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California's National Monuments on the Chopping Block

Giant Sequoia National Monument | Photo: Melissa Wiese, some rights reserved
Giant Sequoia National Monument | Photo: Melissa Wiese, some rights reserved

On April 26, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order compelling Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to "review" 24 large national monuments for possible abolition.

The pending review — which most environmental law experts argue Trump has no authority to order — covers national monuments larger than 100,000 acres created since 1996 by Presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906. In issuing the order, Trump claimed he was correcting decades of undemocratic government overreach, and returning public lands to the people. 

But in California, the six national monuments subject to the Executive Order were mainly established because the people overwhelmingly supported them. We list them here, and give a little history and information on each one. We also mention a few groups that are working to preserve the monuments as resources for your further information. (Mentions are not necessarily endorsements.)

Skip to: Giant Sequoia National Monument | Carrizo Plain National Monument | San Gabriel Mountains National Monument | Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Mojave Trails National Monument | Sand to Snow National Monument | California national monuments not subject to review

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Giant Sequoia National Monument

Basic Facts

Established April 15, 2000 by President Bill Clinton, Giant Sequoia National Monument is 327,769 acres of mixed-conifer Sierra Nevada forest within the Sequoia National Forest. This Monument got its name from the 33 groves of giant sequoias, a.k.a. Sequoiadendron giganteum, to be found within its two units. The U.S. Forest Service manages Giant Sequoia.

In Giant Sequoia National Monument | Photo: Christine Warner Hawks, some rights reserved
In Giant Sequoia National Monument | Photo: Christine Warner Hawks, some rights reserved

Special Features

When established this National Monument contained half the world’s still-unprotected groves of giant sequoias, which can grow more than 300 feet tall and reach 27 feet in diameter. Those groves hold two thirds of the entire world population of Sequoiadendrons. The trees can live longer than 3,000 years.

The Monument’s northern portion surrounds the General Grant Grove section of Sequoia National Park, home to the largest individual sequoia tree. Camping is available in one of the groves.

Why was it established?

In the 1990s, with timber prices rising as old-growth trees became scarcer due to logging, timber companies increasingly turned their eyes to the southern Sierra Nevada’s giant sequoia groves. Forest activists campaigned to protect the groves, which are larger and more exuberant — in John Muir’s phrasing — than their counterparts in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. After more than 9,000 acres of giant sequoia groves were logged — leaving the big trees standing alone above piles of logging slash — the Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and a massive letter writing campaign from Californians and others concerned about the state's iconic trees persuaded Bill Clinton to designate the Monument.

Who opposes it?

Along with Mojave Trails, Giant Sequoia is one of just two California monuments that encountered significant opposition. The timber industry, off-road vehicle users, and local development boosters sued to overturn the Monument's designation in 2001. They claimed the groves didn’t contain sufficient historic or scientific value to warrant protection under the Antiquities Act, and that Clinton’s proclamation wasn’t specific enough in protecting individual groves. That lawsuit backfired badly: the courts held that the Antiquities Act could be used to protect entire ecosystems and viewsheds, a finding that the Supreme Court decided not to bother overturning in 2006.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the Bush administration decided to permit commercial logging inside the Monument, allowing timber fellers to take even giant sequoias if they were under 30 inches in diameter. In 2006, the courts put a stop to that initiative as well.

"The American people are looking to their government to protect these forests forever as a National Monument, not as a tree farm," responded Carla Cloer of the Tule River Conservancy. "Logging the Sequoia National Monument is just as unacceptable as selling the Statue of Liberty for scrap metal."

The timber companies may have been kicked out of court several times with their tails between their legs, but count on them to lean heavily on Interior to reverse Giant Sequoia National Monument’s designation.

Who’s defending it?

Sequoia Forestkeeper is one of several groups working to defend the Monument, and the forests that surround it.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

A vernal pool during wildflower season in Carrizo Plain NM | Photo: Mikaku, some rights reserved
A vernal pool during wildflower season in Carrizo Plain NM | Photo: Mikaku, some rights reserved

Basic Facts

President Bill Clinton designated the 246,048-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument on January 17, 2001. The Monument, in eastern San Luis Obispo County, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Special Features

Carrizo Plain National Monument protects some of the last remaining native grassland in Central California. It’s home to several animals of extreme conservation importance such as pronghorn, the San Joaquin kit fox, tule elk, and California condors.

