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Desert city has issues with national monument proposal

Desert city has issues with national monument proposal

A proposed national monument near Joshua Tree National Park has one desert city preparing for battle.

The Chuckwalla National Monument would cover approximately 660,000 acres in Riverside and Imperial counties, from the east end of the Coachella Valley to the Colorado River near the Arizona border.

Besides providing some Coachella Valley residents with better access to that part of the desert, a federal national monument designation will protect the area’s natural habitat and preserve land that belongs to several Native American tribes, according to a bill introduced in September by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Indio.

“This legislation will protect our desert lands, improve air quality, expand access to recreational outdoor activities, and foster tourism and economic growth,” said Ruiz in a statement when the bill was announced.

Ruiz has also proposed adding about 17,000 acres to Joshua Tree National Park, in legislation he proposed the same time he introduced the Chuckwalla National Monument Establishment bill.

If passed, the national monument bill would nearly double the amount of land in the Coachella Valley protected by the U.S. government. It has won the support of state and local officials, tribal representatives several environmental groups, including the non-profit CalWild in Sacramento and The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a 2,500-member non-profit in Washington, D.C.

“The designation of the Chuckwalla National Monument will help to safeguard more than 600,000 acres of desert land that serves as habitat for incredible biodiversity,” said Mike Murray, chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, in a statement. “This designation will also protect a number of historic sites and resources and preserve a cultural landscape that is significant for a number of Native American tribes.”

But some officials in Blythe, a city of 18,000 in eastern Riverside County about 170 miles from Riverside, see things differently. They believe the Chuckwalla National Monument – named for the lizards that roam deserts in the southwest United States and northern Mexico –  will place unnecessary restrictions on tourism and solar development, two things that are vital to Blythe’s economy.

“We have a lot of citizens who go to that part of the Coachella Valley for recreation, and we’re concerned that if this monument happens they won’t be able to go there anymore,” said Mallory Crecelius, Blythe’s city manager.  “We’re talking about 6,600 acres from Blythe to the Colorado River. If that happens, there will only be a few roads that could be used to get into that area.”

Recreational activities in the Palo Verde Valley, where the Chuckwalla National Monument would be located, includes swimming and boating in the Colorado River as well as hunting, off-roading, camping and hiking.

“We have a lot of residents who use that part of the desert for recreation, except in the summer when it’s too hot,” Crecelius said.

Blythe officials want a 65-mile area from the Colorado River to Desert Center – an unincorporated community between Blythe and Indio – be excluded from the monument boundaries.

“That’s really the only concession we’re asking for,” said Crecelius, who drafted a letter sent to Ruiz’s staff outlining Blythe’s issues with the national monument proposal. “We would be fine with [the monument] if that changed, because then our residents would still have access to the desert. The other part of the project, we aren’t oppose to those at all.”

The statement also addresses the increasing number of solar farms being developed in the east Coachella Valley, which Blythe supports.

“The monument designation began as an official and permanent way to block the escalating development of solar fields,” the statement reads. “Blythe is a staunch supporter of solar development, and these projects have provided numerous economic benefits to the city and its business community.”

Crecelius pointed to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration of the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

First published in 2015 and amended in 2022, the conservation plan covers 10.8 million acres of public land in Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Among a myriad of environmental issues, the conservation plan establishes where renewable energy sources, particularly solar fields, may be located. A national monument could potentially disrupt that plan, according to Crecelius.

“The solar fields create a lot of economic benefits for Blythe, and we already have a plan in place that says that where solar farms can go in that part of the desert,” Crecelius said. “Why do we need another one?”

Blythe officials might be confusing a national monument with a national park, said Gary Gardner, a member of the Desert Hot Springs City Council and a proponent of the Chuckwalla National Monument proposal.

“A national monument is not nearly as restricted as a national park,” Gardner said. “You can’t really have any kind of development in a national park, but a national monument does allow for some development. I think the people in Blythe are mistaking one for the other.”

The city’s concern about a national monument designation disrupting the desert’s solar fields are not merited, according to Gardner.

“The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument does not conflict with the development of renewable energy in the desert,” Gardner said in a statement he released shortly after being interviewed for this article. “The proposed monument is complementary to the goals of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which identified areas suitable for renewable energy development as well as lands that should be protected for their biological, cultural, recreation, and other values.

“The boundaries of the proposed monument were specifically drawn to avoid areas identified in the [energy conservation plan] as suitable for development.”

There are two ways the Chuckwalla National Monument can happen: Ruiz’s bill is passed and the president signs it into law, or it’s approved under the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president to create national monuments on federal land for natural or cultural purposes.

If it’s destined to happen, Blythe officials would prefer that the Chuckwalla National be the result of a Congressional vote not a presidential order.

“We believe a bill should be passed,” Crecelius said. “We don’t believe the public process should be bypassed.”

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