California desert to be protected as national monument

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2016 4:41 PM

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) - Some 1.8 million acres of scenic California desert were designated national monuments by U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday, roughly doubling the amount of public land set aside for protection during his presidency.

Obama's protection of three sections of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts means that the federal government, which owns the land, will not be able to sell it, build new roads or allow new development that is not in keeping with such uses as recreation, environmental protection and flood control.

"The California desert is a cherished and irreplaceable resource for the people of southern California," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Friday.

It was the second time in less than two years that Obama has stepped in to protect large swaths of California wilderness after Congress was unable to agree on setting them aside, and the latest example of Obama using executive power to act on issues stalled in Congress.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, tried for years to persuade Congress to set aside the desert land, located southeast of Los Angeles in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and owned by the federal government.

When her effort became mired in partisan politics, Obama agreed to use his executive power to designate the three areas as national monuments.

Similarly, in 2014 Obama set aside a 540-square mile section of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles after Rep. Judy Chu attempted unsuccessfully to win approval for its protection in Congress.

Opponents in both cases said naming the land national monuments could lead to restrictions on rights held by local businesses, or impact the type of recreational activity that could take place.

But the White House said that the designations would not change any existing rights to use the land.

The new protected areas include the 1.6 million acre Mojave Trails National Monument, which includes rugged mountains, ancient lava flows and sand dunes, the White House said.

Obama, who was set to visit the desert city of Palm Springs on Friday, also set aside the Sand to Snow National Monument, 154,000 acres from the desert floor to mountain peaks, and Castle Mountains National Monument, 21,000 acres connecting two mountain ranges.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alistair Bell)