It’s also one of the best spots for spring wildflowers in the state, with plant communities ranging from alkali lake vegetation to vernal pools to plains and hillside grasslands.

Why was it established?

During the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy and the BLM collaborated to piece together a large semi-protected stretch of the Plain’s grasslands, which became a preserve called the Carrizo Plain Natural Area. Working with the state Department of Fish and Game (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife), they crafted a management plan based on the assumption that lands bought by the Nature Conservancy would be managed to benefit native plants.

The Plain was on a short list of deserving potential Monuments presented to Bill Clinton in his last months in office, and he designated the Monument three days before George W. Bush was inaugurated.

Who opposes it?

Carrizo Plain National Monument isn’t particularly controversial, in part because the BLM and Nature Conservancy worked hard to convince locals, mainly ranchers, of the value of protecting the land.

That’s not to say there aren’t people who might profit if the Monument went away. Oil companies worked to block recognition of the Plain as a World Heritage Site a few years back, contending that the UN would have impeded their work nearby. Solar companies have built utility-scale plants outside the Monument, and no doubt many would like do so inside the Monument if allowed to.

And grazing has been a contentious issue since the Monument was established. Grazing is allowed on the Monument subject to about the same general management as grazing on other public lands, which has raised ire among some who remember the conditions of the Nature Conservancy’s transfer of its land to the Feds. Carrizo Plain’s first Monument Manager, Marlene Braun, attempted to manage grazing based on how well the plants were doing each year. The blowback she got from both ranchers and her BLM superiors was a major factor in her 2005 suicide.

Who’s defending it?

Among the groups keeping an eye on Carrizo Plain National Monument, and speaking out against the Interior Department review, is Los Padres Forest Watch.

The San Gabriel Mountains | Photo: Rennet Stowe, some rights reserved
The San Gabriel Mountains | Photo: Rennet Stowe, some rights reserved

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Basic Facts

President Barack Obama designated the 346,117-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument on October 10, 2014. It’s managed by the U.S. Forest Service, as it encompasses parts of both the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests.

Special Features

Just a 90-minute drive from most of the L.A. Basin, this National Monument offers vast expanses of largely undeveloped forest and alpine landscape, four wilderness areas, streams and rivers with opportunities for fishing, picnicking, and camping  and an important reservoir for Southern California’s imperiled biological diversity.

Why is it important?

Advocates make the case for San Gabriel Mountains National Monument | Video: San Gabriel Mountains Forever

Much of Los Angeles is park-poor, especially in less affluent areas.  The 20-mile long San Gabriel Mountains have long provided an escape for Angelenos seeking to get away from the noise and smog of the Basin.

The Monument also includes the headwaters of several important local streams, including the San Gabriel River, which are important sources of Southern California drinking water.

Pressure to increase protection of the San Gabriels, especially in Angeles National Forest, had mounted for decades before the designation of the Monument: vandalism, trash, and illegal gold mining had plagued “the Angeles” for years. It was hoped by Monument supporters that designation would bring an inflow of funds and other resources to help protect the mountains’ important natural and cultural resources.

That improvement mostly hasn’t happened yet, mainly due to Congressional funding priorities. NGOs and  volunteers have been attempting to take up some of the management slack.

Who opposes it?

Like most of its fellow national monuments in California, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument enjoys wide public support and minimal opposition. Approximately 80 percent of Los Angeles County residents expressed support for the Monument in polls before designation.

Some residents of communities in the San Gabriels did express opposition to the Monument. Many of those public statements of opposition were based on misunderstandings of what designating the Monument would entail, such as the mistaken notion that visitors would be charged for access or that recreational opportunities would be curtailed. As a result of some of the more plausible concerns, the proposed monument was cut down in size when it was designated, the final boundaries excluding communities in San Bernardino County, and along the south face of the range. Most of the range southwest of Big Tujunga Canyon was left out of the Monument as well.

Some supporters have advocated that the Monument be “upgraded” to a National Recreation Area, which would arguably provide greater protection by transferring management to the National Park Service. An NRA was the original goal of many Monument backers in 2005. An NRA would also require an Act of Congress, which on the one hand would be difficult to achieve anytime soon but on the other would make the San Gabriel NRA less vulnerable to Presidential whims such as Trump’s Executive Order.

