National Monument Status Proposed For Swath Of Riverside County

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The Chuckwalla National Monument Establishment and Joshua Tree National Park Expansion Act of 2024​ would encompass 627,855 acres.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — Approximately 627,855 acres of Southern California’s vast desert are eyed to become a national treasure.

A federal bill announced Tuesday would establish the new Chuckwalla National Monument in eastern Imperial and Riverside counties, east of the Salton Sea.

U.S. Senators Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler (both D-Calif.) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.-25) announced the legislation titled the Chuckwalla National Monument Establishment and Joshua Tree National Park Expansion Act of 2024. As its name implies, the bill also includes language to expand Joshua Tree National Park by approximately 17,915 acres with previously designated public lands.

A primary difference between national monuments and other kinds of sites, such as national parks, is how they are established. For example, Congress can create national parks by passing legislation. U.S. presidents create national monuments on federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features — Congress granted them this authority in the Antiquities Act of 1906.

In an April 16 letter to President Joe Biden and Department of Interior Secretary Debra A. Haaland, Butler, Padilla, and Ruiz — along with 23 Democratic congressional members from California — urged the president to use the Antiquities Act to expedite the monument’s creation.

Lands within the proposed monument are home to over 150 plant species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else, and over 50 sensitive animal species, according to the bill’s text.

The proposed monument area also includes the homelands of the Iviatim, Nüwü, Pipa Aha Macav, Kwatsáan, and Maara’yam peoples (Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Mojave, Quechan, and Serrano nations). Designating the Chuckwalla National Monument would help protect important spiritual and cultural values tied to the land, such as multi-use trail systems established by indigenous peoples, sacred sites and objects, traditional cultural places, geoglyphs, petroglyphs, pictographs, and native plants and wildlife, according to the bill’s supporters.

Chairman Thomas Tortez Jr. of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians applauded the bill and said that for thousands of years the tribe has called the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument lands home.

Erica Schenk, chairwoman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians also voiced support.

“The area includes village sites, camps, quarries, food processing sites, power places, trails, glyphs, and story and song locations, all of which are evidence of the Cahuilla people’s and other tribes’ close and spiritual relationship to these desert lands,” Schenk said.

Democratic lawmakers are urging President Biden to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to expedite the monument’s creation. | Autumn Johnson/Patch

Jordan D. Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, said the lands encompass the tribe’s “origins, history, songs, religious ceremonies, ancient sites, trails, petroglyphs, artifacts, and intaglios that are spread throughout our traditional territories. Our footsteps are etched into the landscape since the beginning of time and we continue to persist in modern times, still providing stewardship over these lands. We are wholeheartedly in support of the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument.”

While the land has important tribal significance, the national monument would be accessible to all people.

“The Chuckwalla National Monument is good for the environment, the economy and public’s health,” Ruiz said. “It aims to protect pristine wildlife habitats, endangered plants and animals, and sacred sites of significant spiritual importance to local tribes, crucial for their cultural preservation. Additionally, it will enhance tourism and economic opportunities in our region and provide a new venue for constituents to hike, bike, and enjoy the breathtaking landscapes and natural beauty of our desert. This monument will play an important role in addressing California’s and our nation’s climate change goals while promoting the growth of renewable energy.”

In addition to input from tribal leaders, the Chuckwalla National Monument boundaries were crafted with feedback from leaders within the renewable energy industry, conservation groups, utility companies, community organizations and youth leaders, according to the bill’s supporters.

The boundaries weave through the desert around tribal lands, as well as around areas established for electric power lines, sites designated for renewable energy construction and military installations.

“The Chuckwalla National Monument will protect environmental resources and tribal lands while creating an energy corridor for the electric power lines essential for the state’s clean energy future,” said Pedro J. Pizarro, president and CEO, Edison International.

The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument supports the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which identified public lands suitable for renewable energy development; the monument boundaries were specifically drawn to avoid DRECP areas, according to supporters.

“This legislation is a testament to the reality that conservation and renewable energy progress go hand in hand,” said Raisa Lee, senior director of development, Clearway Energy Group.

Solar Energy Industries Association was also involved in crafting the legislation.

In total, proponents garnered nearly 40 comments in support.

Not everyone is in agreement. Some opponents say the proposal would eliminate desert mining and could restrict some desert recreation activities. As of Tuesday afternoon, a Change.org petition opposing the legislation had garnered over 1,500 signatures. The signatures could not be verified.

According to the April 16 letter to Biden, the Chuckwalla National Monument would contribute to the administration’s goal of permanently conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and coastal waters by 2030.

Last week, it was reported that Biden plans to expand two national monuments in California. The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in the Angeles National Forest and San Bernardino National Forest is proposed to grow by about 110,000 acres. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Colusa, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Solano and Yolo counties would expand by about 13,000 acres.

The exact timing of an expansion declaration is unclear, but it is likely in the coming weeks — and could coincide with April 22, 2024, Earth Day, sources told reporters.

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