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Contra Costa Water District to allow the water district to complete necessary safety improvements to the canal. Since the Contra Costa Canal has been operational, 82 people have drowned in the uncovered canal.

Built between 1937 and 1948, the canal delivers water to homes and businesses throughout Contra Costa County, as well as to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys for irrigation. The 48-mile system is currently an open canal, but following the transfer, the water district will enclose it in a surface pipeline to help prevent deadly accidents, including a drowning last year. It will also help improve recreation and land use around the canal system by revitalizing land located in the Concord Naval Weapons Station.