In the wake of that Executive Order, Representative Judy Chu stated that she was renewing her attempt to pass a San Gabriel Mountains NRA bill.

Who’s defending it?

There are many, many groups involved in protecting the San Gabriels and advocating for the National Monument. San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of more than a dozen groups that lobbied for its founding, is a great place to start.

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

Basic Facts

President Barack Obama created the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument on July 10, 2015. Its 330,780 acres stretch across parts of seven counties north of San Francisco Bay.

Special Features

Berryessa Snow Mountain is a California biodiversity hotspot, with diverse habitats including old-growth forest, oak savanna, serpentine barrens, and chaparral. Snow Mountain, at 7,057 feet, is the high point of the Monument, which encompasses three previously established wilderness areas. Cache Creek, flowing out of the Monument to the east, holds some of the Coast Ranges’ only raftable white water.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell holds a California newt at Berryessa Snow Mountain NM | Photo: Tami A. Heilemann
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell holds a California newt at Berryessa Snow Mountain NM | Photo: Tami A. Heilemann

Berryessa Snow Mountain is also a cultural resources hotspot, as the area is an important historic crossroads for at least eight California Native peoples.

Why is it important?

While the landscape at Berryessa Snow Mountain has survived the 20th Century in better shape than most of California, its management was in the hands of a crazy quit of state, local, and federal agencies. Management by the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM makes coordinated planning and protection feasible.

Protection is important for animals like spotted owls, martens and fishers that call the area home, and for the rare serpentine endemic plants that grow on outcrops of California’s official state rock.

Protection becomes especially important given the land’s proximity to the metastasizing cities of the Bay Area and Sacramento region.

Who opposes it?

No one.

The Monument had potential opposition from a number of constituencies, including hunters and off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Those constituencies were brought to the table early by Monument advocates, and helped determine just how the Monument would look and how it would be managed. Legal off-road vehicle trails were designated, hunting allowed, and nearby Lake Berryessa excluded from the Monument for fear designation would bar motorized boats and jet skis from the reservoir.

As a result of that networking and the Monument’s promised economic benefits, a broad coalition of residents, businesses, local Native peoples, newspapers, non-profit groups and local elected officials — including the California Legislature — expressed strong support for a National Monument.

Advocates attempted at first to win Congressional approval for the Monument, and only turned to the White House after attempts to legislate what should have been a slam-dunk National Monument got precisely nowhere.
 

Who’s defending it?

Tuleyome, a local conservation group whose name means “deep home place” in the language of the Lake Miwoks, has taken the lead on advocating for Berryessa Snow Mountain.

Dunes in the Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM
Dunes in the Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

Mojave Trails National Monument 

Basic Facts

The 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument was established February, 12 2016 by President Barack Obama, along with the Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments.

Special Features

This National Monument, more than twice the size of Yosemite National Park, holds springs, volcanic cinder cones and lava flows, more than a dozen unique mountain ranges, sand dunes, and parts of historic byways including the easternmost part of the Mojave Road and the longest undeveloped stretch of Route 66 in California. It protects historic features from petroglyphs to World War II training camps. 350,000 acres of Mojave Trails consists of previously designated wilderness areas.

Why is it important?

The Mojave Trails National Monument has its roots in a land grab, though not the kind you might be thinking. In 2003, the federal government was given more than 62,000 acres of California desert lands formerly owned by the railroad company Catellus, in an arrangement brokered by The Wildlands Conservancy with the assistance of Senator Dianne Feinstein. That land, bought at a price fair enough that some condemned it as a sweetheart deal for the railroad company, was donated to the Feds on the condition that the BLM manage it for conservation.

Amboy Crater in Mojave Trails National Monument
Amboy Crater in Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

Just a few short years later, the BLM was offering many of those same lands up for industrial solar development, a de facto privatization of the land. In response to this attempted land grab by the BLM of conservation lands, Dianne Feinstein crafted a bill that would establish a National Monument protecting some of the so-called “Catellus lands,” in a corridor between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2009 (the name of which shifted as it was reintroduced over the years) would also have designated wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers elsewhere in the desert, as well as establishing formal off-road vehicle areas. It would also have established the two other national monuments designated in February 2016, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.

