Wildlife and off-roaders gain room to roam in California’s new desert protection act

In the latest round of a 25-year battle to save the California desert, House lawmakers approved a sweeping conservation bill Tuesday that designates more terrain for wildlife and off-roaders alike and sets the stage for a final signature by President Trump.

The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, which does not come with funding, completed efforts that Sen. Dianne Feinstein started in 1994 to resolve conflicts among conservationists, off-road vehicle riders, miners, cattle ranchers, hunters, military training grounds and renewable energy interests.

The act, which was part of a package of conservation bills affecting states nationwide, creates 375,000 acres of new wilderness areas including rugged mountains, Joshua tree forests, dry lake beds and petroglyphs. It also designates 75 miles of waterways — including White Water Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains — as wild and scenic rivers.

If signed by the president, the law would add 35,292 acres to Death Valley National Park and 4,543 acres to Joshua Tree National Park. It would also establish an 18,600-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and an 81,800-acre Vinagre Wash Special Management Area in Imperial County.

These lands embrace overlapping ecological zones that are home to hundreds of plants and animals despite scant rainfall, withering heat and decades of mining, ranching and off-roading. Among the species that populate these lands are bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards, the desert tortoise and the federally endangered Amargosa vole, one of the rarest vertebrates on Earth.

The act also makes permanent six existing off-highway vehicle, or OHV, sites covering more than 200,000 acres. The first national network of off-highway vehicle recreation areas includes Dumont Dunes, El Mirage, Rasor, Stoddard Valley, Johnson Valley and Spangler Hills.

Plans call for expanding the boundaries of some of those areas. The Spangler Hills area east of the city of Ridgecrest, about 154 miles north of Los Angeles, for example, will grow by 30,260 acres, or about 49%.

“I’ve been fighting for this for so long it seems almost too good to be true,” said Randy Banis, a longtime advocate of the off-roading community. “The overall health of the desert will improve, and codified OHV recreation will be more sustainable going forward.”

Those benefits came as a bittersweet surprise for some off-roaders in the rough and rocky Spangler Hills — one of the few places left in the California desert where they can run free anywhere, anytime.

Bill Stratman, 51, of Paso Robles, whose family and friends camp in the area on weekends before the summer’s heat bakes the earth, shook his head in disbelief and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.

“It’s been sad over the years to see more and more signs going up across the desert that warn, ‘Not for use by off-road vehicles,’ ” he said. “So, this is incredibly good news.”

Learn more at the Los Angeles Times.

Kate McCartyenvironment, C.A.