An effort is underway to create a new national monument next to Joshua Tree National Park that would preserve almost 700,000 desert acres for recreation while protecting plants, animals and cultural and historic sites.
The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument — named for the lizard found in the Sonoran and Mojave Desert and northwestern Mexico — would need a presidential order or a vote by Congress to become reality.
“What’s really important in this case is we want the national monument to be a resource for the community,” said Colin Barrows, founding board member of CactusToCloud Institute, an organization that is part of the Protect California Deserts campaign that’s behind the proposal.
Joshua Tree National Park, which straddles the San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is well known for hiking, camping and rock climbing as well as for the iconic Joshua trees. The park, which sits today at 795,156 acres, was established in 1936 as a national monument, then named a national park 58 years later when Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
If the park gets the Chuckwalla monument as a neighbor, the new entity would include land in far eastern Riverside County and in Imperial County, a proposed map shows. Chuckwalla would border the southern edge of the Joshua Tree park.
The campaign is led by organizations that include the nonprofit California Wilderness Coalition, spokesperson Ryan Henson said. In addition to protecting species, the monument designation would protect against development, he said.
Separate from the monument, the campaign also seeks to add about 20,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land southeast of Joshua Tree in Riverside County to the national park. It would be open for development, mining or road construction and was once used for small-scale mining.
“The proposed park addition is critically important to understanding mining in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Henson said.
According to a National Parks Service blog, one difference between a national park and a national monument is how they are established.
The monument proposal could succeed in one of two ways: Congress could pass legislation to create the monument or the president could make an executive order under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which protects federal, historic and public sites, Henson said.
In addition, national parks are created for educational, inspirational and recreational purposes, while the federal government preserves national monuments for their historic, prehistoric or scientific interest such as preserving wildlife and historical sites, according to the blog.
Entrance to the monument would be free and aim to increase the public’s accessibility to wildlife, Barrows said.
The proposed monument area would includes the Bradshaw Trail near Riverside County, a trade route used by 19th-Century gold prospectors and “an even more ancient Native American trade route that crosses the region connecting one spring to another spring,” Henson said.
That area was also used to train soldiers during World War II from 1942 to 1944. Tank tracks, abandoned camps and training areas can still be seen in the area, Henson said.
The proposal would protect native plants and animals, too.
The monument would includes the microphyll woodlands, a rare plant habitat for the Californian native plant, which hosts 90% of songbirds in California deserts, Henson said.
The desert tortoise has been on state and federal endangered species lists since the early 1990s. Since then, they’ve been considered “threatened,” a notch below “endangered,” according to the National Park Service.
Bighorns from the San Jacinto Mountains to the U.S. border and areas of Joshua Tree are also on the Federal Endangered Species List, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But before winning approval for the proposal, there is still “a lot of work to do,” Henson said.
Backers would need support from Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, Henson said.
Ruiz, who represents the 36th Congressional District that includes part of Joshua Tree National Park, is interested in continuing to work with the Protect California Deserts campaign to protect California lands, Kelly O’Keeffe, a spokesperson for Ruiz said in an email. But he is not yet ready to sign off on the campaign.
“As both proposals are not yet finalized, we would like to see a final plan,” O’Keeffe said.
Seeking to preserve cultural heritage is a key element of the plan, Henson said.
Indigenous history in the proposed monument area includes rock art, structures and trails left by Indigenous peoples, he said.
Working with Indigenous tribes such as the Cahuilla Band of Indians, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe and the Serrano, the campaign intends to ensure proper and respectful care of the lands and that their sacred places are preserved, a LinkedIn post from the Mojave Desert Land Trust states.