The CDPA, despite broad-based and growing support from a number of unlikely desert constituencies, made no progress in a Congress focused on obstructing Democratic initiatives. In 2014, Feinstein made a renewed push in the Senate to advance the bill, which was more popular than ever in the California desert. When that failed, the blll’s supporters persuaded Barack Obama to designate the three national monuments described in the CDPA. Obama designated a significantly larger Mojave Trails National Monument than the CDPA had described, Obama's version made larger mainly by adding the Sheephole Valley Wilderness.

Now, the Mojave Trails National Monument provides a vital link between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Preserve, thus filling the largest gap in a chain of protected lands from Anza Borrego Desert State Park near San Diego, to Canyonlands and Arches national parks in southeastern Utah.

Advocates produced this video in 2015 to argue for the creation of the Mojave Trails National Monument | Video: The Wildlands Conservancy

Who opposes it?

Advocates of the CDPA and its successors lobbied hard for local support of the bill, persuading communities like Barstow to offer their support. The promised off-road areas brought in a significant number of ORV enthusiasts, and a growing number of prospectors and rockhounds were persuaded that their pastimes could continue uninterrupted in the new Monument.

That said, the Mojave Trails National Monument likely has the most foes of any of the California monuments on the chopping block. Representative Paul Cook, whose district envelops Mojave Trails, has said he intends to  testify against the Monument when it is reviewed. During the last legislative push for the Feinstein’s desert bill, Cook introduced a rival bill that would have established the far smaller “Mojave Trails Special Management Area,” up to 10 percent of which would be open to large-scale mining.

Who’s defending it?

The Mojave Desert Land Trust, whose work mainly involves buying wild lands from willing sellers for conservation purposes, has taken a lead role in advocating for protecting Mojave Trails.

Sand to Snow National Monument

Sand to Snow National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM
Sand to Snow National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

Basic Facts

Established February, 12 2016 by President Barack Obama, along with the Mojave Trails  and Castle Mountains national monuments, the 154,000-acre Sand To Snow National Monument runs from the floor of the Coachella Valley at around 1,000 feet to the summit of San Gorgonio Peak at 11,503 feet above sea level. Two-thirds of the Monument is previously designated wilderness. Sand to Snow is jointly managed by BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

Special Features

Sand to Snow encompasses around 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, the headwaters of southern California’s longest river (the Santa Ana), the wetlands at Big Morongo Canyon,  and the Whitewater River, a major tributary of the Salton Sea. A disjunct unit of the Monument covers two volcanic mesas a few miles north in the Mojave Desert near Pioneertown, with unique flora and a wealth of Native cultural resources.

Why is it important?

Another advocacy video, this one made to support designation of Sand to Snow National Monument | Video: The Wildlands Conservancy

Sand to Snow, the culmination of twenty years’ worth of campaigning and land acquisition by the Wildlands Conservancy, is a critical habitat linkage between three major California biomes: the Colorado and Mojave deserts, and the alpine forests of the Transverse Ranges. The Monument provides wildlife connectivity between the San Bernardino National Forest, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and Joshua Tree National Park.

Who opposes it?

Nobody.

Beyond the usual scattering of letters to the editor, no one of note has spoken up to publicly oppose Sand to Snow National Monument. This Monument has gained such popular acceptance that Paul Cook, who is one of the most influential opponents of Mojave Trails National Monument, included language in his bill opening Mojave Trails up to mining that would essentially have established Sand to Snow as it exists today.

Who’s defending it?

The Wildlands Conservancy, which is largely responsible for the Monument’s existence, is a great source of information and updates on Sand to Snow. TWC also operates three nature preserves within the Monument.

California national monuments not subject to review

Trump's Executive Order directs the Secretary of the Interior to review national monuments over 100,000 acres established by Presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act since 1996. Most of California's national monuments are too old or too small to qualify, and one large recent monument escapes scrutiny because it was established by Congress. The list:

Too small: California Coastal National Monument; Castle Mountains National Monument; Cesar Chavez National Monument; Fort Ord National Monument; Tule Lake unit, World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Too old: Cabrillo National Monument, Devil's Postpile National Monument, Lava Beds National Monument, Muir Woods National Monument (all of which are also too small)

Created by an Act of Congress: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Banner: Soda Lake in Carrizo Plain National Monument | Photo: Dracblau7, some rights reserved

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